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Grants help more South Portland asylum seekers learn English

The Maine Department of Education and John T. Gorman Foundation gave South Portland Adult Education $360,450 in grant money to help new Mainers.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — If you grew up in Maine, it's an experience you likely have never had: fleeing your home country to escape violence and landing in a foreign place with a language unfamiliar to you. 

For thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants, though, that's a reality every day. It's why there's a push to help new Mainers better adapt to their new homes.

South Portland Adult Education serves anyone outside of the pre-K through grade 12 range, from people looking to learn English to those who want to finish their high school credentials. It's one of 70 adult education programs statewide. 

Recently, SPAE received a $260,450 Strengthening Maine's Adult Workforce grant from the Maine Department of Education. That money, and an additional $100,000 from the John T. Gorman Foundation, is helping SPAE expand its English language programming.

"We’re really excited to see the opportunity South Portland has to serve the people and its community in a more meaningful way," Megan Dichter, the state director of adult education per the Maine DOE, said.

Dichter said the Strengthening Maine's Adult Workforce grant is part of American Rescue Plan Act funding, designed to help industries and populations most impacted by COVID-19. She said she expects the money will be significant for South Portland, which has a growing multilingual population.

"Populations have moved around to where there was room for them, and South Portland is one of those places," Dichter said.

"It’s essential because it’s beneficial to both the students, and also it’s beneficial to us as the community," Nicole Araujo, an English language teacher at SPAE, said.

Araujo teaches two beginner English classes and one intermediate class. She said she has between 20 and 30 people in every class. Students are typically from places like Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda, fleeing a violent environment in search of a more peaceful one.

"I love seeing students succeed, even seeing them show up when they’re not succeeding," Araujo said. "Honestly, just showing up is enormously commendable."

Araujo said learning English can help people become more independent and better communicate with their children's teachers, find health care, and get jobs. She said they also then eventually start working and paying income tax.

"They’re able to be more immersed in the community [and] contribute to the community in a way that’s really meaningful," Araujo said.

Antoinette Mwiza and Tutuma Selipa are two of Araujo's students. Mwiza arrived in Maine from Rwanda in September of 2021 in search of health care for her husband whose kidneys are failing. She has an 18-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. Selipa came to Maine four months ago and is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She's here with her husband and young daughter. 

Mwiza and Selipa have similar reasons for taking English language classes. 

"I want to help my family. I don’t want my daughter to suffer like me. I suffered in the past. I just want a better life," Selipa said.

"I want to take some classes or some training because when I get a certificate I can go to work," Mwiza said.

Timothy Matheney, superintendent of the South Portland School Department, said his team plans to continue listening to the needs of the community to figure out what other adult education programs are needed. He said the work goes far beyond the classroom.

"We know that school districts with a really robust adult education program really complement the pre-K through 12 programs," Matheney said. "Adults who are great role models as learners themselves really support their children’s learning."

Dichter said the Maine DOE has funded eight programs so far with Strengthening Maine's Adult Workforce grants, totaling $3.2 million, but there's still money left. She said final applications are due February 7. 

If you're interested in joining an adult education class near you, click here

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