First of five stories about the Lewiston School Committee races for the Nov. 5 election. Next: incumbent Paul St. Pierre is being challenged by former legislator Stavros Mendos in Ward 2.
LEWISTON — If he wins, Lewiston School Committee candidate Jama Mohamed, 29, would be the first Somali Bantu to hold an elected public office in Lewiston.
Mohamed is the only write-in candidate for the downtown district of Ward 5. That seat has been held by Sonia Taylor, who is not seeking re-election.
In a write-in election, voters must write the candidate's first and last name on the line on the ballot and fill in the oval to the left, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said. If voters don't fill in the oval, it won't be counted as a vote, she said.
If voters misspell Mohamed's first or last name, the ballot would be accepted as long as voter intent is clear, Montejo said.
Mohamed needs a minimum of 50 votes to win. If he gets less than 50 votes, the mayor would nominate someone to serve and the City Council would have to confirm that person.
Somalia native Zam Zam Mohamud was appointed to the School Committee by Mayor Robert Macdonald earlier this year. She is seeking re-election.
Lewiston schools have 5,239 students, 23 percent of whom are English Language Learners. Most of the ELL students are children of Somali refugees.
Somali immigrants began arriving in Lewiston in 2001. The Somali Bantus came in 2005. All fled because of killings and war in their homeland.
Mohamed came to the United States in 2004 and to Lewiston in 2008. He became a U.S. citizen in 2010. Working with Rilwan Osman, he helped found the Somali Bantu Youth Association, which provides soccer games and mentoring to students, and teaches adults English and how to become citizens.
1. Q: Why are you running?
A: "I hear a lot of questions and concerns people have. The Somali parents are so happy their kids can go to school and get an education, but sometimes they don’t participate because they think it is rude if they give suggestions or try to advocate for their child. I want to educate parents about how to be involved in PTO meetings and learn about what is going on at the schools. As a father, it is my duty to serve the school system."
2. Q: What's a big problem in Lewiston schools, and if elected, what would you do about it?
A: "For many refugee parents, it is the language barrier between school staff and parents. The parents go to the Adult Learning Center to learn English. They study a lot, but you learn a new language slower when you are older. I was very lucky to go to school in the refugee camp, and I learned to speak four languages. Most parents never went to school, so they are learning from the beginning. It takes a while. Sometimes the students come to their parents and say, “Sign this please,” but the parents cannot read completely, so they don’t know if the child is getting in trouble or going on a field trip. The school does a good job having interpreters for the parent-teacher conferences and in the office. With the interpreters, the parents understand what is happening and can talk clearly to teachers." Mohamed said he'd work to ensure translators continue to work with parents.
3. Q: What's going right in Lewiston schools that you would support?
A: "There are very many things going right. One very important thing is the summer school. My organization, the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine, runs a soccer program in the summer for all Lewiston children. We started it because we see kids during the school year are busy and have responsibilities ... but in the summer, they are free and sometimes get in trouble." With the summer program, students are busy, get more education and are better prepared for school in the fall, Mohamed said. Creating the summer program was extra work for the School Department. "This shows me the school department will work very hard to meet the needs of the students. Parents are very grateful for this program."
4. Q: Lewiston's population is growing; early elementary classes are getting crowded. What solution would you look for?
A: "It is important to have small classes when possible. ... It is hard for the children to learn effectively in an overcrowded classroom." He favors more classrooms to reduce crowded classes. If elected, Mohamed would talk to administrators about the issue.
5. Q: On Lewiston's efforts to boost student learning and graduation rates, do you approve or disapprove of what's being done?
A: "The issue of graduation rates is something I hear refugee parents talk about a lot. There's a rule that the students cannot go to high school after age 20. Sometimes a family comes here and their child is 15, and he or she never went to school before." By age 20, the students learns much at Lewiston High, but does not have the credits for graduation. The School Department tells students at 20 they must leave, which upsets parents, Mohamed said. The students "feel like they have failed." Mohamed said the School Department is trying hard to help all students graduate, not only refugees.
6. Q: This year, voters approved a $58.4 million budget, an increase of 7.2 percent. What kind of budget would you support next year?
A: "I want to talk to the School Department and other members of the School Committee before I have an opinion for this." If elected, Mohamed said he wants to be totally educated about the choices and be respectful to the School Department. "Of course I want a very large budget for the School Department, because I think education is the most important thing, but I know there are a lot of issues to consider."