English-learner teacher Roberta de Sousa stands outside Reiche elementary school on June 29. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It was almost impossible for Sam Luanika to focus in his 10th-grade classes at Portland’s Deering High School this past spring.

Sitting in grammar and speech, English and global issues classes, the 19-year-old faced challenges that most of his classmates didn’t. He was tired from waking up at dawn to get to school from the shelter where he was staying with his family and distracted by the uncertainty about what they were going to do next. And, having grown up in Angola, his first language was Portuguese.

Luanika is one of thousands of students whose first language is not English who have joined the Portland Public School District in recent years. The district enrolled a record 979 students in the 2022-23 school year who came to the city speaking a language other than English – children classified by the district as multilingual. In recent years, most of those students arrived with no or extremely limited knowledge of English.

The Portland school district is preparing for more such students to join it in years to come.

The school board passed a resolution in June that directs incoming superintendent Ryan Scallon to create a plan for all district teachers and staff to obtain a credential over the next four years to help them educate non-English speakers.

Portland has long had a smattering of opportunities for teachers to obtain English for Speakers of Other Languages credentials.


But with a record 34% of students learning English this year, the new policy is a recognition that Portland is now a multilingual school district and that every teacher needs to know how to teach students who speak other languages, said former co-interim superintendent Melea Nalli, who championed the initiative.

“As we continued to welcome in so many new students it felt like we were at a tipping point,” Nalli said.

The district has not determined a timeline or a cost to complete the initiative.

Learning a new language takes time. It takes on average five to seven years for such students to gain a level of English proficiency so they can succeed academically and professionally.

But public schools are legally required to ensure that students can fully participate in age-appropriate education, regardless of their ability to understand and communicate in English. That means the district must provide students with age-appropriate content in math, science, history and other subjects in a way they can understand so they can move forward with their education while they simultaneously learn English.

The plan is focused on educating multilingual students, but the supports the district hopes to provide them with are likely to benefit all students, according to the district’s leaders. Experts familiar with multilingual education agreed.


Providing visual cues alongside narrative; supplying students with dictionaries, sentence starters and word suggestions; and including in the curriculum material that represents a variety of cultures and experiences are all examples of what district leaders said could help multilingual students access material but that also could benefit all students.

Scallon, who is entering the job in Portland with significant experience working with multilingual learner populations, said he’s ready to jump right into the conversation about how to best support the district’s non-English-speaking students.

“Education is about thinking about what the needs of students are and how we support those,” he said. “We all get into this work because we want to see all students be successful.”

Luanika was more fortunate than some recently arrived students because he already spoke. He said his teachers were kind and helpful. They smiled at him, helped him in class and encouraged him to keep coming back to school every day, he said.

The Portland school district initiative aims to give every employee the tools they need to best support students like Luanika who often arrive with limited English and have been or are facing trauma.

Multilingual student populations have grown significantly in Maine and nationwide. As of October, there were 6,259 multilingual students enrolled in Maine public schools, making up 3.6% of the student population. Ten years prior, in the 2013-14 school year, the state’s public schools enrolled 5,333 multilingual students – 2.9% of the student population.


In U.S. public schools, multilingual learners accounted for 10.4% of student enrollment in 2019, the latest year for which federal data is available, up from 8% in 2000.

The multilingual student population in Maine is concentrated in the state’s southern half and near urban areas.

The Westbrook school district enrolled 118 multilingual students during the 2022-23 school year. Twenty-one percent of the school district’s students are multilingual learners. Ten years ago 5% of the district’s students were multilingual. 

The 3,000-student Sanford school district enrolled 58 multilingual students in the 2022-23 school year. Just over 3% of the district’s students are multilingual learners, up from 1.5% 10 years ago. 

As of mid-May, the South Portland school district had taken in over 260 multilingual students. Twenty-one percent of South Portland school district students are multilingual learners. Ten years ago, that number was around 7%. 

Immigrants, and thus multilingual learners, have been arriving in the U.S. for centuries as political instability, persecution, poverty, natural disasters and war have driven people away from their home countries. That is no different today. New Mainers, usually refugees or asylum seekers, often find their way to the Pine Tree State after hearing from friends, family members or other immigrants that it is a safe and welcoming place.


Multilingual students are a tremendous asset to the school district, Portland school administrators said. Like all students, those who come from other countries and enter Portland’s schools have a wide variety of skills, assets and personalities. There are students who arrive and enter the school district who speak five languages, who persevered through treacherous journeys and who currently help support their families.

Many multilingual students thrive in Portland schools.

Jose, a 16-year-old who immigrated from Angola to Maine four years ago, only spoke a few basic words of English when he arrived. The native Portuguese speaker said classes were hard for him at first because he couldn’t understand anything.

But Jose, who declined to give his last name, learned quickly. In school, his teachers were helpful, he said. Outside of school, he faithfully practiced his new language, doing research and watching YouTube tutorials in his free time.

“I wanted to learn as much English in as short a time as possible,” he said.

Come fall, Jose will head back to school and start ninth grade as a fluent English speaker.


