A new experience.

That’s how Steve Bussiere, assistant superintendent in Sanford, described Sanford schools’ addressing the needs of 55 new students from asylum-seeking families this coming school year.

It’s a new experience for the kids, too, and thanks to thoughtful, time-intensive efforts by Bussiere’s colleagues and other schools around Maine – hiring additional teachers to teach English to English language learners, hiring more social workers and more support staff and refining translation services so that school staff and administrators can communicate with new pupils’ parents – it can be a good experience.

The focus on multilingual learners requires a serious effort and will make a serious difference to our state.

Thankfully, the Maine Legislature expressed its understanding of that fact in July, including $3.5 million for the support of English language learners – via the English Language Learner Hardship Fund – in the special supplemental budget.

This valuable funding becomes available to schools at the end of October. Portland’s public schools will receive more than $784,000; Lewiston, $631,000; South Portland, $302,000; Biddeford, $192,000, Brunswick, $150,000; Saco, $110,000; Freeport, $109,000, and Westbrook, $93,000.


In Freeport, arrangements have been made for 67 new students who recently moved with their families from the temporary shelter at the Portland Expo to the Casco Bay Inn. Jean Skorapa, superintendent of Regional School Unit 5 in Freeport, struck a crystal-clear and exceedingly warm note earlier this week – sounding like many other Maine educators on the same subject in recent years.

“We’ve had new Mainers with us over the past year and a half. They’ve made us a more well-rounded, diverse district,” Skorapa said. “They’re a wonderful addition to our school community and we welcome them with open arms and are thrilled to have them with us.”

In other school districts, efforts such as these have been up and running for a while. According to our reporting Monday, Lewiston schools work with students who speak a total of 38 languages. The school district there has a multilingual center that works with families and offers vital help with paperwork and orientation. Portland has been supporting new students from asylum-seeking families for years; in July, we reported that one-third of the district’s roughly 6,500 students were multilingual.

The numbers make it clear as day: The downside risk of underfunding English language learning is now way too steep for these parts of Maine to run. Yes, there’s a moral imperative here; it is also a legal requirement of our public schools. We trust that, on the strength of existing work in this realm, the practice of funding multilingual learning education becomes just that – a practice. Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, House chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, expressed his commitment to continue funding the program “in the coming years.”

Appropriate investment in these students fosters a sense of belonging, reduces the risk of pernicious, hard-to-close learning gaps and, as students find themselves better and better equipped to support their families locally, has wide-reaching benefits. To say nothing of what it means for school graduates of the future. On top of that, successive studies have shown that the teaching techniques that assist English language learners assist all students.

That’s not to say there won’t be hurdles to overcome. In recent days, tense and ugly anti-immigrant rallies in Manhattan, Staten Island and Woburn, Massachusetts, laid bare the style of racist, isolationist thinking that continues to oppose even the most commonsense steps towards integration and inclusion.

Our schools need more support, and they need it to be specific. The calls for increased attention to the new members of the student body need to be sustained in their volume and their clarity. It makes sense, at every level, to seize this opportunity to enrich our classrooms and our communities.

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