PORTLAND — Elmi Hoche, 35, an immigrant from the African nation of Djibouti, was studying English at Portland Adult Education in September when he landed a job at L.L. Bean in Freeport.
Lacking a car, he moved to Lewiston for a month so he could get rides to work from someone who lived there. That month’s absence from Portland put an end to his English lessons. When Hoche tried to sign up for another class, he was told there was no opening for him.
“I want to learn,” he said. “But they say, ‘You are done. You have to go on the waiting list.’ ”
He remains on that list today. Along with 160 others.
Portland Adult Education, part of the city’s school system, offers 30 English language courses. Enrollment in them has been growing since the 2008-09 school year, when 777 students took courses. There were 919 students in 2010-11, and 870 have enrolled in the first two trimesters of 2011-12, putting this year on a record pace.
At the same time, the program is experiencing budget cuts. From this year to next year, it will lose three full-time-equivalent teaching positions. It has also lost administrative and janitorial positions.
With demand exceeding the program’s resources, immigrants typically wait three to six months for openings, said Rob Wood, director of Portland Adult Education. On average, four people ask Wood every day if there’s an opening.
“It’s very hard for an educator to say ‘no’ repeatedly to students who want to come to school,” he said.
The classes – English for Speakers of Other Languages – are free, and are offered at the West School, Franklin Towers and the Riverton Park Community Center. Some are closed to new students, and 18 have waiting lists. The only openings are in courses for the most advanced students and for novices.
The courses account for nearly 70 percent of the budget for Portland Adult Education. That budget has been on the decline in recent years. It was $1.65 million in fiscal 2010-11, it is $1.6 million this year, and the proposed budget for 2012-13 is $1.4 million.
The reductions are a response to declining revenue from the state and federal governments, said Superintendent Jim Morse. Over the past three years, the school system has lost $12 million in state and local funding, while local taxpayers have increased their spending by $7 million to help make up the difference.
“There is only so much that local taxpayers can do to cover for the losses,” Morse said.
Mayor Michael Brennan, who met with Wood on Monday to discuss the waiting list, said it’s unfair to ask immigrants to get jobs and participate more in their children’s education while not providing enough help for them to learn English.
Brennan said it would cost a little over $70,000 to reduce the waiting list, and he wants to work with the school board and the City Council to find that money in the budget.
“It should be a top priority to get people in a situation where they acquire the English language as quickly as possible,” Brennan said.
Students in the program come from 62 countries. The largest group is from Somalia – 377 students enrolled this year.
The fastest-growing group is from central Africa, including Burundi, Rwanda, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A total of 180 students from central African nations are enrolled this year. Many, like Hoche, have been granted asylum in the United States because of religious or political persecution, or have applied for asylum status.
Most of the immigrants from central Africa speak several languages, including French. Wood said French speakers can pick up English quicker than someone who speaks Arabic or Somali.
He said most of the immigrants from central Africa are well educated and worked as professionals in their home countries.
“They are very eager, very good students,” said Valerie DeVuyst, who teaches English language classes and works as the program’s coordinator. “They do progress very quickly once they get in.”
No statistics are available on numbers of immigrants in the city, and it’s unclear why people from central Africa are moving to Portland, said Hayden Anderson, interim executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.
Immigrants from central Africa overcome a lot just to get to Portland, so the waiting list is just one more barrier they will overcome, he said.
“These people are go-getters,” he said. “They have not come to Portland to live out their lives on public benefits. They have come to make money for themselves and their families. English classes are not going to be a waste on these people.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: