By Kai Small
Following the transition of the Portland Expo on August 16 from temporary shelter back to sports arena, 37 asylum-seeking families, predominantly from Angola and the Dominican Republic, moved to the Casco Bay Inn off of Route 1 in Freeport. The move happened 12 days before the scheduled first day of school in Freeport, which was September 5. The total number of children of school age is 67, and they are spread throughout grade levels.
RSU 5 Superintendent of Schools Jean Skorapa explained that all families have the right by law to keep their children in their previous school system if they wish, but in this case all the parents decided to enroll their children in local Freeport schools: “Portland schools came [last Tuesday] to the hotels to help us find out and communicate with the families which school they wanted to attend … every family wanted to stay in Freeport. So they’re no longer with Portland Public Schools. They’ll be releasing their records to us.”
According to Skorapa, 16 children will attend Morse Street School (preschool through second grade], 18 will attend Mast Landing School (third through fifth grade), 15 will attend Freeport Middle School, and 18 will attend Freeport High School. “And that would be in addition to other children that are residing at the hotel from last year,” Skorapa said.
This is not the first time that Freeport schools have welcomed groups of asylum seekers into its schools. “Our school department has had the privilege to have some New Mainers with us for about a year and a half,” Skorapa said.
Last school year, several children started school who lived in the Best Western Hotel in Freeport but were later relocated to South Portland. “Many of those students at the time decided they wanted to stay with us. So we worked together with South Portland to transport them back to Freeport,” Skorapa said. And that was not the first year Freeport schools had asylum seeking children enrolled. “Our school department has had the privilege to have some New Mainers with us for about a year and a half,” Skorapa said.
Preparations for the large number of new students who are enrolling for the 2023-2024 school year began in mid-August and immediately swung into high gear because of the short timeline. “We’ve already been looking at making sure every child has a device. So we have purchased more devices [iPads for the younger students and Chromebooks for high schoolers]. We have looked at if there are any learning materials we need, and we are asking our teachers to look at other additional needs for that [supporting new students] as well.” As for new hires, “Our board of directors met and I asked to have another teacher for the multilingual learners and also Ed Tech to support them. We already have five teachers for [their] support, but with the additional kiddos I requested an additional [language] teacher and ed tech.”
Freeport school teachers and staff can rely on what they have learned from previous experiences to guide them forward in successfully meeting the needs of their new students. “We’ve learned a lot in terms of our instructional practices and how to best meet the needs of our students. We are certainly much more organized even getting these kids into school. Our team did an amazing job. They registered 67 kids for school in a day and a half.”
While the students have a short time between moving to Freeport and starting a new school year, Skorapa shared her high hopes “to have them start on day one… we’re certainly looking forward to having all those kids with us this year.” Skorapa stated.
Heidi Wallace, who graduated from Freeport High School last year, said that from her vantage point it seemed the Freeport High School community was welcoming to the asylum seekers. “If you were driving and you saw a New Mainer walking on the side of the road everyone would offer them rides.” Sometimes language was a barrier, but Google Translate helped. “And the sports teams were very supportive,” she said. When one of the boys on the soccer team moved into a Freeport apartment, “the whole team went to the house to help them move in.”
Superintendent Skorapa agreed that Freeport has done a good job with welcoming new members to its community: “I know we’ve had a lot of families that have just stepped up to help with things like after-school activities. I know that we’ve had parents that have been willing to transport, and arrange playdates.”
According to Sahra Lundin, Executive Director of the Freeport Community Center, the new students and new families will continue to receive help from the City of Portland: “The City will be providing for the essential needs of the asylum-seeking families…We will be directing our generous community members looking to support the families to connect with staff at the City of Portland.”
Skorapa is enthusiastic about welcoming new children to the schools. “Children are children no matter where [they] come from. And our kids have developed some wonderful lasting relationships…we have found that the New Mainers who have already joined us have made us a more well-rounded, diverse district. They have truly been a wonderful addition to our community.”