PORTLAND – “It’s more than wonderful!” exclaimed Kamal Karimi, an Iranian student, upon seeing the new home for Portland Adult Education in the former Kavanagh School. He wrote a letter to school and city officials and attended a rally last June. Now he bore witness to the success of his civic action.
Kamal wasn’t alone in his joy. After all the work advocating for a new home for Portland Adult Education, a stream of happy students filled the halls recently, volunteering to help unpack and set up as the program settled into its new location.
At Portland Adult Education, we work with thousands of students every year. We equip hundreds of learners with new or improved English language skills. We offer vital workforce development training to hundreds of workers. We provide hundreds of students with GED and high school credentials, and prepare many more for a shot at college they wouldn’t otherwise have.
However, as we prepare to return for another academic year, the work we’re most proud of is the hardest to quantify.
It’s what a new English speaker’s skills mean for his children as they enter kindergarten at Ocean Avenue.
It’s what the new job skills mean for everyone who sits around the dinner table of a newly promoted worker in Portland’s East End.
It’s the young woman, diploma in hand, who is ready to enroll at Southern Maine Community College and become the first person in her family to go to college.
Every year, students gain not just essential knowledge and vital job skills, but also a new sense of community and of citizenship. As one student from Burundi said, “Little by little, I learn English and I become more participative in the American life.”
At no time has this been more evident than over the past several months as students and staff have worked with Portland Public Schools and the city of Portland to find a new home for Portland Adult Education.
As our home of more than 25 years began literally to fall down around us, our students and staff were faced with a crisis. We had just a few months to find a new home and to keep our community alive and well. For many, including me at times, this was a daunting task.
But our staff — and above all else, our students — had hope. Our students knew that Portland is a city that values education and that if we worked together, we could find a solution.
While Portland has always been a city that’s committed to education, the voices of Portland Adult Education students and supporters brought attention to an issue that was at risk of falling off the radar.
Through letters, emails and conversations, people spoke up for Portland Adult Education. Fortunately, in a great city like Portland, they were heard. Hearing those voices, Portland came together — the school department, the city and countless others — and worked right up to the buzzer to find a solution.
For this trimester, Portland Adult Education’s academic program will be housed at the former Kavanagh School, under one not-leaking roof, while job-skills classes will continue to be held at the Riverton School.
In the meantime, a task force with representatives from the school department, the city and Portland Adult Education will convene to work on a plan to find or create a single, long-term home for all adult education programming in Portland.
For many students, especially new Americans, this process was a crash course in democracy and civic engagement — the best civics lesson anyone could ever ask for — and the lesson was all the better because the system worked.
As one student said in her letter, “Imagine an immigrant who came to the United States without speaking or understanding any English, but now can write her opinion to the press. That is my testimony to the importance of adult education.”
In Portland, we don’t have to imagine such a wonderful thing. We’ve seen it happen.
Rob Wood is director of Portland Adult Education in Portland Public Schools.