Portland schools aim to stem immigrants' 'summer slide'

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PORTLAND — Most students probably aren’t thinking about school right now, and would probably balk at the notion of attending in the summer.

But for dozens of students, many of whom are recent immigrants, summer school is a necessary place.

The Multilingual Summer Program, which is run by the Portland Public Schools Multilingual and Multicultural Center, is a four-week program for selected students in middle and high school. It aims to prevent the loss of academic skills over the summer, maintain gains from the school year, and increase language development.

Grace Valenzuela, the center’s director, said the program has been going since the 1990s, with the goal of helping English Language Learners maintain and get caught up on work.

“It’s critical because we a have a lot students … who are new to this country,” Valenzuela said. 

Kathleen Bouchard, who runs the summer program, said academically speaking, it prevents a “summer slide” by the students. She said the students in the program are chosen based on an English proficiency test score for the four-week program that runs Monday through Thursday for four hours a day.

Reading, writing and math are taught, with a special block each day for subjects such as art, music and dance, as well as support from the Center for Grieving Children. The program also serves breakfast and lunch to the students.

Bouchard said the Multilingual Summer Program also helps the students develop friendships with their peers, and gives them an opportunity to practice English with their friends. She estimates between 40 and 50 students are enrolled in the middle school program; if a student is absent, Bouchard said educators find out why, and will go get the student if necessary.

The high school program, which takes place at Deering High School, is a smaller program and only teaches math and English. Bouchard said students in the high school program are working for credits towards a diploma, while students in the middle school program do not get credit, only learning experience. Bouchard estimated about 35 students are in the high school program.

Bouchard said the program tries to provide as much hands-on learning for the students as they can. She said the model is “watch and do” rather than “sit and get.” One example of such learning is to have students pass a ball around to learn about sentence construction.

“It’s a nice transition into the school year,” she said.

Nanette Blake, the community outreach and development specialist for the center, said the summer program is made up of volunteers in addition to the district teachers involved. She said volunteers come from the center, but also from the community, including past students and teachers from other school districts.

“It’s about retaining what they’ve learned,” she said of the program.

Joel Peck, who teaches reading, said the multi-cultural program is important because it helps students build confidence in the classroom and build the skills they need there.

“It gives these kids a chance to be successful,” Peck said. He later added that helping students feel successful is the job of any teacher, and that success is crucial to English language acquisition.

Peck, a teacher at King Middle School, said many of the students are new to the United States and, for some, it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to formal education. And without the right learning environment, he said students can often sit in class and not comprehend the lessons before them.

Peck said the Portland program aims to provide a safe environment to hone reading skills, meaning the students are in a place where they feel secure enough to ask for help in a place where lessons are taught at their level.

“If they don’t know what they’re reading the light bulb stays off,” Peck said.

Jessica Phu, a student at the summer program who will be going into seventh grade at Lincoln in the fall, said the program has helped her learn more about math and reading, which she said she had struggled with in the past. She also said she has made a lot of new friends, thanks to the program.

“Once I got more comfortable with the school I got to know more people,” Phu said.

The program will end on July 28, when the students will hold a public performance called the Summer Spectacular to show what they’ve learned and made. Bouchard said the point of the performance is for the students to “put the skills they’ve learned into action.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Math teacher Pam Ericson teaches middle school students at Lincoln Middle School in Portland on July 18. The four-week Multilingual Summer Program wraps up for the year July 28.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.