South Portland schools see dramatic increase in homeless students

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The number of homeless students in city schools has doubled in the past two years to 102, a figure that is unprecedented in South Portland history. 

“I am worried,” Assistant Superintendent of Schools Kathy Germani said.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan enacted the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Amended and reissued through the years, the act promises homeless students the same access to public education that is provided to all students. Accordingly, a grant program was established to help school districts meet their respective goals, which include professional development for staff.

More than 50 percent of the homeless students in South Portland are non-American and require English Language Learner, or ELL, services, Germani said. Most of these students are in four city schools: Skillen Elementary, Kaler Elementary, Memorial Middle School, and South Portland High School. 

In the 2012-2013 school year, South Portland identified 40 homeless students in the district. Last year, the district tallied 74 homeless students. So far this year, the district has had an increase of 28 students who are homeless.

This year’s influx is “the biggest pool of kids that we’ve seen at elementary and middle schools,” Germani said on Wednesday. “(At Skillen) on average, there are between three and six non-English-speaking students in several classrooms at this point.” 

While students arrive with varying levels of language comprehension, most often at at the elementary level, “language acquisition is a three- to five-year trajectory in most cases,” Germani said.

Such a reality has required a restructuring of the English as a Second Language program at Skillen, as a way to “front-load language skills,” Germani said.

To curb the strain on resources, the School Department also hired an additional ELL staff member this year at the elementary school. 

“I have restructured the district’s Title 1 funding to be able to help pay for that person. Without the Title 1 flexibility, I would not have had the ability to help the district offset that cost,” Germani said.

For the 2014-2015 school year, the district received almost $680,000 from federal Title 1 funding.  As Skillen and Kaler Elementary are the schools in the district classified as Title 1 schools, they are the only to receive federal funding. “Our other schools in the district are not identified Title 1, so any additional costs need to come from the individual school’s budget or my budget,” Germani said.

Title 1 federal funding is given exclusively to provide aid for disadvantaged students. Programs and services covered by Title 1 include providing those students with free or reduced lunches, subsidizing participation in extracurricular activities, and all forms of educational programming, ensuring that those students are not disadvantaged in the classroom.

In keeping with accordance to guidelines set by McKinney-Vento, a student who is classified as homeless remains as such for one school year, even if their status changes during that time, which means the School Department is still required to accommodate them as if they are homeless.

Shelter connection

Most students who are classified as homeless in the school district have been placed in South Portland by a shelter outside of the city.

Germani acts as a liaison with the Portland Family Shelter on Chestnut Street. If that facility becomes filled to capacity, it places families and individuals in specified hotels and motels in Portland, Westbrook and South Portland. 

The Maine Motel on Main Street houses those families as the shelter continues to work with them to find permanent housing, and as the students attend school in South Portland.

In the meantime, the district provides resources for students, including transportation to and from school. 

Most students arrive in South Portland as homeless and remain so for 30 to 40 days, Germani said.

Homeless students whose families are either doubled up (living with another family) or who are “couch surfing” and were South Portland residents before they became homeless, have a much more difficult time finding permanent housing, Germani said.

For those students who find permanent housing through the shelter, South Portland is still required to provide resources, like transportation, even if that housing is in a different town or city. The city, however, encourages those families to eventually enroll their children in their new home school district.

“That has been a point of contention, to be honest. We’re maxed out to transportation at this point,” Germani said.

Despite the strain that homeless students experience, and the required reshuffling of resources the district provides, the changing demographic provides positive diversity to the community, South Portland High School guidance Director Teri Wark said.

“There’s no doubt that the needs in South Portland have changed. Whenever you have a shifting demographic, it requires different resources … but the students who are coming to us are really adding to the richness of our community,” Wark said. 

Despite the hardships that some might be feeling more than others, Wark said, “South Portland has done a tremendous job to make sure students who don’t have those resources outside of school can find them here.”

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.