Children catch bubbles Aug. 17 at a free barbecue organized by the Lewiston School Department to mark the end of its summer outreach program that provided numerous services for students and families. It also gave the School Department the opportunity to connect with students and parents, hand out schedules, sign students up and make connections before the start of school. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

With just a week to go before the first day of school, staff from Freeport schools headed to a local hotel to meet their newest students.

The 67 students, all from asylum-seeking families, had just moved to the Casco Bay Inn from the Portland Expo, where nearly 200 people had been staying in the temporary shelter before it closed. The families all decided to send their kids to Freeport schools instead of busing them to Portland to attend classes, said Jean Skorapa, superintendent of Regional School Unit 5 in Freeport.

“Our first goal is to get them enrolled and in a class,” she said. “That piece is done. Now we look at how to best serve their needs.”

The scramble to welcome new students and connect them with the services they need is becoming a familiar challenge in Freeport and other Maine communities where the families are settling.

For the past several years, school districts in southern Maine have had to make quick adjustments as they enroll dozens of students from asylum-seeking families, many of whom come from African countries and speak little or no English when they arrive. To meet their needs, they’ve had to hire more teachers for English learners, add social workers and support staff, and make sure translation services are in place to communicate with parents.

“For us, this is a new experience,” said Steve Bussiere, assistant superintendent in Sanford, where 38 students enrolled in May when their families arrived in the city. There will be 55 students from asylum-seeking families in Sanford schools this year, he said.


School leaders say the work can be challenging and puts a significant strain on resources, but it’s also a privilege to welcome new students into the community.

“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.”


Portland has seen more than 1,600 asylum seekers arrive since Jan. 1. New arrivals have slowed since the city announced in April that it could no longer guarantee shelter, according to city officials.

With its existing shelters already full, the city opened the Expo as a temporary shelter in early April. It quickly reached its full capacity at 300. Four months later, the city closed the shelter to prepare the sports arena for scheduled events this fall.

The Portland school district enrolled a record 979 multilingual students in the 2022-23 school year.


On Aug. 16, about 190 people from 60 families were loaded onto buses to move to hotels in Lewiston and Freeport until there is room at Portland’s family shelter or they find permanent housing. Portland is paying for the hotels using General Assistance, with 70% of the costs reimbursed by the state. The cost to the city is expected to be about $550,000 with the overall cost around $1.8 million.

Most of the families with school-aged children moved into the Freeport hotel. Lewiston schools expect to enroll 20 to 23 students.

Asylum seekers are moved from the Portland Expo on to buses to take them to hotels in Lewiston and Freeport on Aug. 16. Several dozen children are now enrolling in Freeport and Lewiston schools. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said staff from Lewiston and Portland schools met with the families last week to talk about where they wanted to send their children. Federal law for homeless students allows them to stay enrolled in Portland schools if they choose.

The decision is a tough one because their stay at the Ramada by Wyndham Lewiston Hotel and Conference Center will be for the short term, unlike the arrangement in Freeport that could last up to a year, Langlais said. If some students stay in Portland schools, where they started last spring, the two districts will split transportation costs.

“We are pretty well-positioned to absorb this number of students and provide the services they need,” Langlais said.

Lewiston schools already work with students who speak 38 languages. The district has a multilingual center that focuses on assessing English proficiency and supporting families during and after the enrollment process. That includes helping with paperwork, explaining what the school day looks like and bringing families on tours to make sure they feel comfortable, said Lysa McLemore, director of the multilingual program.


Over the past few years, the district has trained all of its educators to teach content and language simultaneously.

“We do everything we can at the district level to make sure our teachers are equipped to work with any newly arrived student,” McLemore said.

The 67 newly enrolled students in Freeport schools are across all grade levels, from pre-K through high school. Class sizes might be slightly larger, but the district only had to add an additional fifth grade class, which would have happened anyway, Skorapa said.

Last week, the school board decided to hire a fourth teacher and an education technician to work with English-language learners. Skorapa estimated the combined salary and benefits for the positions will be between $130,000 and $150,000.

Skorapa said the district will use funds from federal programs to ensure students and teachers have the devices and supplies they need. She anticipates there will be added costs to get the students to school, but the transportation plan is still in the works.

In October, schools that have seen more ELL students enroll will see a significant infusion of new funding to help offset the costs.


The supplemental state budget passed in July included $3.5 million for the ELL Hardship Fund established last year by the Legislature to help school districts. Portland Public Schools will receive more than $784,000 to assist ELL students. Other districts receiving funding include Lewiston ($631,000), Freeport ($109,000), South Portland ($302,00o), Westbrook ($93,000), Biddeford ($192,000), Brunswick ($50,000) and Saco ($110,000).

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, House chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said the additional funding will allow Portland to hire new staff and provide important services to ELL students.

“However, the city isn’t alone. There are school districts across the state that are working hard to meet the influx of new students, and the Legislature recognized their efforts and stepped up to help,” Brennan said in a statement. “This funding will have a major impact, and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to continue funding the program in the coming years.”


The unexpected arrival of 38 asylum-seeking students in Sanford came just weeks before the end of the school year. They were quickly enrolled in school, screened for English proficiency and placed in classrooms. Most of the students speak Portuguese and very little, if any, English, said Bussiere, the assistant superintendent.

“Our first goal was to make them feel welcome in the community,” he said. “At that point, we were in survival mode.”


Over the summer, the school hired an additional ELL teacher – the district now has four – and purchased a curriculum for non-English speakers. The district’s outreach workers have also shifted their focus to make sure the basic needs of the students are met so they have what they need for school. Plans were made for cultural awareness and curriculum instructional training for staff.

A young asylum seeker holds onto a few of their belongings as they leave the Portland Expo for hotels in Lewiston and Freeport. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

School officials met regularly with city staff and local agencies working with the asylum seekers as part of a coordinated response to help them settle in the community. York County Community Action Corp., the agency helping families find permanent housing, spent the summer making sure students were immunized so they could attend school.

That kind of communitywide approach was critical to making it all work, Bussiere said. So far, Sanford has been welcoming, and the new families are eager to be a part of the community, he said.

“It’s absolutely been challenging and there are going to be bumps in the road, but we’re learning from it,” he said.

Bussiere said a highlight of the past few months was driving onto the high school campus last week and seeing some of the new students practicing with the soccer team.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “This is increasing diversity in our schools, which is awesome for kids to experience. We have not had that opportunity on a large scale like this.”

Despite the last-minute push to get everything lined up for the first day of school, Skorapa said she’s looking forward to seeing all of the students together.

“What’s really lovely is when we see kids being kids together, no matter where they’re living or where they’re from,” she said.

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