South Portland school chief sees growing need for English language learning

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin this week outlined key changes he wants to see, including further study of possibly merging the city’s middle schools, and accommodating an increasing number of English-language learners. 

Kunin was hired in April to succeed former Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

During his state-of-the-schools presentation Oct. 26 at South Portland High School, Kunin reported that enrollment slightly exceeded this year’s expectations: 3,085 students attend one of eight schools in the city. 

Since Sept. 1, he said, schools have seen an increase of more than 50 English-language learners, totaling nearly 260 students across the district.

“We’ve grown, both, in numbers of students and in numbers of languages,” Kunin said. Every school in South Portland has non-native speakers, he said, led by South Portland High School, with nearly 80 English-language learning students, and Skillin Elementary School, with nearly 70. 

The number of students with autism has also increased, from 533 to 545 Kunin said, making up 18 percent of the total enrollment.  

He also referenced last year’s rise in the student homeless population, an area that has “really grown quite dramatically over the last several years,” he said. 

The 2012-2013 school year had 50 homeless students. That number more than doubled last year and peaked at 116, an increase that Kunin called “tremendous.”

“We are seeing that slow down a bit as we move into this year. I do not think we are on pace to replicate the 116, but we never know,” he said. 

Kunin also reported that while the district offered a little more than 40 percent of all meals at free-or-reduced cost to students, he still believes there are more who could benefit from the service. 

South Portland schools serve 500,000 meals during the school year, and another 20,000 during the summer, he said. 

“We don’t believe we’re capturing all the people who qualify and that’s going to be an effort of ours in the year ahead – make sure we capture everybody who is eligible,” he said. 

Outlining curriculum-based focuses, Kunin said “a key challenge for us is to continue to build capacity for a proficiency-based learning system.”

“It’s about making clear what the learning targets are for students and what success looks like,” he said. 

Near the end of his presentation, Kunin spoke briefly about Mahoney and Memorial middle schools. 

“Our middle schools are cheerful, clean places that operate reasonably well, but they’re not really 21st-century facilities, and so that’s a real key area that we have to look at,” he said. 

The Middle School Facilities Committee, led by Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani, will soon organize a request for proposals and bring in an education consultant “to help us take the next step and examine our options,” Kunin said. “We’re hoping to report to the School Board by the end of the year.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA


South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.