First graders at Gideon Pond Elementary School in Burnsville work on coloring pages and eat breakfast on the first day of school, September 6, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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What’s your back-to-school animal? Are you a sloth who moves too slowly to arrive on time? A bunny with too much energy? A bear who wants to stay in bed?

In any classroom on the first day of school, you’ll probably find a combination of these personas. Going back to school is a big change—and the last few years have already brought plenty of changes for Minnesota kids. For some Twin Cities students, the start of school will bring even bigger changes than usual: new leadership positions, new school district boundaries, new friends, a brand new school. 

To mark the first day of school, we visited three Minnesota schools in the midst of transitions: Burnsville’s Gideon Pond Elementary, St. Paul’s Hmong Language and Culture Middle School, and Minneapolis’ Green Central Elementary. We asked students and school leaders about how it feels to sit at a new desk, memorize a new locker combination, open a fresh box of markers—and in some cases, make history.
One Minneapolis fourth-grader, who identified with both the bunny and the bear, offered a textbook-perfect synopsis of the day: “I wanted to stay home,” he said. “But I was also really excited.”

Here’s the longer version of the story.

Gideon Pond Elementary School: ‘It’s going to be a really good year, InshaAllah!’

Salma Hussein, the principal of Gideon Pond Elementary School, greeted students on the first day of school. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Half an hour before school buses start arriving, a Somali boy with braces is sitting in the principal’s office at Gideon Pond Elementary School in Burnsville. He’s not in trouble. He just arrived early; now he’s ready for the school day to begin.

It’s his second year at the school, he explains, so the first-day jitters aren’t so bad.

“Last year I was a little nervous,” he says.

“I’m a little nervous, too,” confesses his principal, Salma Hussein.

It’s Salma’s first day at Gideon Pond. She spent last year as an assistant principal for Central High School, in St. Paul; before that, she served as a social worker in Minneapolis Public Schools. Now, she’s the building leader in a new community. It’s her first day working in an elementary school setting, and her first day ever as principal.

Burnsville schools have quickly grown more diverse in recent years. State data show that 15 percent of all kids in the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage district now speak Somali at home. At Gideon Pond, 40 percent of students are Somali, Salma says. 

But representation among teachers and administrators has lagged. In July 2020, Minnesota’s first two Somali public-school principals began their positions in St. Paul and Bloomington. A third Somali principal has since been hired in Minneapolis. In Burnsville, Salma has now joined the small but growing group. She believes she’s the only female Somali principal in Minnesota.

“I really believe that representation matters,” she said.

Like many of her students, Salma picked out a special outfit for the first day of school and got temporary henna tattoos on her hands. She’s already started to get to know students and families at back-to-school events and ice cream socials.

“​The kids here really want to connect and be in community with one another,” she says. “Minneapolis is diverse, but I don’t always see a lot of interactions between different communities. Here, people want to be in community together. I love that.”

As parents drop their children off at the school entrance by the parking lot, marked with a sign that reads “Gideon Pond Elementary Values All,” Salma greets them in English or Somali. Sometimes she calls a parent “abaayo” or a child “habaryar,” Somali terms of familial affection. 

A little girl smiles shyly as her principal, Salma Hussein, compliments her shirt on the first day of school at Gideon Pond Elementary School in Burnsville. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“I’m really excited to be here,” she says to one family. “It’s going to be a really good year, InshaAllah!”

One little girl wears a white hijab and a pink shirt that says “Be kind to all kinds.” As Salma compliments her shirt, the little girl grins ear to ear, exposing a missing front tooth.

One little girl wears a white hijab and a pink T-shirt that says “Be kind to all kinds.” As Salma compliments her shirt, the little girl grins ear to ear, exposing a missing front tooth.

It’s a challenging time to become a school principal. Daunting academic and social challenges—many grounded in the pandemic—have heightened Minnesota’s already wide racial academic disparities. Salma hopes to use her social-work background to create an environment where students feel loved and supported—and better able to learn. She also hopes to connect with kids through shared culture—like wearing henna, and bringing Somali words to school.

“I grew up just focusing so much on learning English, that I am now just beginning to learn Somali,” she said. “How do we change those experiences so that kids know that they’re amazing, and that school is the space that allows them to be the best version of themselves?”

Destiny Thomas, a first-grader at Gideon Pond Elementary School, told Sahan Journal about her first day of school.

Hmong Language and Culture Middle School: ‘This is something they have wanted for a long time’

The hallway walls are mostly bare at the Hmong Language and Culture Middle School, in St. Paul. But they won’t be for long, says Veu Thor, the principal. Teachers and staff have only recently arrived to start setting up their classrooms. Last year, this school on St. Paul’s East Side functioned as a Montessori middle school. For both staff and students, it’s their first year in the building. 

In fact, it’s the first day of school for Hmong Language and Culture Middle School ever. School officials believe this to be the first Hmong middle school in the country.

“We’re hoping that we can get some Hmong artists in here,” Thor said. “We need to display a wealth of culture, so that when our students walk these halls, they get the feeling that it’s very welcoming in their native culture.”

