Somali students finding success in Maine

Shobow Saban stands with his mother, Bilow Farah, a few days before his graduation from Lewiston High School earlier this month.
Amber Waterman/Sun Journal | Amber Waterman/ Sun Journal
Shobow Saban stands with his mother, Bilow Farah, a few days before his graduation from Lewiston High School earlier this month.
Posted June 12, 2011, at 9:50 p.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — It’s a quiet success story, says Lewiston High School Principal Gus LeBlanc.

Ten years after Somalis began moving to Lewiston, their children are doing well in school, he said.

At the graduation ceremony June 3 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, groups of Somalis enthusiastically cheered their graduates.

Each graduate is given 10 tickets to the graduation. Some Somali graduates asked for 30 because their friends and family all wanted to be there.

More are graduating from high school. More are at Central Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

The high school this year had 40 English language learners in their fourth year. Most ELL students are Somali. Of those 40, 21 graduated June 3, and three will graduate Aug. 11, LeBlanc said.

Another 14 will return this fall for a fifth year, with 72 percent on track to graduate in 2012.

Two aged out, which means they’re referred to Lewiston Adult Education to complete their high school education. Maine law says students cannot attend high school after age 20.

“There has been a steady increase in the academic success of students, reductions in their failure rates and increases in their graduation rates,” LeBlanc said.

Parents factor in success

One reason, he said, is the parents.

“Family support, encouragement and expectations have a lot to do with student success,” he said. “A tribute to the Somali community is appropriate. They value education.”

LeBlanc said he’s seen significant gains for ELL students in math. “Language comprehension still lags behind, but this is their second language,” he said.

Somali students are athletes, they participate in clubs and organizations, and are class officers.

That is a lot, LeBlanc said, “when you think what it must be like to come to a new country where society is different, the language is different. You have to learn a new language and at the same time learn academic content.”

Some still struggle

Not all are successful.

Some, especially those who show up for high school without ever having been in school or were in school only briefly, are struggling.

ELL students are often frustrated that they don’t progress faster out of ELL courses, which don’t always count as credit toward the diploma.

Learning English takes time, LeBlanc said. And to succeed the rigors of high school classes, they must speak English, read and comprehend an expansive vocabulary.

Numbers show that more ELL graduates “make the initial leap” to college, but a higher percentage don’t make it compared to the regular population, LeBlanc said. He’s said he’s not sure why.

College participation grows

At Central Maine Community College, this year’s graduating class was the most diverse in the school’s history, with 8.5 percent coming from minority groups.

The college could not provide numbers for Somali grads because it does not record students’ nationalities.

“We know the Somali population has been increasing just by looking at students in our classes,” said Roger Philippon, dean of Planning and Public Affairs. “We estimate the Somali population has doubled in the last five years. We expect the increase to continue.”

Jan Phillips, associate dean at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, said the number of Somali students is small but growing. She could not provide numbers because the college does not track a students’ ethnic backgrounds.

The college is seeing two kinds of Somali students, Phillips said. Some are older and have had some higher education in Africa, and others are adults who want an education.

Phillips said one Somali woman got her high school equivalency diploma at Lewiston Adult Education, then her associate degree from Central Maine Community College and a bachelor’s degree at L-A College.

“Now she’s doing graduate studies in New York City,” Phillips said.

The college is also seeing younger Somali students.

“If you walk the halls, we’re really starting to see the children of immigrants going through school just like any other American,” she said.

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