Published Date Written by Timothy Gillis
You've just moved to Maine from a foreign country and don't speak the language. Or you're visiting for a few weeks and want to brush up your conversational English. Either way, there's a new school in Portland that can help.
Britta Pejic, lead instructor at Portland English, says their class schedule and structure are perfect for those looking for a quick primer or a prolonged course of study, and they complement the classwork with forays into the city to dine, dance, or bowl the nights away.
"The focus at Portland English is on adults, to provide an alternative resource for the long waiting list of adult education," said Pejic, whose school has helped new arrivals from all over, including the Congo, Somalia, the Sudan, and Angola, at their High Street headquarters.
Pejic and S.K. Green, a fellow teacher and the director of Portland English, have also taken their lessons into other learning environments like Catherine McAuley High School to work with Chinese and Ukrainian students.
Pejic has worked for Portland Adult Ed and the former Barber Learning Center. She was born in Boston and grew up in South Portland. She majored in theater at Smith College and then received her graduate degree in art education at the University of Texas at Austin.
"I went to Paris to study art history," she said. "I met my (future) husband and got certified in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language)."
Green was born and raised in Bowdoinham and graduated from Mt. Ararat High School. She received a degree in mathematics from the University of Southern Maine. She has studied in Vermont and Oregon, and also learned from life's great classroom as she traveled the world.
As a volunteer teacher at Leaning Works, Green worked with families in need, especially as part of a youth alternative program, helping high school dropouts.
The two educators met at Bayside Bowl, where Green was waiting tables and Pejic was playing with her band, Les Frenchmen. It was a memorable meeting.
"I was carrying plates of food from the kitchen — a meatball sandwich and chicken tenders — when Britta's son ran into me. The food went everywhere," Green said.
Pejic remembers the occasion with a tinge of maternal embarrassment but welcomed the ice-breaking opportunity. "I had known of her through a mutual friend, and wanted to talk with her, so here was the chance," Pejic said.
They clicked immediately and made an appointment to sit down and talk about a new school. Pejic's daughter was a year old, so she wanted to move into it gradually, but the concept continued to gather momentum until they were ready to begin. Portland English opened last year.
"We're here when people have expended their resources in adult ed, and need something more to help get into college," Pejic said. "We can be that bridge."
Beyond helping those new to the area, Portland English also offers other services that will appeal to foreign tourists.
"A 19-year-old Italian man was visiting town for a bit and wanted to work on his English skills," Green said of a recent student. "We can help people who live here, and we're also for people who are visiting. We use the immersion style — three hours of class in the morning and an activity in the afternoon, like bowling or a museum visit."
Portland English offers all levels of English classes, in both group and one-on-one sessions. They plan to reach out to businesses, building off of what Pejic used to do when she ran the Barber Food language program.
"I worked with people who didn't speak (English) at all, but a year later they had joined the workforce and were speaking away," she said.
The architects of the new school say it's based on a common European model, English schools "that give you a place to be a tourist."
This summer, Portland English offers a more flexible schedule.
"We've redesigned our immersion program," Green said. "Instead of a three-hour block of just class, there are three separate subjects: conversation; grammar and vocabulary; and reading and writing. You can sign up for a week at a time. You can take one, two, or three-hour courses a day."
The cost is $50 per course per week, with small groups of up to eight students per class.
Pejic is teaching a writing class focusing on beginning skills in grammar and usage, writing letters, and how to use Microsoft Word.
"Through my work in the past with literacy, I have taught people who've never held a pencil before, people from refugee camps and war situations who only spoke in their previous language," Pejic said.
Wherever the students come from, getting them involved in conversation is the key.
"No matter whom I'm teaching, I begin class with a verbal warm-up," Green said. "I ask them questions to get the discussion going. It's easier than people think. Babies learn to talk before they read and write."