The Portland school board Tuesday night approved a measure calling on the superintendent to direct all district educators to obtain credentials to support their teaching of non-English speaking students.

The measure, passed unanimously with one abstention, directs the superintendent to create a credentialing program and phase it in over four years.

Board members were largely supportive of the initiative, which they said would help educators support students. But some shared reservations about requiring additional time and effort from already busy teachers.

Many details of the plan, including what credentials educators would need to obtain, the time commitment involved, how long new and returning teachers would have to get credentialed, and the cost to the district still need to be nailed down.

Regardless of the details, implementing the plan will help assure all district educators are able to adequately support the district’s multilingual learners, said Nalli in a memo to the board about the initiative. “We believe all (Portland Public School) educators should be required to acquire some form of an ESOL credential.”

Over 25% of the Portland Public School District’s 6,500 students are English language, or multilingual, learners, and the number of multilingual students joining the district annually has grown substantially.


In the 1996-97 school year, the first year the city tracked the number of multilingual students, the district took in 139 multilingual students. So far this school year, the district has enrolled over 800 multilingual students, most of them asylum seekers, thousands of whom have come to Portland from Central Africa in recent years. Almost 90% of the students entering the district this year were at beginning English proficiency, according to data from the district.

U.S. public schools are legally required to accept any student who lives within district boundaries for enrollment and to provide appropriate services to non-English speakers. But persistent teacher shortages and limited funds can make that difficult.

The rapid influx of multilingual students has challenged the Portland district. It has struggled to keep up with enrollment of students who arrive mid-year and to support students receiving instruction in English as a second language.

Directing district staff to obtain a credential to help them educate non-English speakers addresses the fact that all district educators work with multilingual learners and sets the stage for supporting these students for years to come, said co-interim Superintendent Melea Nalli at a school board meeting earlier this month, adding that she thinks the measure has the “potential to be transformative for the system.”

Although the statewide%age of K-12 multilingual learners remains low, it has grown in recent years. In the 2014-15 school year, 2.8% of Maine’s public school students were multilingual learners, according to data from the state Department of Education. In the 2021-22 school year, the latest for which data is available, 3.2% of students were multilingual learners.

Similarly, multilingual learner enrollment in public schools around the country has increased in recent years. Multilingual learners accounted for 10.4% of total enrollment in U.S. public schools in 2019, according to the most recently available federal data, up from 8% in 2000.


Both nationally and in Maine, the distribution of multilingual students is uneven.

In the 2021-22 school year, Portland, the state’s largest school district, enrolled 1,623 multilingual students, more than any other district. Lewiston enrolled 1,314 multilingual learners, Westbrook enrolled 453 and South Portland 398.

School leaders have often said that multilingual students are unquestionably assets, but properly supporting those who don’t speak English well, and who have sometimes experienced trauma and missed out on years of education during long migrations to the United States, carries significant challenges.

Board members said Tuesday that they hope this resolution will help the district overcome obstacles in supporting its multilingual learners.

“I am excited to vote for this resolution and really optimistic about this vision for how we think about our multilingual learners and how we reorient to ensure all educators in our schools are responsible for ensuring that our multilingual learners are empowered and achieve rigorous grade level curriculum,” said board member Emily Figdor. “I’m really excited about where this will take us in the future.”

Although the board voted unanimously for the resolution, some expressed apprehension about the time it would take for already busy teachers to get additional certifications or credentials.

Board member Julianne Opperman said she hopes the district will give teachers time, patience and support in gaining the credentials.

Co-interim superintendent Nalli, who spearheaded the initiative, said she has spoken with educators who are excited about continuing their education and others who are worried about where they will find the time – her goal is for it to be a value rather than a burden. “This plan needs absolutely to be grounded in reality and conscious of expectations and support,” she said.

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