Veu Thor, the principal of Hmong Language and Culture Middle School, is hopeful the fledgling school will grow. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The new Hmong dual-immersion middle school came about as part of St. Paul Public Schools’ “Envision SPPS” plan, which closed some schools and changed programming in others. As part of the plan, two elementary-school Hmong programs consolidated into one building. And graduates of the elementary program will now be able to continue their language and culture studies into middle school.

“The feedback from our community is that this is something that they have wanted for a long time,” Thor said. “It’s finally becoming a reality.”

The new school represents a longtime goal for district officials, too: They hope it can help retain and eventually increase enrollment among the city’s Asian American students. Declining district enrollment drove the school board’s decision in December to close some schools. One major reason for the district’s enrollment decline: Many families choose charter schools instead. The largest of those charter schools focus specifically on the Hmong community, attracting thousands of St. Paul students. 

Providing a district middle school focused on Hmong language and culture could be a way to win some of those families back.

One major reason for enrollment decline in St. Paul Public Schools: Many families choose charter schools instead. Providing a district middle school focused on Hmong language and culture could be a way to win some of those families back.

This year, the school serves only sixth graders, primarily graduates of Hmong elementary programs. For each of the next two years, the school will expand to add a grade level. Right now, enrollment is small: only about 60 students, taught by six teachers. But growth is only a matter of time, Thor says. 

Right now, many people still don’t know the school exists, or confuse it with a charter school. This year, school officials plan to do more community outreach.

“Hopefully we will be able to reach some of our families here on the East Side,” he says. 

The new Hmong Language and Culture Middle School is still sparsely decorated, but a few signs line the walls. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In art class, the sixth-graders appear less concerned about making education history than they are with getting through their first day of middle school. Eva Yang, 11, says the weirdest part of middle school is having to dial a combination to open her locker. “If I didn’t need it in elementary, why do I need it now?” she says.

Eleven-year-old Nalee Vang, her hair in two long braids, says she feels nervous about getting to all her classes and worries her schedule might change. But despite the growing pains of adjusting to sixth grade, she says she’s glad to be attending the new Hmong Language and Culture Middle School. 

“I can feel comfortable speaking my native language at school,” she says.

Students work on name tags in art class at Hmong Language and Culture Middle School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Green Central Elementary: ‘I’ve been seeing a lot of you help one another today’ 

At Green Central Elementary School, in Minneapolis, Braulio Carrasco introduces a book to his fourth-graders. “As you listen to the book, think of what it reminds you of,” he instructs them in Spanish, then rephrases his direction in English.

It’s Green Central’s second year as a Spanish dual-immersion magnet school, a change implemented by the district’s Comprehensive District Design. Because of the redistricting plan, many students transferred to Green Central last year from other schools—and some of them still don’t know each other. For some kids, that adds to first-day nerves.

Carrasco, at the front of the room, readies a YouTube video to show a read-aloud of the book First Day Critter Jitters, in which animals share their back-to-school fears. A sloth worries he moves so slowly he won’t get to school on time. A snake can’t figure out how to attach a backpack to his slithery body. A baby kangaroo suffers separation anxiety and doesn’t want to leave the pouch.

The kids giggle along with the book. Carrasco, at the front of the room, laughs along with them. In the end, the snake helps the sloth get to school, and the sloth helps the snake with his backpack.

Carrasco asks the class to share reflections with a partner, then the rest of the class. He models the exercise: “This book made me think about the different animals and their different attributes,” he says. “And it was kind of funny.”

“Kind of?” interjects a child.

One fourth-grader shares that she saw a sloth at the Como Zoo. Another says he feels like a combination of the energetic bunny and the bear who didn’t want to get out of bed.

“I wanted to stay home,” he explains. “But I was also really excited.”

Another child says she appreciates how the sloth and snake helped each other at the end.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of you help one another today,” Carrasco says. “The book reminds me of that, too.”

The fourth-graders return to their desks for an important art project: They must draw the name card that will mark their lockers all year. Carrasco tells them, in English and Spanish, to draw something that represents them: a cat, say, or a soccer ball. One girl draws purple donuts. Fruity Pebbles Donuts are her favorites, she explains.

Ian Caballero Rubio, 9, colors spirals with a chain of markers stacked on top of each other. He was nervous to come back, he says. “Half of the people that are in this class, I don’t know,” he explains.

Ian Caballero Rubio, 9, colors spirals with a chain of markers stacked on top of each other. He was nervous to come back, he says. “Half of the people that are in this class, I don’t know,” he explains.

That’s because of last year’s redistricting changes. He’s attended Green Central since before the redistricting switchup. But last year, some of his classmates left, while others came in from different schools.

“I was kind of like the kangaroo,” he explains. “Because he didn’t want to leave from his pouch.”

But Ian is glad he left the pouch, he says. His teacher, Carrasco, is nice. He’s looking forward to learning division. And even though it can be intimidating not to know everyone, he’s looking forward to making new friends.

In fact, he says, he’s done it before. One of last year’s transfer students became his best friend.

🟥 BACK TO SCHOOL

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...