South Portland Adult Education is making it easier for Fayeleen Forest to complete her high school education.

Forest, 30, left school at age 15. But now she’s taking adult education courses at South Portland High School, and is on her way to earning a high school equivalency diploma in the city where she lives, instead of having to commute over the bridge to Portland.

“I think it’s more convenient because I don’t drive. I walk,” Forest said.

Until South Portland started its adult education program two years ago, city residents had to travel to another community to take adult education courses. And getting to class in some other city or town was too difficult for them, school officials say, or the demand for courses in other communities was so great that they could only add their names to a long waiting list.

But ever since the South Portland School Department began offering adult education in September 2008, the program has been taking off. An increasing number of city residents – as well as residents of other communities – have been signing up to take advantage of new opportunities to learn.

The program, held in the evenings at the high school, started with five classes and about 50 students, according to Jody Meredith, program coordinator.

This semester, it’s offering about 15 classes and has more than 100 students, she said. The classes include computer Web design, English for speakers of other languages, conversational Spanish and beginning and continuing Arabic.

School Superintendent Suzanne Godin, who led the effort to create an adult education program in the city, said, “We’ve expanded to include other courses and options for students and our enrollment so far has exceeded all our expectations.”

It was to help South Portland adults further their academic knowledge that the program was instituted, according to school officials.

Godin said the city was seeing an increasing number of immigrant community members who don’t speak English. Also, she said, the community includes a number of high school dropouts and families living in poverty.

Those are all groups that need to improve their academic skills “so they can be more marketable in the workplace,” Godin said.

Communities neighboring South Portland – such as Portland, Scarborough and Westbrook – all have adult education programs. Yet South Portland, Maine’s fourth largest municipality, lacked such a program, Godin said.

South Portland does offer a wide range of adult enrichment courses through its Parks and Recreation Department. Residents this winter can take classes that range from quilting to tai chi to acrylic painting.

However, academic classes that help people earn high school diplomas or prepare for college were lacking. That’s where South Portland Adult Education now fills the gap.

“We felt it was our responsibility as a school department to provide programs for South Portland adults to learn those academic skills,” Godin said. “We have a vision and a mission and a belief system that says South Portland is a community of learning. It’s a fundamental right of all.”

The budget for South Portland Adult Education this year is $39,000, she said. A state adult education grant covers $19,000 of that cost and the rest comes from the school department budget, Godin said.

Some classes are free, such as the ones that prepare students to earn their high school diplomas and the English classes for speakers of other languages, although students must pay a book fee.

Moderate fees are charged for the other classes, such as the Arabic course or the computer courses. Fees are the same for residents and non-residents.

Students don’t have to live in the city to take adult education classes in South Portland. Meredith said that some come from surrounding communities such as Scarborough or Cape Elizabeth or communities as far away as Bar Mills. However, most are city residents, she said.

Some of the students, such as Sharazad Nuur, of South Portland, are new to learning English.

Nuur, 41, is a Somali immigrant who wants to learn to speak, write and read English well so she can get a job. She used to take courses at Portland Adult Education, but said it is easier now to take classes in the city where she lives.

Ricardo Arcia, 31, is one of Nuur’s classmates in an intermediate English for speakers of other languages class. He’s from El Salvador and also took English classes in Portland. But he lives in South Portland so prefers to study closer to home. “I don’t have to cross the bridge anymore,” he said.

Ana Torres is also from El Salvador, but is a Portland resident. Still, she said she prefers to study in South Portland because she said the English classes in the Portland adult education program are too crowded.

“I like this,” she said of her advanced English class in the South Portland program. With fewer students, she said, “we can practice more.”

Deb Smith, the teacher for the English class in which Nuur and Arcia are students, said learning English not only benefits the adults in her class but also the children that some of them have in the public schools.

“It’s really important to have parents learning English,” she said.

When the parents know English they can read the reports and messages their children bring home from school and become more involved in the schools and their children’s learning, she said.

“They can be better advocates for their children in school,” Smith said.

In addition to classes for students learning to speak English, there are a variety of other classes designed for those who want to improve their academic knowledge for a wide range of reasons.

For example, Gavin Roberts, 30, a chef originally from South Africa, is taking a class called The American Dream in Poetry and Prose to brush up on academic skills before attending Southern Maine Technical College. He wants to get a liberal arts degree.

Meredith, the program coordinator, said students in the Arabic course are studying the language for a variety of reasons. She said the students include people who work in social service agencies and want to be able to communicate with their immigrant clients, as well as those who want to join the United States Foreign Service.

Also, she said, one student who is studying Arabic also is taking classes to learn to speak English. That student speaks Arabic, Meredith said, but never learned to read and write that language so welcomes that opportunity now.

“Adult education is really a great place to work,” Meredith said. “Everyone who is there really wants to be there and you see people’s lives change as the result of education.”

Sharazad Nuur of South Portland uses the city’s adult education program because she doesn’t have to travel far to get to class. Nuur said she is taking an English class to prepare her for the workforce. (Staff photo by Tess Nacelewicz)

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