LEWISTON — More students from immigrant families are graduating from high school and going to college.

Lewiston has 1,374 English Language Learner students, of which the largest group is Somali.

In 2011, 21 of 40 ELL seniors graduated in June.

In 2016, 70 of 80 ELL students graduated in June. The total number of students who marched June 20 was 215.

The 10 ELL students who didn’t graduate are not giving up. Seven are returning to high school in the fall for a fifth year, said Katelin Paquette, director of Student Services at the high school. Three of the 10 aged out and have been referred to Lewiston Adult Education. Seniors age out if they turn 20 before the school year begins.

The high number of ELL graduates doesn’t surprise Principal Shawn Chabot.

“It’s a credit to that population and their willingness to work hard,” he said. Many immigrant families “value education and see it as an opportunity, whereas some of the non-ELL families may take it for granted.” 

“This tremendous improvement is a testament to both the value that our immigrant families place on education, and the strength of our ELL program,” said Superintendent Bill Webster. “I want to be clear, however, that we still have much work before us.”

Lewiston needs to provide students with different pathways where they can all be successful graduating from high school and preparing for a career or college, Webster said.

Chabot said the faculty doesn’t single out the ELL population.

“We see them as the totality of who we are,” he said. “The bottom line is they’re all our kids. I want them to all be successful, and hold the standards so the diploma means something. We’re not just handing it out.”

Some of the ELL students were born in Lewiston, others moved here and didn’t speak any English, knew a little or were hearing another language spoken at home. They’ve had to learn or improve their English to do well in school.

In many African countries public education isn’t provided to all children; families have to pay for it. That means some of Lewiston’s ELL students arrived with little or no schooling, in addition to not knowing the language.

Refugees from African countries endured ongoing war and violence. Most families fled Somalia by walking to refugee camps in Kenya, sometimes losing their young and old along the way.

“These families, the parents have come from such hard places,” Chabot said. “They realize the opportunity they have in school for their kids. So they push them. They instill in them that work ethic.”

ELL students also push themselves, Chabot said. “A lot take early college courses. They’re looking for more opportunities to become stronger, well-rounded students.”

Besides students’ work ethic, Chabot credited his teachers with “doing a good job.”

Once ELL students know enough English, they’re mainstreamed into regular classes. That means regular teachers have to differentiate how they teach to meet the needs of all students. “Not lower your standards, but teach in a different way,” Chabot said. “It’s a success story on how hard our teachers are working.”

Heading to college

Rilwan Osman and Julia Sleeper run private, nonprofit Lewiston programs to help immigrant youths.

Osman is executive director of Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services, an organization that provides youth soccer, citizenship classes, language lessons, tutoring and homework mentoring.

The majority of students from Somali Bantu families who graduate from high school go to college, Osman said. Of the Somali Bantu populations resettled in the United States, “we have the highest high school graduation rates and highest number of youth going to college,” he said.

He said he knows that because his organization tracks each high school and college student. “We know the parents.”

Sleeper runs the Tree Street Youth Center, which provides youths with tutoring, enrichment programs and help getting ready for college. In the past five years, more of her seniors are graduating and going to college, Sleeper said.

“This year we have 31 seniors working with us, every one was working toward applying to some sort of college,” Sleeper said. “As kids become more exposed to different career paths, students realize college is an important and powerful step in their future.”

At Lewiston Adult Education, classes are full of Somali immigrants and those from other countries. Director Bill Grant said 1,367 adult students are learning English. Some have high school credentials from their home countries and are developing English reading, writing and speaking skills to gain employment or to prepare for college.

Grant said that excluding enrichment classes, ELL students make up half of the adult ed population.

At Central Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College the number of immigrant students has increased annually.

“It’s growing,” said Pat Hager of USM-LAC. “They are adding a rich dimension to our population, particularly in student government. A lot of our Somali students are recent high school graduates or transfers from Central Maine Community College.”

The college opened a Multicultural Center last fall because the college saw a need, Hager said. “We wanted to have a resource center and a place for multicultural students to gather.”

At Central Maine Community College, Dean of Planning Roger Philippon used the word “remarkable” to describe how diverse the student body has become.

The college doesn’t track the ethnic backgrounds of students. “We estimate approximately 20 percent of our students are from minority groups,” Philippon said.

“One need only walk the halls between classes to see evidence of this.”

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Lewiston High School’s rising rate of English Language Learner graduates

Year     ELL seniors     # of ELL seniors graduating

2011      40                         21

2016      80                         70

Total number of graduating seniors at Lewiston High School in 2016: 215

“It’s a credit to that population and their willingness to work hard.” Many immigrant families “value education and see it as an opportunity, whereas some of the non-ELL families may take it for granted.”

— Lewiston High School Principal Shawn Chabot

“This tremendous improvement is a testament to both the value that our immigrant families place on education, and the strength of our ELL program. I want to be clear, however, that we still have much work before us.”

— Lewiston schools Superintendent Bill Webster


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