Siblings Israel and Sarita Toledo, 15 and 18, worry that if LEAP High School closes, future immigrant students won't have the same opportunities they did. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Kwe Knyaw enrolled in St. Paul’s LEAP High School in 2015, right after he arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand.

Starting school in a new country felt intimidating, Kwe said. Still, he said, “I found myself fitting in really quickly.”

His classmates were also new immigrants. Though they came from different countries, they had a lot in common. He found the support from his teachers “precious.” And the school environment—a small school with small class sizes—welcomed him. “It feels like you belong in this country,” he said.

Now, the school that made Kwe feel at home in St. Paul may close. Last month, St. Paul Public Schools announced plans to close five school buildings and consolidate others, in an effort to provide more arts, science, languages, and advanced coursework at bigger, more sustainable schools.  

But Kwe and his fellow graduates, current students, and teachers say that the district has missed the value a small school can deliver to new immigrant students.

“There is not another option for students right now,” said Sandy Muellner, a biology teacher who has worked at LEAP for 25 years. “I don’t think they understand how important a safe place is.”

The proposal comes as the district faces declining enrollment due to a lower birth rate and competition from charter schools—many of which specifically target students from immigrant communities. Since the district proposed the plan October 11, parents, students, and teachers have filled school board comment sessions to push back on the threat of school closures—especially at LEAP, Highwood Hills Elementary, and Wellstone Elementary, which serve large numbers of immigrant students. 

The school board delayed a vote on the plan, originally scheduled for November 16, to December 1. School board members have expressed mixed feelings on the plan; its final passage is uncertain.

Jackie Turner, the chief operations officer for St. Paul Public Schools, said in an interview that the LEAP model of a separate school for new immigrant students is outdated and not consistent with current best practices. Students who are new to the language and new to the country may need a few weeks to get oriented, but not a few years, she said. In a regular high school, they can enjoy access to extracurricular activities, events like prom, and more rigorous coursework, she said.

If LEAP closes, its students can attend Language Academy programs, which provide intensive English-language services, within district high schools. Others may attend Gateway to College, a program that allows students to earn both high school and college credit, Turner said.

LEAP staff, students, and alumni invited Sahan Journal to meet them after school, at a library in St. Paul, to hear their stories. The library conference room quickly filled with lively chatter as immigrant students from different countries and class years caught up on recent events or met for the first time. 

Some LEAP students told Sahan Journal they’d tried going to regular high schools, including charter schools and other St. Paul public schools. They found it was difficult to learn in larger environments full of English speakers, surrounded by high school social problems like bullying and fighting. 

By contrast, they described LEAP as a safe, close-knit, drama-free community where they can practice English and correct each other’s pronunciation without embarrassment. Many students spoke fondly about an annual Culture Party, where they learn about each other’s countries through food, music, and dance. Students said they value the close relationships with teachers, who helped them with questions in class and after school, and staff, who helped them find health insurance and apply for food stamps.

After Kwe graduated from LEAP, he enrolled at Augsburg University. He plays soccer there after playing on Central High School’s varsity team (LEAP didn’t have its own team). In the interview, he proudly sported an Augsburg sweatshirt. Now 21, Kwe is studying elementary education. The support and care he received from LEAP teachers made him want to become a teacher, too. 

But LEAP’s pending closure worries him.

“I think it will hurt students like myself,” he said. “It will hurt immigrant students.”

What do new immigrant students need?

LEAP, a second home to many of its students, sits in a long brick schoolhouse originally named for President Woodrow Wilson, in St. Paul’s Hamline–Midway neighborhood.

The school grew out of the district’s Southeast Asian Study Committee, a group formed to address how the district was serving its growing population of immigrant and refugee students. Teachers and administrators on the committee noted that students who arrived in the country as teenagers were at high risk of leaving school. Often, these students could not keep up with the curriculum in a mainstream high school. They proposed a separate academic program for these learners. LEAP opened in September 1994.

“It was because of a need for students who were dropping out and falling through the cracks,” said Muellner, who has taught at the school since its third year. “Serious students. Students who had really lots of skills in life, lots of amazing things to bring to St. Paul and to our community. And they were getting trapped with not having a high school diploma.”

The school first opened on the fourth floor of a refurbished former shoe factory in downtown St. Paul. At first, it also allowed flexible options for adult students and young parents who needed a part-time school schedule. In 2003, LEAP moved to a district school building in the Hamline–Midway neighborhood, and has been there since. 

