Susan Slee, English Language Learners teacher at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, works with students during a math class March 19. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

LEWISTON — After her English Language Learner students filed into a Montello Elementary School classroom on a recent morning, teacher Susan Slee announced they would work on math word problems.

Susan Slee, English Language Learners teacher at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, works with students at a recent class. English Language Learners make up 28 percent of the student population in Lewiston’s public schools. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

The math objective, she and her fourth-graders read aloud, was to solve multi-digit multiplication problems.

“What’s multi-digit?” Slee asked.

“More than one number,” a boy answered.

“Nice remembering,” Slee said.

The small class read its language objective: “I can read and understand multiplication word problems.”

Each pair of two students solved problems such as: “Some of the books came from 4 countries that Bryan had visited; he collected 122 books per country. How many books does he have from those 4 countries?”

The number of English Language Learner students make up about 28 percent of the student population in Lewiston public schools. Lewiston School Department

Asked how they figured the answer, one boy explained: “We read how many books does he have. What we chose to do was 4 times 122.” The correct answer, he said: 488.

After students solved the problems, they practiced public speaking by sharing their answers with the class.

The scene is “100 percent” typical of English Language Learners classes in Lewiston public schools, program Director Hilary Barber.

“Students are motivated to learn,” she said. “They’re excited to be there. They’re ready to go.”

The number of English Language Learners in Lewiston public schools is almost 1,500, down slightly from 1,548 in October 2018. They represent about 28 percent of the student population.

While the number is up from 1,190 in 2013, overall the growth has slowed, according to Superintendent Bill Webster.

The most common language spoken by these students at home is Somali, Barber said. Other common languages are Portuguese, spoken by families from Angola; French, spoken by students from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda; and Swahili, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.

The School Department is poised to hire an assistant director for the program at a salary of $60,000.

An education and access to learning English is part of a student’s civil rights, Barber said.

“We’re at a point now that in order for us to continue to be able to do that, there needs to be another administrator,” Barber said.

The program costs about $1.5 million a year, paid by the state.

Overall, graduation rates and academic performance of English Language Learners is similar to other students, Webster said.

With students arriving from other countries needing to learn to speak English, it is a challenge to accelerate their learning “and get them caught up with academics so they can graduate within a four to five year period,” Barber said. “These kids make so much growth in such a short amount of time.”

Education is a priority among parents of English Language Learners, many of whom came from African countries where education was not free or accessible to all, Barber said. Their attendance at parent-teacher conferences is high. “They really want to work to support the teachers and the school system,” Barber said. “They want their children to graduate from high school and are really looking for the college opportunity.”

Abdikadir Negeye, the Lewiston father of two students, said there’s room for improvement in the ELL program but he’s satisfied. “Our children receive the best advice from their parents, do well and school and listen to their teachers.”

Immigrants value education more than anything, he said. “Many parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend school in their home country. Therefore, this is a great opportunity for their children.” When Somali parents greet each other, they quickly ask how the children are doing in school, he said, adding they want every child to do well in school.

More ELL students are graduating from high school, going to college or vocational training. That, Negeye said, is expanding opportunity, filling jobs “and contributing to the economic betterment of our city and state.”

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