By Karen Cadbury

As the state with the oldest median population in the United States, Maine has been struggling for many years to attract and retain residents to fill the multitude of jobs that are being vacated by retired and retiring baby boomers. At the same time, Maine has become a destination for immigrants, including a recent influx of asylum seekers who have come from Central African countries such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most immigrants live in Cumberland County, York County, or Androscoggin County. Two years ago, Sally Sutton and colleagues at the New Mainers Resource Center (NMRC) at Portland Adult Education realized that new immigrants were having difficulty moving into the workforce – even when they had skills, professional training, and/or degrees from foreign universities. So, the NMRC pivoted from general job classes to offer training programs that align with the jobs regional employers most need to fill.

One of these programs is the Education Academy, an innovative certificate program designed to help foreign trained teachers prepare for teaching and other jobs in schools. The first Education Academy cohort included 12 students. The second cohort will be formed by the end of January. The program requires adult students, who are immigrants, to: (1) work eight hours per week in a regional school as a classroom assistant and/or support person), (2) complete a practicum (internship), and (3) work with students one on one in a classroom.

Sally Sutton, Program Coordinator New Mainers Resource Center

Program coordinator Sally Sutton says that for immigrants with skilled, professional backgrounds in the field of education, getting credit for foreign credentials and the proper licenses is a big hurdle, but the Education Academy staff helps cohort members determine the equivalency between credits they may have acquired in other countries and credits they would receive in this country. To do this, the staff at the Education Academy evaluates the number and types of classes a person has taken in math, biology, science, English, or social studies.

“If someone is from another country, hopefully they’ve brought their transcripts with them,” says Sutton. “We review their courses, advise them about how to get credit in this country, assist them so they can obtain the classes they need, and help them apply for teacher certification when they are ready. If they have completed the certification process, we also help them with the job application process.” Sutton says a student must complete 90 credits to qualify for the entry-level job of Educational Technician III, a position that is often a stepping-stone to full certification as a teacher. According to the Maine Department of Education, the state has a shortage of teachers in more than 20 subjects, including French, Spanish, Math, Physical Science, Early Elementary, and PreK.

Eugenie Mukankwiro Education Academy Graduate

Eugenie Mukankwiro

Eugenie Mukankwiro came to Maine from Rwanda with her husband seeking political asylum in 2019. They lived in the shelter for one month. While there, Mukankwiro met a woman who told her that—since she had been a teacher in Rwanda—she could take courses at Portland Adult Education (PAE) that would enable her to teach in the U.S.

Mukankwiro says that when she met Sally Sutton, the NMRC program coordinator, Sutton asked if she had documentation of the work she had completed before coming to the U.S. “I have nine documents showing I was a teacher in Rwanda for grades nine to twelve. And I also taught at a college and worked in educational administration in Rwanda, first doing public relations work and then running the office for five years. I also have a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University in the U.S.

“Sally told me that I could be a teacher in Maine, but that I would need a license, and that I could take classes in the Education Academy,” says Mukankwiro. “One of the courses was on what the educational system is like in the U.S. The class introduced me to the curriculum, and helped me see how schools in the U.S. differ from those in Rwanda. I had a chance to do an observation for three months at Portland High School that gave me great insight into American schools. We also had a class on how Special Education is taught in the U.S., and studied about Teaching Exceptional Students—people with disabilities or emotional issues.”

Mukankwiro said that she liked the diversity at Portland High School, and that it helped her realize how frustrating school can be for the kids coming from other countries and cultures. “I was not allowed to work in the U.S. without a work permit, but [while waiting for the permit] I had the chance, at the Education Academy, to make good connections with people and to work in the Language Lab and the Writing Center.”

Mukankwiro says that Sally Sutton also sent her referrals for jobs. “She kept saying I really needed to find a job in education. And, when my documents and work permits came this past September, I got accepted for a job as an Educational Technician III (Ed Tech), working in Special Education at Portland High School.

“Definitely, I would recommend the Educational Academy, especially if you are new in Maine,” says Mukankwiro. “It’s a good way to connect to people and to find opportunities. The Center is not only for the education students, but they can help with any program a person might want to pursue. “

Jean Pierre Akayezu  — Education Academy Graduate/Program Associate for New Mainers Resource Center

Jean Pierre Akayezu

Jean Pierre Akayezu came to the U.S. in 2014 from Rwanda. He says that he chose Portland because he didn’t want to go where there wouldn’t be someone to help with his resettlement, and he had heard that the immigrant community in Maine was strong. He is married with four children. When his work permit came through, he took a job at Maine Medical Center in the kitchen, where he worked for two years. Then he heard about the Education Academy from someone at work.

“I was a high school teacher in Rwanda for year-one and year-two students and, when I connected with Sally Sutton, she was amazing. She helped me get translations of my records and the information I needed about my [former] training,” said Akayezu.

“I speak French, Swahili, English, and Lingala, and I can teach French. When I got into the Education Academy, I started their intensive program, meeting four days a week for three months. At the time, I was working the second shift at the hospital, so I worked in the Education Academy program from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, and then from four in the afternoon until midnight, I worked at Maine Medical. In between, I slept and did homework. All the teachers were understanding. Sally helped with housing issues and advised me on teaching and finding jobs. I wanted the training to last forever. We were the first groups graduating from this program, and I felt we needed to prove ourselves. I think this program is not only helping immigrants, but it is helping the community.”


David HiltonEducation Academy Mentor

David Hilton

David Hilton is a social studies teacher at the Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. He has mentored more than a dozen student teachers, including two from the Education Academy. Hilton says he has seen many changes during the fifteen years that he has been teaching middle school.

“We are a very segregated society at this point. Unfortunately, there are very few integrated schools in the country. In Portland, there have been significant demographic changes in recent years, which brought about challenges to the old structure and the old ways of doing things. People began to realize that there were not just one or two kids of color in a class, but that a third or half of the class are students of color, and that began to change the dynamic.

“While our student body was transforming into a school with a large percentage of people of color, our students were being taught by pretty much an all-white staff. Working with Portland Public Schools’ district leaders, we were given a fresh hand to do everything needed to recruit and retain teachers of color, knowing that would really change the experience for students and their families.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, we took our first Education Academy student—a history teacher from Rwanda. Speaking French, and being from Rwanda, she was able to make connections with some students and families that we had not been able to make. At Lyman Moore Middle School, we had a really great experience with her.”

Hilton says that he and a colleague, who also mentored the student from the Education Academy, went to the program’s first graduation. “I don’t think either of us knew what we were in for. There were eleven or so adult students graduating, and they were there with their families, all dressed up, and there were other people attending who were from their home countries. It was very, very moving.”

“Our Education Academy student found a summer job working with people with disabilities, and she also interviewed for a position at Portland High School (PHS). Toward the end of the summer, PHS hired her, and she moved into a role where she is supporting students who are new to the U.S.”

Last year, Lyman Moore took another Education Academy student. He had been a former teacher, a school principal, and a social studies teacher in the Republic of Congo.

“It was very hard for him because he was working every night at IDEXX in Westbrook, Maine,” says Hilton. “Then, he would come in and work with the kids all day. He was so committed and dedicated. When a job opened up at a middle school as a French teacher, he was able to replace someone who was on maternity leave. Then he found out that the job was only through December and both of us were disappointed. But he decided he was going to work really hard and do his best, and keep working the night job at the same time,” says Hilton. “Very recently, he found out that the teacher he is replacing will not be coming back this year, so he is going to be able to teach at the school all year.”

“As you can tell, I feel very strongly about our school needing teachers of color in order to be successful. We have students who are looking and waiting for people in leadership positions who share their students’ cultures. I feel strongly that we should be doing everything we can to open the door and the barriers. This is good for everyone involved.”

Jean Malia — Education Academy Teacher
Jean Malia has served in a number of academic roles, including as principal at Riverton Elementary in Portland (now the Gerald E. Talbot Community School), and as the director for the Education Academy’s courses on Special Education. Now retired, Malia agreed to work with students from the Education Academy teaching Educating Exceptional Students, a course that is legally mandated by the Maine Department of Education for teacher certification. Malia said that she had thirteen students in her course last year in the Education Academy program from Burundi, Ghana, Chad, and South Africa who had either been teachers or worked at a college before coming to the U.S.
“In regard to Special Education in this country, the students were not familiar with the laws that have been passed in the U.S. to protect the rights of students and adults with disabilities. This type of protection may not available in their home countries. Our Education Academy students were primarily in their thirties and forties, and all of them were working at jobs, so they attended classes after work,” says Malia. “But, they always wanted to learn, and wanted feedback.”
Malia says that one of the students in her class found a job at King Middle School as an Educational Technician III; a second student was hired at Casco Bay High School; and, a third student was hired part-time as a French teacher. “The opportunities in this program are incredible. They worked so hard and I was so proud of the students,” says Malia. “Teaching these older students, who have such rich backgrounds, is a wonderful experience.”

Benjamin DonaldsonPrincipal of Lyman Moore Middle School

Ben Donaldson

“We are incredibly dynamic and diverse, with a highly varied school population. Fifteen years ago, the school was predominantly white, middle class. Like Portland, it has changed and now our student body is incredibly diverse. Our students are fantastically different from one another. Our faculty is getting more so, but it has lagged behind the student population. So, several of our teachers, our assistant principal, and I have all been engaged in the process of recruiting and retaining more teachers, and specifically multilingual teachers, to work in our schools with our students,” said Donaldson.

“There is a lot of research showing that students have better outcomes when they see themselves in the adults they interact with. The Education Academy provides a unique opportunity for our school to utilize the incredible resources available through the Education Academy—mainly the people—to help us make connections with multilingual families. Many of the students at the Academy have been professional teachers or principals abroad and the Academy is giving Lyman Moore a pipeline to a really talented group of educators.
“We had a French teacher, a student from the Education Academy, who had been a principal in his home country. He was awesome—he was so good. We have been trying to hire people like him in any capacity we can, usually in the Ed Tech roles, hoping we can create pathways into teaching jobs. It’s a no-brainer for us to be a host site for Education Academy students.”
Donaldson says that having adults in the school that can speak the languages of the students is good for everyone. “There is a sense with some of the students that suddenly there is someone in the school environment who understands them. A lot of the students at the Education Academy are connected to our students’ families in the community, and this is really good for the students. I think this gives us credibility.”

With the success of the Education Academy, Sutton and her colleagues at NMRC have also developed a second job-preparation program—the Teller Training Program (TTP). The TTP is aimed at attracting immigrants who have professional experience in banking.

A new session of Education Academy courses starts January 11, 2021, with courses, a practicum, and advising designed for foreign-trained educators and others who want to work in public schools in Maine. To register and submit an application for the Education Academy or the Teller Training Programs contact: Sally Sutton, Program Coordinator, New Mainers Resource Center, Portland Adult Education, 14 Locust St., Portland, ME 04101, 207-370-9616 or email: [email protected].