Strummers in the city: Ukulele program gives Portland immigrant students head start

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PORTLAND — Two dozen students filed into a classroom at Portland High School Monday for a ukulele lesson, strumming with determined fingers as part of a program to help them acclimate to the coming school year after emigrating to the city.

The students are housed at the city’s shelter for homeless families and are participating in a five-week-long Portland Public Schools’ summer program designed to give them a head start on school success and connect their families to school and city resources.

The theme this year, its second, is “Summer in the City.”

Most students are from Angola and the Republic of Congo, and communicate through interpreters during their time in the program.

Program site coordinator and educator Carol Ridlon said it is amazing how quickly students develop language skills, and will likely be speaking English by October.

The children walk from the shelter to Portland High School, where they strengthen their math and reading skills; participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities, and are introduced to some of the routines and expectations they will encounter when school begins in the fall. They also are served breakfast and lunch.

Ridlon said the students have parents who often led professional lives in their native homes as teachers, lawyers and doctors, and want the best for their children. “They are so resilient, to leave everything in search of a better life,” she said.

Apart from access to education, students take field trips for fun. Ridlon said during one of several trips to the beach, they waded into the unexpectedly cold ocean water, ran on the sand and played Frisbee.

“The experiences they have had prior to coming here were not always carefree,” Ridlon said.

The program is made possible by a grant from the Brick & Beam Society, an affinity group of United Way of Greater Portland.

Students have also visited the Maine Wildlife Center in Gray to introduce them to animals native to Maine, and a magic and puppet show hosted by the Portland Public Library, Ridlon said. Upcoming are visits to the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine and Fort Williams Park.

“As a teacher, it fills our hearts to provide joy with education,” she said.

This is the second summer the school district has created a program to serve students ages 5 to 10. She said the goal was to create equity and give students a chance to learn what a school day and schedule is like in the city, as well as work on their math and reading skills and develop friendships before school begins.

Two teachers, a social worker, an educational technician, and two translators staff the program.

“We wanted to give equal access to summer learning,” Ridlon said, including math and reading instruction, a social and emotional education, and a snapshot of what a typical school day will be like.

“We want them to be safe, we want them here, and they belong with us,” she said, noting Portland schools are the most diverse in the state.

Ridlon said the ukulele lesson, taught by former urban planner and teacher Lee Urban, also serves as an introduction to English.

“Music is a universal language and a universal healer,” she said, explaining many of the children have left their home countries due to unrest and turmoil, and have experienced varying traumas.

Urban, who loves to share his love of the instrument with others, taught an introductory lesson to students Monday morning.

He said learning to play an instrument is about far more than mastering a craft. If he had additional time with students, he said the lessons would ultimately teach responsibility, the importance of working toward a goal and, above all, increasing self-esteem.

Urban uses colored strings and plays demonstrably with students, so even if they cannot understand what he says, they can watch his actions and learn.

“I want them to feel good about themselves, that’s the main thing I try to give them – and to be happy,” he said.

Urban’s goal seemed to be in tune with his pupils: following the lesson, a chorus of voices echoed “yes” through the room when he asked if the students had a good time.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.

Lee Urban teaches an introductory ukulele lesson to students during a five-week-long educational program for students living at Portland’s homeless shelter for families.

Students who will be attending Portland schools this coming year learn the ukulele as part of a program designed for access to education for those living in Portland’s Family Shelter.

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