Abdi Omer, a longtime civil engineer, hopes to be a bridge for the Somali community on the school board. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Sahan Journal interviewed all seven St. Paul school board candidates: Chauntyll Allen, Yusef Carrillo, Zuki Ellis, Carlo Franco, Abdi Omer, Erica Valliant, and Gita Rijal Zeitler. Voters can choose four.

Name: Abdi Omer

Age: 63

Current day job: Engineer for Public Works Department, city of St. Paul

Kids in district: Raised 11 children; three currently attend district schools

Neighborhood: East Side

Abdi Omer came to the United States in 1983 on a scholarship to study civil engineering. While he was studying in Texas, civil war broke out in Somalia. Moving back home became impossible.

“It was tough,” he recalled. He was eventually able to return for a visit. “My parents were there, so I have to take care of them.”

Abdi has now been in the United States for 40 years. He has raised 11 children, between his own kids and his stepchildren. Three of them, as well as two grandchildren, currently attend St. Paul Public Schools. His oldest daughter is a teacher in Minneapolis.

“I’ve always advised my children to be a public servant,” he said. “I am a public servant. My father was a public servant.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for St. Paul school board?

I really want to change the trend of our children, our families, and our community. I researched ways that we can help some of the youngsters. I started asking questions about the success of the education system and our male young African Americans. My Somali children are the same. I don’t know what’s causing this problem—maybe lack of mentoring, shortage of teachers to become a model for those children. So I’m looking for a way that I can do some research and help our community. Also, I would like to bridge my Somali community, which has a very large population of young kids who go to school, and the school board and school system.

In 30 seconds or less, why should voters choose you?

I would like them to choose me because of my experience, but I’m also an advocate for the educational system. I can be an ear for new things and new ideas. I also listen, and I support parents and teachers. Teachers are very important, because they are the front line against the fire that we are facing. So I think I can add to the achievement that we want to see our children reach in the school district.

List three things you think are going well in St. Paul Public Schools.

We have a very good community. Our schools have achieved a lot; for sure they can do a lot more. The administration and the board care about the future of the children. I really love teachers. I would love teachers to have support.

And I do like the way they value our data, which is a very good way of increasing achievement in measurable terms.

Also, I like the preschool in St. Paul. I found a big difference in the community where I help translate between the children that went to preschool and children that didn’t go. So community commitment, the quality of the school board, administration and the teachers, the people working very hard to help our youngsters achieve.

St. Paul Public Schools has historically seen many kids from immigrant families leave the district for charter schools. What do you think the district is doing well to attract and retain immigrant families, and how should it improve?

I’m a public school supporter. Children who go to those charter schools really do not benefit. That’s my opinion. Very good idea to reach and dig deeper, without interfering with the option for people to do what they like to do, but to find the real reason why a mass exodus has gone to charter schools.

Last year, the district saw a few very scary incidents at schools—including one high school student fatally stabbing a classmate. What do you think the district is doing well in regards to school safety, and what does it need to do differently?

I think we don’t have to take one incident to many things. It’s a very good idea to take good data and say, well, what’s the breakdown? But also, we have to be concerned about other safety issues, like bus rides, which I hear about from my children. There is an outside threat and an inside threat.

What’s another issue that would be a priority for you on the school board, and how would you approach it?

Preschool education. I really would like to see youngsters have an early education. We can close the gap, because it is a root cause of this problem. Very hard to catch up because we are always moving children from one class to another without really taking into consideration whether the child can read, whether they can move to that next class. We need to find a resource to help those kids. So it’s time to find funding for that.


Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...