Superintendent's Notebook: Portland students gain global perspective

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Portland’s public schools are unique in Maine for having such a wide variety of cultures represented by our students and staff.

Thirty percent of our students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken. Few school districts of our size anywhere in the United States can compare to Portland, where students speak close to 60 different languages.  

During the past 20 years, teachers in our school district have found many ways to take advantage of the city’s diversity in order to enrich the educational experience of all students. Here are just a few examples from the past month:

• The first female judge of Botswana and a human rights activist who was on the front lines of Egypt’s regime change recently spoke at Portland High School. Nearly 20 students, including some immigrants from Africa, listened with rapt attention as Unity Dow, the Botswana judge, described her career path and spoke frankly of her dream to one day serve as the country’s president.

The talks were arranged by Portland High School’s 3-year-old Global Studies program. The after-school program provides a way for native and immigrant students to learn about and discuss issues of global importance. Participants earn a certificate in global studies that will serve them well as they graduate into a world where international perspectives are increasingly important for success in business and other enterprises.

• Portland High School’s Cultural Heritage Show is a 15-year-old tradition that began when the city’s major immigrant groups came from Southeast Asia.  Students put on the annual event to showcase the music, dance and fashions of their families’ homelands.  

The city’s changing demographics are reflected by the Cultural Heritage Show. Over the years, it has featured performances by students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Congo, Bosnia, El Salvador, Serbia, Sudan, Somalia and, recently, Rwanda, Burundi and Iraq, as well as native Mainers.  For the past nine years, King Middle School has put on a similar show, titled “Around the World in Eighty Minutes.”

• Sixth-graders at Lyman Moore Middle School recently spent several weeks learning about immigration by reading plays, cartoons and short stories. They also participated in a simulation of what it was like to arrive at the Ellis Island immigration facility in New York City.

Earlier this month, the sixth-graders hosted a naturalization ceremony for 38 new Americans who live in the greater Portland area. Moore students made flags for each of the 19 countries of origin represented by the new citizens.  They learned a little about those countries so that they could greet the immigrants with friendly conversation.  

A student led the Pledge of Allegiance at the ceremony, and the school’s band and sixth-grade chorus performed. Two students recited the Emma Lazarus poem that’s engraved in a plaque on the Statue of Liberty, with the famous words, “Give me your tired, your poor.”  Moore students made small gifts for the new citizens and they planned a celebration for them and their families after the naturalization ceremony.

One student later told teacher Jon Roderick, “I teared up when they took the oath. I knew it was a really big deal.”  

Another student wrote that he will remember “people that all look different, sitting right next to each other, becoming the same thing, American Citizens.”

A third student explained her special connection to the ceremony: “One emotion I felt was being proud of my mom for finally becoming a citizen.”

In this election year, we’ve heard lots of campaign rhetoric about the threats posed by immigrants. But our school district and city are showing Mainers that we all have much to gain by welcoming these new residents to our community.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at morsej@portlandschools.org.

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