Baby Steps: Minneapolis Public Schools Work to Bring Back Somali Students

Alleen Brown, Daily Planet, February 20, 2012

January 19’s Soup with the Supe event began with a song and dance performed by students from Whittier elementary school. The kids sang in Somali before a crowd of mostly Somali parents and community members, who were gathered to share a meal and participate in a question and answer session with Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

The event, held at Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, was one of several steps Minneapolis Public Schools are taking towards a more productive relationship between the district and its approximately 2,000 Somali-speaking students and families.

The steps seem small compared to what Minneapolis and other district schools are up against. One in three Somali-speaking students in the metro area attends a charter school. It’s a problem for a district like Minneapolis that’s working to raise its enrollment numbers. And it’s a problem for community members concerned that charters don’t prepare students for college and the work world—an issue that’s debated heatedly.

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But it also may be a sign that the districts are doing something wrong. The questions posed at the Soup event represent the range of concerns that lead some families to choose charter schools. One man asked why Minneapolis employs so few Somali bilingual staff. A couple parents said they’re worried that kids are losing their Somali language. How are schools ensuring cultural sensitivity when labeling students as special ed? How will MPS make sure every student can read by third grade?

Community members interviewed for this article said parents don’t feel welcome at district schools, charters help Somalis preserve their culture, Somali kids are not academically challenged at district schools, district schools are less safe and too big.

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{snip} In the 1990s, when Somali students first arrived in Minneapolis schools, the district hired a number of Somali educators, including teachers and education assistants.  Word spread that education was good in Minnesota, and according to some sources, that rumor drew more Somali people to the Twin Cities.

Then came education budget cuts and mass lay-offs starting in the early 2000s. Since Somali teachers and education assistants were the newest, they were among the first to go. Around the same time, charter schools began opening, and they absorbed some of the laid off teachers. Somali families followed.

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In December, the multilingual department presented a new plan to the school board. Instead of pulling kids out of the classroom for ELL, an ESL teacher is more likely to go into a classroom and co-teach with the classroom teacher. Teachers are encouraged to promote a higher level of verbal interaction, where students regularly produce academic language. The district is in its second year of implementing co-teaching, and they’ve hired 50 new ESL teachers, some part-time.

The department is also developing stronger heritage language programs at Sullivan and Pillsbury elementary schools, to help students develop their Somali language.

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