Somalis in schools: One in three chooses charters in Twin Cities


Around 1200 school-age kids reside in Riverside Plaza’s nine paneled towers. The majority of them are Somali or East African. Cedar-Riverside Community School, a tiny charter nestled in the middle of the plaza, can only fit 150 of them, but school director Ricky White says if he were to open a new charter, he would know what to do to attract Somali families.

Just like in his school, where more than three-quarters of the students are Somali, he would accommodate Muslim religious practices. He would hire Somali administrative staff and education assistants who speak the language. He would make himself known in the community, visiting neighborhood associations, community center events and mosques. He would keep class sizes small. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a location in the heart of Minneapolis’s Somali community.

This story is part one in a three-part series exploring Somali families’ experiences with the Twin Cities education system. Click the links for parts two and three.

But more than anything, he would keep in mind the power of a close-knit community where word of a few bad experiences (or a few good ones) can spread like wildfire. White calls it the “contagious factor,” and charter schools around the metro area have figured out how to use it to their advantage. But to Somali students’ advantage? That’s another question.

Last year, one in three Somali-speaking students in the metro area attended a charter school. Three-quarters of metro Somali charter students attended one of eight schools where more than half of enrolled students spoke Somali at home. (One of those schools, Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy, is no longer open.) While other Twin Cities immigrant groups also attend charter schools at higher rates than non-immigrants, Somalis attend charters at a much higher rate. Nearly one in five metro area Hmong-speaking students attended a charter, and one in 15 Spanish-speaking students did, compared to approximately one in 20 native English-speakers. 

Educators and community members disagree over whether the high rate of charter enrollment among Somali students is acceptable or worrisome, and a range of truths and rumors circulate: the district schools don’t hire enough Somali staff, parents feel more welcome at charter schools, charters help Somalis preserve their culture, Somali kids are not academically challenged at district schools, charter schools are safer, and they’re smaller.

“It’s a market,” said Mohamed Mohamud, director of the nonprofit Somali American Parent Association. “They are advertising, ‘We have that much bilingual service. We are preserving your culture.’

“That’s not enough for the success of the students,” he said, citing concerns about academic rigor and access to sports facilities and after-school activities. “Am I happy – no. A lot of things are missing.”

“We are respectful. Really we understand where they come from. We work with families, work with the community,” said principal Samuel Yigzaw of Higher Ground Academy, where 85 percent of the students last year spoke Somali at home. “Look at what’s happened to Somali kids in traditional public schools – the violence, the fighting. We don’t have that.”

Ubah Medical Academy

Ubah Medical Academy is in Hopkins – far from the homes of many of its Somali students, who make up 90 percent of the student body. The “Medical” part of the name refers to the school’s science and health offerings, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a nod to Somali families’ respect for the medical profession. According to school director Musa Farah, the charter’s location is part of its draw. “Like a boarding school,” he said.

In some ways, it’s an apt comparison. Ubah is one of the more conservative Somali-dominant charters. Certain religious and cultural accommodations are common at charters, and even district schools, that serve Somali students – most serve no pork and have a space where students can pray. Some get out early on Fridays so that students can attend a religious gathering in their community. Many schools offer Arabic language classes. 

Ubah goes further. Girls and boys have separate lunch times, which Farah said is a cultural, not religious, practice – some girls don’t like to eat in front of someone they might marry. (Other Somali community members said the tradition toes the line between religion and culture, and not all Somalis practice it.) Behavior is monitored closely. For example, students cannot leave class to go to the bathroom without an escort.

“We talk to a kid – tell them what is right, what is wrong,” Farah said, in part because that’s what some Somali parents expect from an education system.

Farah and other Somali sources recall a state-run education system in Somalia where the teacher’s role was much different than in the United States. Sources say teachers were like second parents. They were responsible for students’ behavior and moral upbringing as well as their academics. A parent might even ask a teacher to discipline a child for being disrespectful at home. Parent engagement was not expected.

That system was dismantled during Somalia’s civil war, and Farah said it’s not how it is at Ubah. None of the teachers are East African – mostly because of the scarcity of East Africans with teaching licenses – and parents are expected to stay engaged. “This is America – parents first,” Farah said. But understanding cultural differences like that one helps the school keep Somali families happy.

Managing comfort

Making sure parents are comfortable is a big part of the school’s success. The same could be said for Cedar Riverside and Higher Ground and likely for other charters that serve Somali families.

At Ubah, parents and community members can come at any time of the day and meet with someone who will address their concerns in their native language. Administrators say that, though families come from an educational background that did not encourage family participation, parent engagement is high. Farah said he gets calls from parents at 8 or 9 at night sometimes. Many of the school’s administrative employees and education assistants are Somali. The first person a parent sees at the front desk is African, if not always East African.

Some students also report feeling more comfortable at Ubah.

Anisa transferred to Ubah for high school. Before that, she attended a mainstream district school. “The teachers look at you like a stranger, because all they know about you is what they see in the media,” she said. “They think you’re a walking failure, pretty much.”

