South Portland superintendent: Diversity will help schools meet challenges

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin opened his state of the schools presentation Tuesday by referencing the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the pedestal at the Statue of Liberty, maintaining that in uncertain times, diversity is a strong asset to the district. 

He said the district’s mission, serving 3,000 students in eight schools, is to work with the community to enrich the lives of all, which is the core of public education.

“My grandparents came from what were considered undesirable countries in eastern Europe, and they were publicly educated, as were other immigrants who enabled the nation to meet the challenges of the tumultuous 20th century,” Kunin said at South Portland High School. “New immigrants will be part of our schools and community and will help us meet the challenges of the 21 century.” 

“Our diversity is a tremendous asset matched by few communities,” he said, noting the city represents diversity in language, culture and religion. 

Ten percent of school students are English language learners, compared with the statewide average of 3 percent, according to Kunin

In the last five years, 150 students have been incorporated into the ELL program,  he said. Students in the schools speak 36 different primary home languages from every global region; the top three primary languages are Arabic, Spanish and French. 

Free, reduced-cost meals

Kunin said in 2017, 36 percent of students at the five elementary schools were eligible for free or reduced lunch, down from 41 percent in 2016. At the middle schools, 34 percent of students qualified, down from 37 percent the previous year, and at the high school, 35 percent of students qualified, down from 39 percent in 2016. 

The eligibility requirements for a free meal is 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline, or just under $32,000 annually for a family of four. Reduced price meals require 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or about $45,500 for a family of four. 

Kunin said it is unclear whether the reduction in the number of students eligible is representative of an improving economy, families leaving the district due to lack of affordable housing, or if more outreach is needed to inform families about how to enroll in the program.

Students who qualify for free and reduced-cost meals also receive waivers and reduced fees on college application fees and have increased access to scholarships based on need. 

During the 2016-2017 school year, 36 students in the district were homeless, down from 49 students the previous academic year, he said. 

Special education

Kunin said the number of students requiring special education has increased in both need and severity, with 18 percent of students qualifying.

He said it’s a trend seen statewide, and in total, Maine is expected to spend $30 million on special education. Increases are driven by autism and multi-disability, which require additional teaching and medical staff to meet students’ needs.

A rise in out-of-district placement is also a factor in the projected higher cost of special education.

Kunin said there is a wide range of needs in the district, and the goal is to provide the least restrictive environment for students, and that objective drives teaching practices. 

Graduation rate

Last year, South Portland’s graduation rate was 92.8 percent, higher than the state average of 86 percent. “We have done fairly well in this area,” Kunin said, but added the goal is to instill in students that education does not end in high school.

“We can compete with the best,” he said of recent graduates, adding the class of 2017 is attending colleges as nearby as Southern Maine Community College and as far away as Arizona State University. 

The Class of 2017 included 186 students.  A little more than half of the graduates enrolled in a four-year degree program, 19 percent attended a two-year program, 1 percent enlisted in the military, and 20 percent went into the workforce, according to data presented by Kunin. 

Budget 

Earlier this month at a meeting with city councilors, Kunin said South Portland will look at several key points to form the fiscal 2019 school budget, including the increase in special education needs, maintaining current staffing levels, and renovations needed at two elementary schools.

He said it is important to consider the balance between students’ best interests with what is fiscally responsible.

Voter overwhelmingly approved the current, $49 million school budget last June. It is an increase of $1.2 million, or 2.4 percent, over last year. Kunin said he will meet with principals later this month to determine needs for the coming budget.

He estimated that maintaining staff and service levels could require an additional $1.2 million in spending to meet contractual obligations for staff salary and benefits, which make up 80 percent of total school expenses. He said most of the action in constructing the budget is in analyzing staffing needs.

The school budget will first be presented to the South Portland School Board in March. 

 Juliette Laaka  can be reached at 781-3661 ext.,106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin discusses the state of the city schools Tuesday, Jan. 23, at South Portland High School.

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