‘Bleak’ refugee graduation rate gets legislative committee attention


There are about 65,689 students spread across the state identified as not fluent enough in English to master basic academic courses, Department of Education officials told the House and Senate education policy committees Tuesday.

With a high school graduation rate of slightly over 51 percent for students who are among the state’s growing refugee population, lawmakers hope to use the upcoming session to draw attention to the problem. No action was taken at the meeting.

Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) said the “bleak data” concerning academic performance could be the reality shock needed to prompt legislative policies to help reverse the trend.

“A 50 percent graduation rate is not acceptable. There is a lot at stake. We can’t build an effective society on those outcomes,” said Mariani, chair of the House Education Policy Committee.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the U.S., the second largest Hmong community and one of the largest Liberian communities.

State and federal funds are used by schools to educate these learners. But issues assimilating the students can be daunting for teachers:

  • high rates of family mobility;
  • different ages integrated into various grade levels;
  • little support at home due to language barriers; and
  • intense isolation.

According to department statistics, 78 percent of the English Language Learner students are enrolled within Twin Cities metropolitan area schools — with the highest percentage in the St. Paul School District.

It is one the most diverse school districts in the country, based on the number of native languages spoken by students, said Superintendent Valeria Silva. ELL students make up about 12,445 of the 39,000 student population with over 100 home languages or dialects spoken.

The district has been a resettlement point for immigrant populations, beginning with the Hmong resettlement. Their education strategies have increased the high school graduation rate to 45 percent in 2012, up 12 percent since 2008, Silva said.