Increasing immigrant population in Portland putting pressure on school resources

6:36 PM, Nov 4, 2010   |    comments
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PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- The latest census data shows that Maine is the whitest state in the nation at more than 95 percent. But that lack of diversity is definitely not present in the state's largest city.

Portland has become so diverse that 23 percent of its overall school population is now learning English as a second or even third language -- and the school district has added teachers to its English language development program in a time of tight budgets.

In a classroom at King Middle School, there are about 20 students who speak 6 different languages -- and one teacher whose task it is to get them fluent in both English and classroom etiquette.

Student Esther Ndikumwenamwe came here from Rwanda with practically no English just 2 1/2 years ago. Now, after intensive English classes, she sits alongside her native english-speaking peers with very little extra help... working towards her American dream.

Transitioning isn't easy, though. Many of the students come from war-torn countries where they had little to no schooling. Some of them have a first language with no alphabet.

Thirty-one different languages are spoken at King Middle School, and the number of "English language learners" or ELLs has been growing exponentially. The largest language groups for non-native speakers in the Portland schools are Somali, Khmer,  Arabic, Spanish, and Vietnamese. 89 students also speak Achioli -- the Sudanese language.

When Principal Mike McCarthy got to King Middle School 23 years ago, just 3 percent of the population was foreign born. Now it's climbed to 30 percent and growing all the time.

In the 2000-2001 school year -- the Portland School District had fewer than 800 ELLs. Last school year, the number was over 1,600.

That's why last year -- at a time when the superintendent had to cut $1.5 million from the overall district budget -- he added 8 and a half new positions to the district's english language development program. Interestingly enough, though, the growth in the ELL population isn't costing city taxpayers any more money. In fact, the school district comes out ahead.

Services for ELLs cost the district $4.4 million. But Portland gets $5.1 million dollars from the state and federal governments to serve them.

The district also has become adept at finding grant money to support its programs. Multilingual and multicultural center director Grace Valenzuela says Portland's demographics help set the city apart.

"80 percent of ELLs in the country are Latinos, they're Spanish speakers. That's not true in Portland. It's very very diverse. So we become, in that sense, very attractive to different funders, including the federal government," said Valenzuela.







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