By Stephanie Harp

Helping people communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers is nothing new for Alice Kabore. That was her profession in her home country of Burkina Faso, and that’s what she’s doing now as multicultural and multilingual coordinator, a newly created position for the South Portland School Department. “I have a multicultural background. I left a country where we have more than 70 languages. You meet all the people from different places who come to the capital,” she said. After five years in Maine, being able to transfer her background in international work to a new job in Maine is “a blessing,” said Kabore.

“My role is to help immigrant communities integrate into the school system and community. Just to help them understand the system,” she said. This means both helping families navigate the school system and helping the schools identify policy that recognizes what the families need and what concerns them. “I use my best knowledge to give suggestions for what the school can do to help.” Most of the families she works with have children who were born outside of the U.S. Most are from Africa.

Kabore began her job in March 2021 while students were still attending in person just two days each week, so she’s still meeting people and learning about South Portland schools herself. In the new school year, she plans to go to each school and introduce herself to the administrators, teachers, and the district’s approximately 2,800 students.

“Right now what I am doing is also learning to understand the American school system because I’ve been to school in Africa. I’m trying to understand better how the American system works, and also help teachers understand those differences of culture,” she said. “Africa is huge and has different cultures. Most of [the school systems] are similar. But the American system is different.”

She explained that African schools are based on a curriculum of knowledge, rather than age. “If a student is in grade one, this is what they’re supposed to know” she said. The curriculum is national, so all teachers use almost the same material and all students are expected to know the same things at certain levels. At the end of elementary school, students take an exam to transition to middle school, another at the end of middle school, and another to transition to college or University .

In many parts of the continent, it’s not unusual for a child to enter school without knowing the primary language in which classes are taught. They may have spoken only their tribal language at home, and begin to learn French – for example – on the first day of school. Some New Mainer children have a similar experience when they arrive at school needing to learn English. “It’s OK, it will just take them a little time,” Kabore tells South Portland teachers who reach out to her. “They might not understand the instructions yet, but just keep talking to them, and little by little they will understand. In two or three weeks, they start to understand.” Because she speaks multiple languages herself, Kabore often translates for families. She speaks her tribal language Mooré, along with Dioula, French, and English.

“Most of the families I work with right now are living in hotels,” she said. “So I’m working on helping them with basic needs. As we move forward, we are seeing what are the challenges for families who already have residences here.” She works closely with the English Language Learning (ELL) and Community Partnership departments. For now, she and the ELL department are helping coordinate different services. “It’s not supposed to be our job but we are doing it right now because there was nobody to do it before.” Eventually, a different department or agency outside of the school district will take on the task of basic needs like housing.
Kabore’s position is brand new to South Portland Public Schools. “My position is kind of a bridge. We’re still figuring it out and we are kind of all creating this work together.” South Portland is not the first school department to add the position of multicultural and multilingual coordinator. “They needed to help the immigrant community,” she said. “They were overwhelmed with all the work that needed to be done.” In 2020-21, about 30% of South Portland students were from immigrant families.

The most important things she’s noticed that she will need to address are related to anti-bias training. “But before I can be at that level of teaching, I need to train myself — make for better results,” she said. She plans to get to know the school population very well so that she can address incidents or things she observes.

One of her relatively simple ideas is for cafeterias to offer culturally appropriate food for student lunches. Other ideas include expanding day-long multicultural celebrations into diversity weeks, and maybe months. A bigger task will be addressing biases. She wants teachers to know that if they want to understand something, they can reach out to her and she will explain it to them. “They can get answers. When the children come to school, they don’t understand any English and the teachers don’t know how to communicate with them.”

Kabore is confident that in her new job, she will make a difference, but knows it will take time, just like learning a new language. “Little by little, change will come for sure,” she said.