Portland schools, students benefit from multilingual program

I have always regretted not learning a second language. That has been especially true in the past decade or so as it became much clearer to me that knowing Spanish or another language besides English would have greatly enhanced my life and journalism career.

It is particularly ironic then that I had plenty of opportunity to learn French. I was born into a French-Acadian family where French was spoken at family gatherings far more often than English. A family story tells that the first words I spoke as a child were French. And I took several years of high school French, of which I retained little more than how to ask for the time – “Quelle heure est-il?”

Of course, I did not retain time references so I would not know if a French language speaker was giving me the time of day or giving me the business. Or both.

But as I grew older and school drew closer, English was the language spoken in the household. Unless, of course, my parents wanted to say something to each other that they did not want my sister or me comprehending.

Sadly for me, learning a second or third language at the time I was growing up was not nearly as high a priority as it must be now. Being bilingual or multilingual is essential today in order to compete on an international playing field, visit foreign lands or to converse with those who come to our shores for whatever reason – to build a better life for themselves and their families, escape persecution or whatever. The reasons are wide and varied, but they resemble the reasons this nation’s forefathers had for coming here.

There are far too many of us who conveniently forget that we are a nation of immigrants, immigrants who brought with them their language, culture, foods, songs and more. And it has made this nation – this mosaic tapestry made up of people and cultures from around the globe – what it is.

Yes, having some control of the border and what and who comes into the country is essential. But building a wall on our borders is not the answer. Separating parents from their children because of immigration issues is not the answer. There has to be a way to embrace varied people speaking varied languages and bringing with them varied and rich cultures.

The Portland (Maine) school district, the largest in the state with well more than 7,100 students, seems to embrace the children of refugee and immigrant families. According to a Portland Press Herald story today, the district has enrolled 1,864 multilingual students so far this year, up from 1,795 last year. About 1,600 of those students enrolled this year are learning to speak English, up from 1,474 last year. Some of the increase comes as Catholic Charities Maine has amped up its efforts to find homes in Maine for refugees.

These students and their families come from some of the toughest places on Earth right now, places I am guessing no Mainer would want to raise their children – Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other places. Yes, things are tough here economically – sluggish or no growth, sluggish or no recovery, 16 million Americans unemployed. It is tough just now, there is no doubt about it.

But it is far, far more difficult to raise a child in Sudan or Somalia or Afghanistan to adulthood than it is in Portland or Lewiston or Bangor. It is far, far more difficult to feed a family, remain free of disease, thrive and live a long life in Iraq, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of the Congo than it is in Saco, Augusta or Presque Isle. [I was in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, very briefly in 1994 during tribal upheaval in neighboring Rwanda and a mass movement of refugees across the border. That experience and another a month or so later visiting Haiti, the only Fourth World nation in the Western Hemisphere, leads me to believe that we must continue humanitarian aid to such nations when at all possible. And we must offer a safe haven for people who cannot survive in those nations. – KM]

It is vital to immerse the students in English language skills, find ways to keep their parents connected and involved with their children’s education, and include the students and their families as part of the mosaic that is this nation. While the Press Herald seemed to be lacking the voices of some of the stakeholders and critics, it seems the Portland school district is doing what it can to education and include these refugees and immigrants.

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