June 29, 2013

Maine Voices: Portland Adult Ed helps English language learners adjust to new world

The program, which gives hope to immigrants from troubled regions, needs an adequate home.

By JEAN-BAPTISTE MUAMBA

PORTLAND - Last winter, when the Portland Adult Education school scheduled the placement test for new students, I woke up at 4 a.m. waiting for the friend who would take me to 57 Douglass St.

click image to enlarge

Teacher Judy Storer, now retired, sounds out letters to Natalina Olim and other English language students at Portland Adult Education in 2007. The school that’s housed the program is being closed.

2007 File Photo/John Ewing

We planned to be the first on the line, but we reached the West School (after getting lost) at around 4:43 a.m. to find the line already set up. I was the ninth in line, freezing, without gloves, but wearing a heavy coat to keep warm.

At 6 a.m., we were more than 60 people of different ages, nationalities and educational backgrounds waiting to take the test and facing the cold. The building opened at 7:45 a.m., and we could rush to the warm inside for registration. Then we were separated in classrooms to be tested.

We had to wait two more months to be called to attend classes. I was enrolled in adult education English as a Second Language Level 4 three mornings a week at Portland High School.

This year, I continued taking classes, this time at Douglass Street. During the class day, so many languages are spoken in the hallways there -- French, Somali, Arabic, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Spanish, Russian, Farsi and more -- that we can imagine what the Tower of Babel in the Bible was.

What these foreign speakers have in common is that we all want to be able to communicate in English. Classes are adapted to every need, from literacy to advanced levels such as academics, job skills, computers and language arts. The school contributes to the adaptation of the immigrants and the refugees to American culture and to mastering English.

I didn't just take classes. I also attended workshops and volunteered in the office through the workfare program. I saw and participated in many activities that have improved my life in the United States of America.

One evening recently, well-known authors came to the school to share how they create novels and stories. They explained how they get their inspiration from the natural world, from other people and from reading and learning. This was an inspiring thing for me, and a great change from how education is in my country. There, accomplished writers would never speak to regular students that way. They would not be accessible to average people.

Later I attended the graduation ceremony at Merrill Auditorium and saw some of my friends and classmates receive their diplomas. This ceremony was a proof of the great role of this adult education school in Portland.

It helps people get their GED certificates and diplomas so they can attend college or return to their professions. This is especially important for those of us from troubled places in the world. We lose hope for our futures. Adult education can give it back.

Unfortunately, the Douglass Street building is leaking and in bad shape, the waiting list is rising and we do not know where we will be next semester.

At the end of this current semester, we were very apprehensive for our future. We were told our program could be divided into many locations, with no center to call home.

Portland Adult Education is the way to sustain and improve our English skills, integrate with U.S. values and culture, adapt to U.S. technologies and become a community with other English language learners.

When I came here, I was an associate engineer in electronics, but I could not get a job. This is the place that will help me return to my field and my sense of security.

We need an adequate building -- one central place that is easy for most of us to reach -- to help us to reach our hopes and dreams. Please don't let us stay outside in the cold.

Jean-Baptiste Muamba came to Maine from his native Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012. He now lives in Portland, where he hopes his family can be reunited in the future.

 

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