The Lewiston and Auburn communities are only getting younger – “younger” as in a significant proportion of the population  are under 18 years old.

This demographic is one reason Julia Sleeper ’08 and Kim Sullivan ’13 founded Tree Street Youth, a center that supports and encourages the youth of the community, and provides a safe space for their academic and personal growth. The center started as a homework help program, then after an enthusiastic response, the program expanded.

Tree Street Youth was developed out of need and a necessity. At a recent panel discussion, on Tuesday April 22nd, Sleeper and Sullivan, along with Lewiston High School Seniors Mana Abdi and Sahra Hassan, brought to light the issue of education inequity in the community. Education inequity or inequality, at the simplest level, can be understood as disparities in educational opportunities amongst students. Disparities can range from location and access, as well as occur within the same system, but affect students because of ethnicity or economic backgrounds.

Sleeper prefaced the discussion by emphasizing that the “point is to learn.” For that one hour discussion, attendees were asked to suspend all judgments for a learning experience about Lewiston schools and Tree Street Youth.

While Sleeper and Sullivan facilitated the discussion and described Tree Street in detail, Mana and Sahra offered some enlightening first person accounts of their time within Lewiston public schools. These accounts represent the barriers that impact the community’s young students, barriers Tree Street acknowledges and tries to transcend.

Mana Abdi moved to Lewiston in 2010. She has since then experienced success both in school and on the track, which she explained for me after the panel.

“I was junior when I won this race and it was a 5k race,” said Mana. “I have never won a race before this race so when I realize that I just won an entire race I was honestly overwhelmed. It was an amazing feeling.”

And this feeling of pride was not only in her victory, but what that victory symbolizes. “I hope to change the community as a leader in school and on track by showing that just because I am girl it does not mean that I am not cable of accomplishing something great…I have already proven to everyone that I can be a runner but also a Muslim girl who is covered from top to bottom,” adds Mana.

Mana also offered some eye-opening information about her experiences with Lewiston High School and Tree Street Youth. Mana dreams of going to college – which she will in the fall, though has yet to make her final decision – then eventually on to medical school.

“Tree Street helped in so many levels because the people there were the first to actually believe in most of us. They encourage us to try hard and show the world that we can accomplish something,” says Mana. Unfortunately, both Mana and Sahra do not always receive the same support in their school. Sleeper and Sullivan acknowledged this problem as well. Tree Street serves students in grades K-12, but Sleeper mentioned that in the middle school, very few teachers are aware of the program. There is growing recognition in the high school, Sleeper notes, largely in part because of the evolvement of the superintendent and vice principal. The relationship is described as a working relationship, but Sleeper said they “can’t deny when something works.”

Mana and Sahra talked about some difficulties with teachers during their time at Lewiston High. Sahra recounted a time where she had to teach herself the material because the teacher would not help her when she asked for clarification – the teacher told her she should’ve learned it in fourth grade. But Sahra was not in the school system in fourth grade. Much of the education inequality is due to the language and cultural barriers. “There is just unfairness everywhere in our school system and I hope overtime things change,” says Mana.

Bates sophomores Nicole Bermudez and Becky Schwartz attended the panel discussion because they have both volunteered with Lewiston students before, and wanted to learn more about their education experience. Both were surprised by the lack of support from the administration. “It’s interesting to see how the different systems work together and are dependent upon each other, whether they want to be or not,” notes Schwartz.

Tree Street notices these barriers and tries to assuage and improve these issues. It is a place where students can grow and succeed more than just with their academics – Mana mentions the most important thing she learned from Tree Street is acceptance. Sleeper and Sullivan concluded the discussion by emphasizing that Lewiston is a small enough community that programs like Tree Street can make a big difference in combating education inequity in the community.