May 20, 2013

Portland program clears path to college for immigrants

City schools provide guidance for those unfamiliar with the complex system of SATs, student aid and more.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Like many high school juniors, Sahara Hassan, 17, is thinking about college these days. Her hard work at Deering High School has paid off with good grades, and her writing talent has already caught the attention of some professional writers in Portland.

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Dejaunie Madourie, 14, a Portland High freshman, works on English homework last week with the help of AmeriCorps worker Erica Small, right, as part of an after-school program called Make it Happen!

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Deering High School junior Sahara Hassan, 17, at home with her father, Mohamed Hassan, said it’s unlikely she would have done anything about college if not for Make it Happen!

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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But her father, Mohamed Hassan, 50, doesn't know how to help her take the next big step in her life -- college.

Mohamed Hassan grew up in Somalia and lived with his family for 16 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He has no formal education. The SATs, college application forms, financial aid packages, college tours -- all of them are a mystery.

"There is a lot I don't understand about school," he said, speaking in Somali though a translator at his apartment in the Riverton Park housing project. "For example, I would not know how much she has learned, how far that she has yet to go, where to go."

Helping a child make the transition from high school to college is a daunting and perplexing task for native-born middle class Americans. For poor immigrant families, it can seem impossible.

The Portland School District is trying to lower that barrier with Make it Happen! -- a modest but innovative program that started at Deering High five years ago and now operates in the city's three public high schools. It's open to any student for whom English is a second language.

"We try to help anybody who walks through the door," said Tim Cronin, the project's coordinator and the only full-time staff person paid by Portland schools.

In addition to Cronin, a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer works at each high school.

In the afternoons, volunteer "academic coaches," many of them retirees, work with students one-on-one on homework and academic projects. More than 40 volunteers are working this year with about 200 students in the three schools.

More than half of the students are at Deering High. The idea came from a student from Sudan who thought the school needed to do more to help immigrant students take academics seriously, said Grace Valenzuela, who oversees the school system's Multilingual & Multicultural Center.

This is the first year it is being implemented at Portland High School. To get the program started, an ed tech who specializes in helping immigrant students in the classroom works for the program in the afternoon.

Although aimed at getting students to college, the program begins working with students in their freshman year because that's when they start making decisions about what kind of courses they take. They need to know what colleges are looking for in an academic profile, Cronin said.

To improve that profile, students are encouraged to take part in programs that develop leadership skills, such as working as a counselor at the Seeds of Peace summer camp or at the Young Writer & Leaders program at the Telling Room, a nonprofit in Portland.

Sahara Hassan, the Somali student, is one of the writing program's top talents and has published two essays in Telling Room anthologies. She'll be attending a writing workshop this summer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

She said she plans to apply to college at UMass Boston, the University of Southern Maine and also Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Sahara said she could not imagine going to college without help from the staff and volunteers at Make it Happen!

"Without them, I don't think I would have done anything," she said.

Three weeks ago, a bus filled with about 40 freshmen and sophomores in the program from the three high schools traveled to the University of Maine in Orono for a tour of the campus.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Faizal Alwakeel, right, said college for her daughter Melak Al Qayyar, 19, seemed to be financially out of reach. But Make it Happen! helped get Melak a scholarship to Clark University.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer


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