Baby steps: Minneapolis Public Schools work to bring back Somali students


January 19’s Soup with the Supe event began with a song and dance performed by students from Whittier elementary school. The kids sang in Somali before a crowd of mostly Somali parents and community members, who were gathered to share a meal and participate in a question and answer session with Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

The event, held at Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, was one of several steps Minneapolis Public Schools are taking towards a more productive relationship between the district and its approximately 2,000 Somali-speaking students and families.

The steps seem small compared to what Minneapolis and other district schools are up against. One in three Somali-speaking students in the metro area attends a charter school. It’s a problem for a district like Minneapolis that’s working to raise its enrollment numbers. And it’s a problem for community members concerned that charters don’t prepare students for college and the work world – an issue that’s debated heatedly.

This is the second of three articles exploring Somali community members’ experiences with the education system. Click the links for parts one and three.

But it also may be a sign that the districts are doing something wrong. The questions posed at the Soup event represent the range of concerns that lead some families to choose charter schools. One man asked why Minneapolis employs so few Somali bilingual staff. A couple parents said they’re worried that kids are losing their Somali language. How are schools ensuring cultural sensitivity when labeling students as special ed? How will MPS make sure every student can read by third grade?

Community members interviewed for this article said parents don’t feel welcome at district schools, charters help Somalis preserve their culture, Somali kids are not academically challenged at district schools, district schools are less safe and too big.

One thing is certain. Low-income, ELL and non-white students score lower than average on state tests, and they graduate at lesser rates. Test data broken down by ethnicity or language group is not available for Minnesota, but one can assume that Somali kids often fall into that gap.

“It doesn’t matter the process, it’s the outcome and the results. The district has to show that they can educate every child,” said Minneapolis school board member Hussein Samatar. “If that happens, then I think a lot of children, a lot of parents will definitely come back in a big number to Minneapolis.”

Following the Somali teachers

Ahmed Mussa goes to school at Roosevelt High, alongside many other Somali students. He’s a senior, and he’s already applied to a half dozen colleges, but since his parents don’t know much about education in the United States, Mussa said he asks friends or talks to organizations like College Possible when he has questions about his future.

He’s adjusted now, but he remembers when he started school in the United States in sixth grade, with little English, after living in Kenya and going to Islamic school much of his life. “It was hard seeing yourself in a classroom when you don’t understand what’s going on – just sitting and watching what the teacher was doing,” he said. Now he speaks English and doesn’t have many criticisms for Roosevelt. The one thing he thinks might help kids like him: more Somali teachers.

It’s a sentiment echoed by many. Somali community members – including nonprofit leaders, educators and even board member Samatar – told a similar story to explain why so many families left the district. In the 1990s, when Somali students first arrived in Minneapolis schools, the district hired a number of Somali educators, including teachers and education assistants.  Word spread that education was good in Minnesota, and according to some sources, that rumor drew more Somali people to the Twin Cities.

Then came education budget cuts and mass lay-offs starting in the early 2000s. Since Somali teachers and education assistants were the newest, they were among the first to go. Around the same time, charter schools began opening, and they absorbed some of the laid off teachers. Somali families followed.

A little more complicated than that

Officials from Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers said the story is more complicated than that. Some Somali teachers were indeed laid off as budgets shrank. Union president Lynn Nordgren said the union cannot take into account ethnic background when conducting lay-offs. It follows that if all Somali teachers started in the 90s, a number of them likely lacked the seniority to keep their jobs.

Officials said the timeline also matches up with new No Child Left Behind rules, requiring paraprofessionals, including bilingual support employees, to complete two years of post-secondary education.

Some teachers and staff may have been working via licensure waivers that expired. Teachers with waivers approved by the Minnesota Department of Education have three years to get a teaching license.

Not enough licenses

Whether or not Somali teachers were laid off in bulk, it remains true that district schools do not employ many Somali teachers.  “The problem that we have with a lot of the Somali people is they have been in education for a long time, have a few credits but haven’t really completed their license,” said ELL program coordinator Muhidin Warfa.

It’s also a problem for charter schools, including those with high Somali enrollment. Two of the three charters interviewed for this article, including Ubah Medical Academy and Cedar Riverside Community School, said that although much of their non-teaching staff is East African, they employ no Somali teachers.

According to Warfa, in some cases the cost of education is too high. Educators who are working or have families take a long time to get through the licensure process. English may not be their first language.

Warfa said MPS is working to recruit more bilingual staff. For example, MPS staff attend community events, fairs and conferences looking for individuals from under-represented communities who have teaching experience.

Supporting the language

At the same time, MPS officials say the need for bilingual staff isn’t as great as it was 15 years ago. Today, schools are enrolling a new generation of Somali students. The kids who arrived with their parents in the 1990s have their own children. Some parents understand English.

Still, officials say bilingual support remains the principal way that Minneapolis district schools academically support Somali students. And they’re pumping up that support.

In December, the multilingual department presented a new plan to the school board. Instead of pulling kids out of the classroom for ELL, an ESL teacher is more likely to go into a classroom and co-teach with the classroom teacher. Teachers are encouraged to promote a higher level of verbal interaction, where students regularly produce academic language. The district is in its second year of implementing co-teaching, and they’ve hired 50 new ESL teachers, some part-time.

The department is also developing stronger heritage language programs at Sullivan and Pillsbury elementary schools, to help students develop their Somali language.

A place for advocacy

Officials say some of the district’s steps respond directly to concerns brought by Somali parents. Parent resource connection meetings will be held six times this year, usually at Brian Coyle, where Somali parents can learn more about Minneapolis schools and send community feedback back to the district. Starting with the Soup with the Supe event, Superintendent Johnson agreed to join those meetings at least once a year.

Parents can also learn about how to get involved through CPEO parent involvement classes, delivered in Somali.

Big steps, small steps

Minneapolis is huge. The district’s plans will be interpreted by dozens of schools and hundreds of classrooms.  And it’s just one district. There are Somali students in St. Paul Public Schools, in Anoka-Hennepin, in Eden Prairie, in Willmar. Up against such mammoths, it’s not hard to imagine why a parent would choose a school governed on site, where their voice is one of a hundred, rather than one of 30,000, and their language is understood.

MPS needs an attitude change, according to Samuel Yigzaw, principal at Higher Ground charter school. “It is a fundamental change that they have to make,” Yiigzaw said.  “It is there. It is really there – to downteach – to look at a student and see he is African [and think] he probably doesn’t know.”

“I think we are just beginning to understand what it takes,” said Samatar, “I don’t believe we are doing anything significant.”

But significance is not always easy to see right away. That song and dance performed by the Whittier kids? It represented upwards of 40 hours of work shared by music teacher Kristin Bennett and Somali parent Fatuma Webi. Bennett taped Webi singing the song, they translated it together, then Webi volunteered in the classroom, teaching students how music and dance is used in Somali culture.

Webi initiated it all. In the past, Bennett said she and her colleagues were unsuccessful in convincing Somali community members to share their musical culture. She speculates that some community members might perceive U.S. music as centered on sex and alcohol. Now she sees things opening up. “What Fatuma did for me was amazing,” Bennett said. “She learned while I learned.”

Bennett said between her and Webi’s work and a potluck fundraiser arranged by the school for the Somali famine, she notices more warmth between Somali families and school staff. She thinks an important connection was made.

At the Soup with the Supe event, Johnson read a message in Somali off a card. The Somali woman seated next to me laughed. “I don’t know what she said!”

The Somali pronunciation was rough and some said the dough on the sambusas served that night was too thick with too many onions in the filling. But it was a step.

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