Despite schools’ attempts, immigrants continue to struggle

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In Minnesota, the immigration population has been rising. They come from the lush hills of Laos, from the dust-covered streets of Somalia, from the quaint villages of Mexico, and for many of them their destination is the state of Minnesota.

A lot of those new Minnesotans are children who need to go to school. And when their first language is Spanish, Hmong, Laotian or Somali rather than English, there are challenges to integrating them into predominantly English-speaking schools.

Abdusalem Adam, a Somali community specialist in Minnesota, believes that St. Paul has taken steps to integrate the Somali immigrant population into the school system.

“In recognizing the head scarf, the food they are careful… the ability to pray when the times comes… It is the reason why so many Somalis came to this state,” Adam explains.

And the school systems have responded with programs ranging from English Language Learner classes in conventional schools to charter schools for specific immigrant groups. Programs such as the Somali Academic Literacy and Teaching after-school program, which works exclusively with Somali speakers grades 3-6 in St. Paul, helps to enhance their English language proficiency.

Heidi Bernal, director of the English Language Learners program in St. Paul, says the St. Paul school system’s immigrant students are achieving at “high levels.”

This spring, for example, 45 percent of ELL 10th graders in St. Paul public schools passed the statewide reading test compared with 40 percent of comparable students throughout Minnesota. Only 16 percent of ELL 10th graders in St. Paul passed the statewide math test, however.

Dropout rates for immigrant students in Minnesota public schools are also higher than average.

Citing U.S. Census data, a student in St. Paul with limited English proficiency is twice as likely to drop out than the average American-born student, said Barbara Ronningen, a demographer with the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

In the 2005-2006 school year, nearly 5 percent of all students with limited English proficiency in grades 7-12 dropped out. This compares with nearly 3 percent of all students in the Minnesota school system.

And aside from problems learning in the classroom, students in these public schools can also have troubles socially.

Dulce Romero, a 17-year-old student at El Colegio Charter School in Minneapolis, explains that it’s difficult to make friends with people who communicate in a different language.

“It’s hard to talk with people whose first language is English… because I’m unable to express what I really want to communicate,” Romero said through a translator. “The language barrier makes talking significantly more difficult.”

Last year, at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis, there were 40 students who didn’t graduate in the expected four-year course. Of those 40 students, 25 were Latino. Edison Assistant Principal Michael Bradley cites economic, demographic, lingual and cultural issues.

“They may feel marginalized,” Bradley said. “Poverty is a huge issue. Race, language, all things that push them to the margins already, and reinforce the idea that you don’t assert yourself…You know your place, so to speak.”

However, not all of the stories end with gloom.

Ibrahim Hirsi, a Somali immigrant and graduate of Wellstone International High School, a charter school in Minneapolis, is now studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.

Educated in Kenya, Hirsi came to Minneapolis at age 18 with very little time to get his high school diploma before being declared ineligible at age 21.

“I went to my counselor… and he really helped me,” Hirsi said. “He e-mailed all of my teachers asking if I was ready for college… And they all said ‘yes.’”

At age 20, Hirsi graduated from Wellstone. Although he was unsure whether he was ready for college, he has done well and is now working as a reporter for the Minnesota Daily.

“I did not know what to do with my life,” Hirsi said. “…But now I’m feeling great.”

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