Hussein Samatar came to this country from Somalia in 1994 and spent about seven years learning English, taking in the language by poring over books and watching TV soap operas. He eventually received his MBA in financial management from St. Thomas University and became a banker at Wells Fargo. Samatar has since headed the African Development Center on the West Bank in Minneapolis. This past November, he became Minnesota’s first Somali-born elected official when he won an uncontested seat on the Minneapolis school board, a job he starts this month.
This is one of a series of short interviews, introducing members of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education. To see all the interviews published to date, click here. This article was originally published in Twin Cities Metro.
Are you still in the process of figuring out what the issues are in the Minneapolis Public Schools?
I think there are a gazillion issues that we can focus on, but I will often limit myself to three key issues as much as possible. The first will be the budget. Number two would be the ELL [English Language Learner] programs-that’s key for me. And finally I would like to really understand where the district is going with what we call “new schools.” As you know, there is nowadays an intersection between charter schools and public schools. I need to know how that fits into public education, how different that is going to be, how money is going to be diverted to public schools.
In terms of those three issues, have you formulated any goals or things you’d like to change?
One main issue while I was running was the ELL program. There are about 24 to 25 percent English Language Learners in the district. It is a growing community-one where growth came from the district for the last couple of years. The ELL department has been the most unstable of all the departments. They have had three different directors in three different years-people come and go.
What I’m asking with my board members is to create a commission to study how we are delivering the services now, how much money are we spending on it, and how could we do better, so we can create a program that we can all be proud of.
I believe we can’t afford not to be the best ELL community in the state. We have a lot of children, and with the little support that they have had, they are doing well in terms of closing the achievement gap. If we help them more, we should be able to do more.
What would this commission look like?
The commission would really be just people who care about the ELL program-students, parents, teachers and somebody with expertise on ELL policy. This country is a nation of immigrants. It has become very diverse. I’m assuming there are schools that are out there that are doing a good job with such programs, and we can learn from them. How are they doing it? Who does it? How are they spending? What does the system look like? I don’t know-that’s why I say that I’m always coming at it and asking questions.
I hope we will learn from Saint Paul Public Schools. The current superintendent [Valeria Silva] used to be head of the ELL department there. I hope she can give us some light as to what they have there. I know they also struggle, but they are doing reasonably well.
Do you feel you have a particular commitment to the Somali community or the African community?
Honestly, my take on all of this is that we as human beings are a product of our environment and experience. Absolutely I would love to understand how Somali students are doing in the district, how other Africans are doing in the district, but I will also tell you that I’d love to know how all of our children are succeeding, whether they are from the Latino community, the Asian community or the traditional African American community. I see myself to be African American rather than Somali. Why is that? Very simple. The issue came up during the campaign. I framed it this way: Last time I checked, Somalia was still in Africa, and I’m an American. I would hope people would just see my performance and judge me by what I do and what I say.