When Miesso Wako moved from Ethiopia to the U.S. at 15 and was going to high school in Brooklyn Center, he felt alone.
“I felt like I was alone because [at] that time, I didn’t know English very much,” he said.
ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.
Wako, now 19, looked for a school with more people who he could communicate with in his own language. When one of his friends told him about a school designed for immigrant students, he knew he probably would find more people there who were Oromo like him.
Today he’s a twelfth grader at Lincoln International High School in Minneapolis.
Lincoln is designed for immigrant students and was founded by the Institute for New Americans in 1996 by request of the Minneapolis Public School district.
There was a need for a school just for teenage immigrants to give them a safe environment to improve their English and adjust to a new culture, according to Lincoln’s web site.
When it started, the charter school was called Abraham Lincoln High School and was supported financially by an Episcopalian church and the Minneapolis school district.
The school started with only two students before growing to serve about 400 students at one point. “This year we have around 120 students,” said Faysal Ali, the principal of Lincoln. “Ninety-nine percent of the students attending Lincoln are international students,” the principal said. He also said that 60 percent of the students are African and other 40 percent are Latino.
Lincoln is a place where Latino, Somali and Oromo students coexist very well. All students have each other’s backs. For example, when a classmate needs money for the bus there is always someone who would lend the money because they know that they are going to get it back.
Sometimes Oromo and Somali students like to try to speak Spanish – saying things like “te amo,” which means “I love you” – to impress the Latino girls. But the girls usually just laugh because the guy doesn’t know what he is saying, or he’s just being funny.
When you see a group of students at Lincoln, they are usually a mixture – not only Somali, Oromo, or Latino. The difference in cultures doesn’t separate students. But Latino boys also respect Muslim girls’ religious beliefs by knowing not to touch them.
“At Lincoln the difference is that people come from around the world … and I can learn new things from them,” said Wako, who graduates this spring and plans to study accounting at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Many new immigrants arrive at Lincoln facing big challenges. “Many of our students are English learners and some of them do not have a prior formal education,” said Ali.
In the past, the school has faced challenges too with educating immigrant students.
“The challenge has always been increasing student achievement,” Ali said. “We want to increase test scores.”
All students in the public school system are required to take tests that prove a student has a solid knowledge of math, English reading and writing before they can graduate from high school. When students don’t meet these requirements, the school can get into trouble.
In 2002, an English teacher accused a former principal of Lincoln of manipulating test scores. The teacher said the principal was allowing students who would likely fail the test not to take it. The teacher also said that during the math test, the principal was helping students, which isn’t allowed.
The Minnesota Department of Education investigated. It found no evidence that the principal helped students answer questions, but it determined that he had prohibited some students from taking the tests.
In 2005, a former student with a hearing problem sued the school because he felt he did not receive an adequate education. The Department of Education investigated and found the school didn’t have an adequate system to identify students who required special services. But the lawsuit failed because there was not enough evidence that student’s rights had been violated. Lincoln now provides special services to students who need them, Ali said.
In 2007, the old Abraham Lincoln High School closed because the International Education Center, the organization that created it, decided to not run the school any more. Teachers from the school decided to open a new Lincoln International High School as a charter school, according to the organization’s website.
Lincoln’s new building (Photo by Carlos Ortiz)
In the past three years the school has not faced any legal troubles. It has changed its location to an old brick school building in south Minneapolis that offers free parking, a gym and a cafeteria, amenities the previous location in downtown Minneapolis didn’t have.
Lincoln is now educating immigrant students and helping them to improve.
Osbaldo Solano, a current student in Lincoln High, was not sure if he was going to graduate from high school. Solano, 16, came to this country when he was 9 years old from Mexico. He has been at Lincoln for two years.
He thought he wasn’t going to pass the writing and math tests. Just by helping him with reading, teachers helped him pass the writing test last year.
“If [immigrant students] … don’t … feel like they are learning in other schools, they [should] probably come to this school. They will probably feel much relief; they will learn more; they will get help,” Solano said.
Carlos Ortiz is a senior at Lincoln International High School and participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s fall News Team class.