LEWISTON – In a small classroom Wednesday at Montello Elementary School, five third-graders worked on a lesson that blended a folk tale with logic and math.

The problem they had to solve, said teacher Desiree Spaulding, was how many peaches must Momotaro pick for his mother to bake him a pie?

Morgan Eliasen, Amanda Alberda, Kent Mayerson, Owen Mower and Mohamed Mohamud got to work.

After students found the answer, Mohamed was asked to go to the board to show how he solved the problem. The class then moved on to psychology and converting numbers to the metric system.

Mohamed is part of a new milestone in Lewiston’s elementary schools. He’s one of five Somali students citywide who have qualified to be in gifted and talented classes. For the first time four Montello Somali students qualified late last year. This year one at Longley Elementary qualified.

The academic program is tough to get in. Only 82 out of 2,500 Lewiston elementary students in Lewiston qualify, according to the Lewiston School Department. Before students are accepted, they must meet certain standards in IQ scores, class performance and test scores.

Montello is the largest K-6 school in Maine. Nearly 30 percent of its population is Somali. In September, Montello made news for being dubbed a Continuous Improvement Priority School because some immigrant students not proficient in English did not test at grade level. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, Montello had to send letters to parents telling them they could request their child go to another school. Out of 871 students, parents of fewer than 10 students made that request.

Somali students beginning to make their way in top classes illustrate the success teachers are having, Montello Principal Deborah Goding said.

“It’s more than just the numbers that indicate what’s goes on here,” she said. “It just shows that we are doing good things here. We do have bright kids. The staff is working hard.”

Given the time and opportunity, immigrant students can achieve the same as others, Goding said. “They’re very motivated. This is their second language. They have to start at the beginning.”

Mohamed Mohamud said he was born in Kenya. His first language is Swahili. His father attended technology college in Africa, and both parents take college classes here, Mohamed said. He said he speaks English and Swahili at home, and began learning English when he was 4 or 5.

The number of Somali students excelling will grow as more learn the language and culture, said Curriculum and Instruction Director Janice Plourde.

Having to learn English “they’re really running catch up.” With more who have been in Lewiston three or more years, they’re learning English and the culture, which helps them in school, she said.

It won’t be long before some will graduate from Lewiston High at the top of their class, Plourde predicted. “It’s really exciting to see these kids move up.”

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