Metro-area charters with a high proportion of Somali-speaking students in 2010-2011*

*From Minnesota Department of Education primary home language data

**School no longer open

Somali-speaking students in metro charters: 3197

Somali-speaking students in non-charter metro schools: 6171


Letitia Basford, an assistant professor Hamline University’s school of education, researched Somali students’ experiences at one Minnesota Somali-dominant charter school.* “Students said they never knew there were smart Somalis until they went to charter schools,” she said. One of the students she interviewed described feeling like “a psycho” in district schools when they had to wash their feet before prayer. A Somali girl told Basford her classmates would joke that she probably had a bomb hidden under her hijab.

“Here everybody can hang out with anybody,” Anisa said. As one student put it, at Ubah you know the person to your right, to your left, the person behind you and in front of you – all are going through the same things.

Academic Rigor?

Anisa herself resisted the transfer to Ubah. She had planned to attend a district school before a neighbor convinced her mother Ubah was the best choice. Anisa worried she would fail state tests and wouldn’t get into college.

Schoolmate Abdulaziz agreed on the school’s reputation. “At the mosque I go to on weekends, they say, ‘Oh you go to Ubah? You’re not smart.’ I say, ‘Are you serious right now?’” he said. “’Anything you can do, I can do better.’”

Anisa finds Ubah’s curriculum challenging, and she said removing the distraction of having to explain her culture impacted her academic performance, “I can’t blame that this time,” she said.

Still some Somali community members worry that charters don’t have the academic rigor of district schools. “When it comes to academics, I don’t see that much value,” said Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance.

A 2008 report by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty called Minnesota charters a “failed promise,” citing research that showed demographically similar groups do worse on average in charter schools than in district schools. The report put some of the blame on a lack of racial and economic diversity. A review of charter school achievement studies released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in 2010 showed mixed results – a number of studies revealed similar or larger academic gains in charter schools compared to district schools and a number showed smaller gains.

Yet Higher Ground, Twin Cities International Elementary, Global Academy, Lighthouse Academy of Nations, Cedar-Riverside Community School and the now-closed Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy have all been recognized as “beat-the-odds” schools, where a large proportion of students passed state tests, despite a high level of poverty in the school.

Others argue that charter schools simply don’t have the resources that district schools do to provide access to after-school activities, sports and a variety of course options – such as economics or ceramics.

“They don’t have enough libraries. They don’t have enough labs. They don’t have teachers who are qualified,” said Amira Ahmed, founder of the Somali women’s group Midwest Community Development.

Last March, local KSTP news reported that Higher Ground was employing three unlicensed teachers. Yigzaw said the report was unfair and failed to mention the school’s good reputation for academics. He said currently all teachers are licensed.

What about integration?

Perhaps even more contentious than the schools’ academic performance is their demographics. Some question whether attending a school that looks so much different than the outside world will prepare students for life after graduation.

“The only way they can get ahead eventually is if they’re co-mingling with everybody,” said Minneapolis school board member Hussein Samatar. “I understand their concerns. I understand where they’re coming from, but you cannot protect children by segregating them.”

Shafi agreed, “They’ll grow together. They can share their values, their interests. You’re missing opportunities of relationships.”

“What we have seen is we are already confused as adults. What we are giving to our kids is more confusion about their identity,” said Ahmed. “They are from here. We are the ones who are from Somalia.”

But Farah said Somalis have the right to preserve their culture. “No culture is totally bad and no culture is totally good,” he said. “Let us take the good pieces.”

“I have my two daughters, and they’re still in their same bedroom, and they will be until they’re married,” he said. “I’m not worried to go to [senior] home care as long as I have children. I will be always with them.

 “My people, to be integrated – to that they will never accept that.”

It’s still pizza

But he’s sort of wrong – the Somali community already has accepted a degree of integration and assimilation, even within the Somali-centered charters. Basford said the students she interviewed interacted with mainstream culture daily. They read manga, listened to rap, watched the Vikings, navigated the bus system, joined Girl Scouts and played in city parks. Despite attending an all-East African school, Basford said, “They bought into that paradigm that American is better than immigrant.” And the school helped. “They flip that paradigm to help these kids understand their strength in being immigrant and refugee and being Somali and being proud of being Somali.”

“I am the type of educator that has always believed in multicultural education,” Basford said. “What the study has really shown me is that I think there’s more than one avenue with which we can educate youth.”

 “You and I know it’s good to be able to learn and work with everyone,” Yigzaw said. “There is a cost-benefit analysis. This is choice.”

In Ubah’s cafeteria, it was the girls turn for lunch. They laughed and shouted as they ate French fries and some sort of flatbread with cheese and sauce inside – an East African dish, said school associate director Patrick Exner. He left the cafeteria to talk to a teacher, and I asked one of the office workers what the flatbread was called – she laughed. It was just inside out pizza.

*Basford agreed before she began the study to keep the school and the students she worked with anonymous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *