Even seated, I could tell she was short. From her desk chair, her feet dangled slightly, an inch or two maybe, above the ground. She stroked her hijab, which was wound tightly around her forehead. As her eyebrows rose, her forehead rippled into a few straight lines. She was thinking hard. I held up a card and inhaled sharply. She knew this one.

“What does this say?”

I was met with a look of panic. She knew that she had seen this mass of characters before, but couldn’t quite make a correlation between the lines and curves on the flashcard and the sounds that her mouth was supposed to make. Another second passed.

“Sound it out.”

“C … Ahh … T. Caaattt. Cat? Cat!”

The moment of triumph hit us like lightning. After months of rotating through the alphabet and reading the same picture books over and over, she was finally able to read for consonant sounds.

This student had come to Portland in the middle of the school year. Her arrival here marked the first time she’d ever attended school. She was 19 years old and spoke multiple languages but could not count above 10 in any of them. She could neither read nor write.

In many cases, English language learning (referred to as ELL or ESL in shorthand) students have extensive prior experience with education and with learning other languages. As a student volunteer in the Portland Public Schools, I encountered students who could read, write and speak five or six languages.

For these students there is a precedent of formal schooling, making the part of their brain that aids them in language acquisition fully developed and frequently exercised. This does not mean that learning English always comes easily to them. But, according to many academic studies, there is a clear correlation between a student’s grounding in academic subjects and their advancement within the ESL system.

Still, a significant number of ESL students have never had access to schooling. Some have had their educations interrupted by war, gang violence or extreme poverty. For these students, many of them in their late teens, language learning may not come so easily. These students require language immersion and constant attention in the classroom.

ESL classrooms, however, are not always able to facilitate a traditional classroom atmosphere because of extenuating circumstances. Students who have come to America, some seeking asylum, are simultaneously juggling learning a new language and dealing with the legal and practical details of resettling. In many cases, these classrooms are underfunded and understaffed. In an introductory English class, the student-to-teacher ratio can be as high as 20-to-1.

I spent the last two years of high school tutoring in an ESL classroom. During that time, I worked with and befriended many fellow students who found themselves in incredibly vulnerable situations. Some feared deportation. Some worked long shifts on school nights to help support their families. For a lot of them, school provided a refuge and a support system. But it is not always easy for teenagers, whether or not they’re fluent in English, to separate their personal lives from their lives in the classroom.

In February, Gov. LePage came out in support of President Trump’s immigration ban. The second draft of the ban, which continues to be contested in federal appeals courts, bars immigrants from six predominantly Muslim nations. The charged anti-immigrant rhetoric of Gov. LePage and President Trump only makes the jobs of ESL teachers and students harder. It makes students who were not born here feel as though they do not belong. It politicizes the concept of access to education, something that should be a bipartisan issue.

Gov. LePage’s proposed two-year education budget calls for a spending cap of $1 billion, which is a 2 percent decrease from last year. In the city of Portland alone, the governor intends to cut $2 million from the public school system, the Portland Press Herald has reported. The Department of Education under the LePage administration has, on its yearly report cards, given the majority of institutions in the Portland Public Schools C’s, D’s or F’s. How does the governor expect failing (and already underfunded) schools to improve with these budget cuts?

For students who attend Maine’s public schools in the hopes of learning English in their new homes, decreased funding could be devastating. Less money means fewer resources and even less one-on-one time with teachers. If LePage’s budget passes, kids studying hard for their moments of triumph – their “Cat!” moments – may be left in the dark.

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