Despite successes like Jose’s, adequately supporting students who have all different levels of English proficiency – and some who have been through tremendous trauma – can be challenging for public schools that are notoriously low-resourced and facing severe classroom and English-learner teacher shortages. And although the Portland school district both has and is working toward systems that experts say align with best practices for educating multilingual learners, obstacles remain.

Now more than ever before, students are entering the Portland district with extremely limited English. Around 70% of students entering the district today speak, at most, basic English. Ten years ago, 70% of students entering the district were advanced in their English proficiency.

Across the district, there are 57 languages spoken. And although most students speak Portuguese, Spanish, Somali, Arabic, French and/or Lingala, the number of different languages makes it challenging, if not impossible, to find and hire translators for every language.

Additionally, these students often fled from unsafe living situations and made harrowing journeys to the U.S., meaning many have experienced significant instability at best and trauma at worst. And once in the U.S., things tend to remain challenging.

Asylum seekers, who account for many of the immigrants arriving in Maine now, cannot get federal permission to work in the country until 180 days after an asylum application has been filed. That means asylum seeking parents of some students are not able to legally work for at least six months after arriving in the U.S., leaving them and their children in tenuous and financially unstable situations where education might not be top of mind.

Students also don’t arrive in the district in alignment with the school calendar. This year, new students enrolled in Portland schools as late as a week and a half before the school year came to a close.


Reiche English learner teacher Roberta de Sousa had 13 new students added to her caseload over the course of the school year, leaving her with more than 30 students to keep track of by year’s end.

De Sousa is a passionate, dedicated and unendingly positive English-learner teacher. Sitting in the sun outside of Reiche school, where she has taught since 2019, she told story after story of students’ successes, and of the bright spots of being an educator and a student in a multilingual school.

There was one story of a student who, fluent in four languages, seamlessly translated a conversation between two Portuguese newcomers and a native English and French speaker who was born in the U.S. so they could all participate in some elementary school lunchroom banter. There was another student who, being ahead of his classmates in math, taught them long division using a method he learned in his home country of Angola, she said. And another still who arrived at school nervous about speaking English but at the end of the year gave a presentation in front of her whole class in her new language, asking for help from her other bilingual Portuguese and English speaking classmates when she forgot a word in English.

But despite the many triumphs she sees, the job isn’t easy.

Because she has to take in students as they arrive over the course of the year, she has to onboard new students – show them their desk, teach them the norms of being in an American classroom and school district, try to get to know them and figure out what they need – and simultaneously continue on with the curriculum for all the students who have been there.

And like all students, the multilingual students she teaches come from all different backgrounds and have had a wide range of life experiences and have a variety of needs.


“There is so much I want to do, but with more than 30 students in my caseload, I can’t do it all,” said de Sousa.

Because de Sousa is an English-learner teacher, she is specially trained to work with students who speak other languages. The district initiative would provide all teachers with ideas and mechanisms for how to make content available and engaging to students with all levels of English proficiency.

Tyler Jellison is now a ninth grade social studies teacher at Deering High School, but he was an English-learner teacher from 2012 to 2016. He moved from English language to mainstream classes because he saw multilingual students struggling in standard classes and thought he might be able to use his training and experience teaching English to speakers of other languages to help.

Last year, when he assigned reading in his social studies classes, he would record himself reading the content so students could listen along like an audiobook. When he taught students about colonization, he chose to focus on the story of resistance by the people of the area that is now Angola, where many of his students are from. He could see his students engage more deeply when they feel represented in the content being taught, he said.

The teachers in the district are already working tirelessly to teach and support all students, Jellison said, but he said he’s supportive of the district’s initiative. He thinks it will give everyone the opportunity to consider more deeply how to support all students, he said.

“My English language learner training has transformed the way I teach my classroom and has opened my eyes to a lot of blind spots and I think it’s beneficial for everyone to have the opportunity to do that reflection,” Jellison said.


Districtwide, Portland schools have one fully certified English-learner teacher for every 28 multilingual students. The district also employs multilingual family engagement specialists, multilingual student intake staff and others who work with multilingual students. Experts say there’s no perfect ratio of English-learner teachers to students because there is so much nuance and variety in student skills and needs.

The Portland school district said it is prioritizing the needs of multilingual students as efficiently and thoughtfully as possible with the resources available to them.

Experts in multilingual learner education said Portland is doing most everything, if not everything, right.

Multilingual students do best when they are in schools and districts that have systems to help them adjust to a new school, community and country, provide access to social and emotional support and are part of inclusive academic environments, said Sophia Rodriguez, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland College Park and the founder of the ImmigrantEdNext lab. It’s also important to have adults in their lives who work to understand them as individuals and as asylum seekers and refugees who may have been through enormously difficult experiences, she said.

Rodriguez said having district level policy that encourages or requires teacher training is key to creating an environment where multilingual students can succeed and where teachers have the tools they need and feel supported by their administration.

“Kids have to feel like they belong in school in order to do well in school,” she said.

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