Imagine a dance party that is a melting pot of cultures – including Cambodian, Iraqi, Chinese, Bolivian and Namibian, among others. A woman in Sudanese dress hula hooping. A belly dancer swing dancing in a sari.

Last weekend’s eighth annual Rock Around the World fundraiser for the Multilingual Summer Academic Program in Portland was its most successful to date – raising more than $14,000 through ticket sales, a silent auction and sponsorships with United Way of Greater Portland.

Nearly 30 percent of all students in the Portland public schools are multilingual, with top language groups being Somali, Arabic, Acholi, Khmer and Spanish. The annual Rock Around the World fundraiser makes it possible for about 150 of the newest refugee students to receive four weeks of intensive summer school to maintain and further develop English language skills gained during the school year.

“I was looking for a fundraising activity that the multilingual parents themselves can share their culture food, music, and dancing,” said Grace Valenzuela, director of the Multilingual Center. “At this event, we exchange roles. We are the learners and they are the teachers.”

The crowd of  about 250 included teachers passionate about their work as well as adults who came to the United States as refugees from various countries years ago and want to give back to the region’s newest English-language learners.

“We all came as refugees,” said Danijela Markez, a member of the Serbian dance group Sokolica, which practices weekly and performs at multicultural events and Greek festivals in the Greater Portland area. About 100 Serbian families in the region have formed a tight-knit community and worship at a Serbian Orthodox church in Biddeford.

An even smaller group of refugees came from Kurdistan to the Portland area about 12 years ago.

“We’re U.S. citizens now,” said Azad Salvati, one of a group of Kurdish dancers showcased.

“I’m just amazed at all the different dances,” said Jessica Blanchard of Gray.

“All the different cultures – I think it’s incredible,” added her husband, Jim Blanchard. “It’s a wonderful place to celebrate it.”

“Look at the rich culture we have in Portland,” said Regina Phillips, who works with the City of Portland Refugee Services. “You can see it here; look at these people in one room with different food, dress, and dances. It’s all for one reason – the kids. If the parents can’t come together, how can we expect the kids to come together?”

Judging by the packed hall at the Italian Heritage Center and profitable silent auction, the community did come together. More than 230 items were donated for the auction in a variety of categories, from handcrafted jewelry to restaurant gift certificates to theme baskets such as the popular “Downton Abbey” basket.

The summer program offered by the Multilingual Center provides four hours a day of instruction in English, with a focus on reading, writing, and math.

“I think it’s a huge help that they don’t have to take months off from continuing their English language instruction,” said Priya Natarajan, a teacher at Deering High School who emigrated from India at the age of 5. “They have more opportunity for success during the school year.”

“The data that is out there for summer school is even more powerful than for Head Start,” said Sally Connolly, a former intern at the Multicultural Center. “And this is especially true for kids whose first language is not English.”

“When they go home, they’re speaking another language,” said Don Bishop, who started teaching English-language learners at Deering High School just a few weeks ago. “As much exposure to English as they can get is really good for them.”

About 20 percent of the students at Deering are just learning English, he said.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s more than that,” said Shana Genre, who also teaches English at Deering.

But she’s encouraged by the number of refugee students now entering college prep and honors classes as they move through high school. “It’s great to see their growth,” she said.

ESL students from Deering give pep talks to younger English-language learners before they take assessment tests, Genre explained. “It really builds a sense of pride and ambition,” she said.

Mallory Haar, who teaches English-language learners at Lyman Moore Middle School, says that the extraordinary success among refugee students is based partly on the schools’ culture of acceptance.

“It’s about the culture of the school, not just about language. That’s what Portland is doing well,” Haar said. “And I get to help kids to be part of school by giving them bridges into the language that they need to be successful. It’s the best and most exciting population. I have the best job.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough. She can be reached at:
[email protected]