LEWISTON — Joao Rodrigues and his children moved to Maine this past winter from Africa.
His children are among the city’s 1,374 students in the English Language Learner program. One out of every four Lewiston students is in the ELL program; most are Somali children, but ELL students speak a total of 34 languages.
Rodrigues came for the same reasons immigrants before him came. He was looking for a better life and a safe community, where his children could get a good education.
His oldest son, Joao Rodrigues Victor, 14, attends Lewiston High School. His daughter, Mariana Luis, 10, and another son, Josue Luis, 8, attend Montello Elementary School.
Speaking Portuguese and communicating through an interpreter, he shared how he and his children fled their native Angola, a country of unrest and violence. They escaped to the Democratic Republic of the Congo before making their way to the United States.
They arrived in New York in January with nothing. A pastor there recommended he take his family to Maine, where there are African communities and where he could get help.
“I am very thankful for the United States,” Rodrigues said. “It is a good country. “I thank God for the United States. Otherwise, I would not be alive.”
His smile turned to tears as he shared his story.
“I don’t know where my wife is,” he said. “I had to flee.”
Before they left, police invaded his home, arrested him for being an activist against the political party in power. Police beat him in jail, he said, showing a scar on his head.
While grateful to be safe, “my life is upside down,” he said.
His children ask when their mother is joining them. He doesn’t know.
City’s ELL efforts get good marks
In the last year 180 new ELL students have arrived in Lewiston. The school department’s English Language Learners program, created in 2001 with the first wave of Somali immigrants, is doing well, educators and parents say.
“Our ELL kids are doing great,” said Lewiston High School Principal Shawn Chabot. “Academically and socially, they are doing just fine.”
The largest problem is that not all students are ready for the rigors of high school, especially those who arrived as older students with little school experience, Chabot said. About half of the ELL freshmen failed one course, but many others are graduating.
The biggest need is accelerating English language development, ELL Director Hilary Barber said. Last year, 62 students left the ELL program because they had mastered English. Another 238 scored between 5 and 5.9 on the ELL exit test, which means their skills are high.
A spokesman for the group that represents Somali immigrants gave Lewiston schools a grade of B for how ELL students are being taught.
“Lewiston schools are doing well,” said Abdikadir Negeye, the human resources director of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services. “ELL students are getting the support they need to succeed at school.”
Negeye attends parent-teacher conferences with other parents, and has been impressed with the good news parents are receiving from teachers, he said. Teachers meet with parents at the end of the school year and give helpful recommendations. Schools offer extra support to accelerate learning, he said.
“Some challenges are parents with language barriers understanding the school system,” Negeye said. Another is better solutions for when students exhibit bad behavior in school.
And when bad behavior happens on a Thursday or Friday, sometimes parents don’t find out for days.
Overall, Negeye said parents are pleased with how the ELL program has improved in recent years.
More immigrants are coming to Lewiston, Negeye said, “because our community members value education more than anything.”
Each child is lectured by their parents to do well at school, Negeye said.
Lewiston is attractive, he said, because it’s a small town and offers a sense of community where everyone knows everyone.
“Most have gone through violence and hardship,” he said. “They want a quiet and peaceful place to raise their children.”
Seeing a future
Before fleeing Angola, he had a business selling computers and cellphones, traveling throughout Europe and Asia. He speaks four languages, including French.
In Lewiston, he’s volunteering and learning English at adult education. He sees bright futures for his children.
His son has seen the Air Force Jr. ROTC uniforms at the high school.
“He wants to become a pilot,” Rodrigues said. “My daughter wants to become a doctor.”
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