Initially, the school primarily served Hmong students. Over time, as immigration patterns shifted, more students started coming from Africa; then Karen students started arriving from refugee camps in Thailand. Today, about half the school’s population is Latino. 

Demographics aren’t the only thing changing the student population at LEAP—so is dwindling enrollment. That’s in part due to a major decline in immigration and refugee resettlement under President Donald Trump, which has yet to change much under President Joe Biden. Just 144 students attended the school last year, down from 341 in 2013. 

But LEAP students say they value their tight-knit community and personalized attention from teachers.

“I think if they close LEAP, I’ll just be another student in another school,” said 15-year-old Israel Toledo. “Another number, not a person.”

The small school was the “perfect size for me to learn,” Kwe said.

Zemzem Hassan, 24, first enrolled in a predominantly Somali charter school when she came to the United States in 2014. Her classmates there had grown up in the U.S.; they shared her culture, but not her experience or limited English skills. “At LEAP, we have students who may come from different backgrounds, but we’re going the same direction,” she said. Zemzem plans to start a nursing program in January at St. Paul College.

Zemzem Hassan remembers not knowing how to ask to get a drink of water or use the bathroom in English. Her teachers wrote the words on the whiteboard. Seven years later, she’s starting nursing school. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Abdurazak Taro, a 20-year-old senior wearing a necklace in the shape of the Oromia region of Ethiopia, enrolled in LEAP nearly three years ago, right after he arrived in the United States. He didn’t know any English at all. “I start from alphabet,” he said.

The small class sizes at LEAP give him space to learn. At most, a class might have 20 students, Abdurazak said. “If you have any questions, you have a chance to ask.” That wasn’t the case when he attended summer school sessions at Harding High School and Washington Technology Magnet School, he said.

District reports success with other programs for immigrant students

Twenty years ago, Turner said, LEAP filled an important role. But over the past few decades, the district has used achievement and graduation data to learn more about what new immigrant students need, and it has created more educational options for those students.

In 2012, the district expanded the Language Academy program to be available to students in every part of the city. Language Academy classes, capped at 27 students, provide intensive courses in English language and other core subjects just for new English learners. In Language Academy, students also interact with English-speaking peers in art, music, and gym classes. 

“We have learned through best practices that it is not always in the best interest of a student to keep them secluded,” Turner said. Placing students at Language Academies inside district schools would provide opportunities for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, and extracurricular and social activities like sports, debate league, and prom, she said.

Sarita Toledo, an 18-year-old senior, disputed that LEAP lacks advanced coursework and extracurricular options. 

Through LEAP, Sarita has been able to enroll in St. Paul classes through PSEO. LEAP also connected her to summer programs: She received certificates in first aid and customer service, and attended the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth at Macalester College. Now, she’s a finalist for the prestigious Questbridge scholarship, which places students at top colleges like Macalester, Carleton College, and Vanderbilt University.

“That’s proof that LEAP High School is really preparing us, just as any other high school,” she said. 

‘I felt like a normal student again’

When Sarita came to Minnesota from Mexico with her brother Israel in January 2020, she didn’t speak any English. But her teachers incorporated English learning into all her classes. Her chemistry teacher, for example, taught English as part of chem. Sarita recounted the first time she started to understand her teachers. Behind her floral mask, her eyes filled with tears. “I felt like a normal student again,” she said.

Abdurazak, too, said his English has improved steadily over the past three years. A friend who came from Ethiopia at the same time and now attends a traditional high school has not learned as quickly, he said.

Sarah Schmidt de Carranza, interim executive director of the district’s office of multilingual learning, said data show similar improvements in English skills among LEAP and Language Academy students. In 2018 and 2019, three district high schools performed slightly better than LEAP on the standardized test that measures English learning; two others scored several percentage points behind LEAP.

“There’s not a huge difference between LEAP and our Language Academy pools in respect to language acquisition,” she said.

Israel says he has learned enough English that he feels ready to go to a mainstream school if LEAP closes next year. But he wants future students to benefit from LEAP.

“I’m fighting not for me, but for the new immigrants coming to the country,” he said.

His sister agrees.

“They want us to think that we need the same education as any other student,” Sarita said. “Equity is not the same education for everybody. It’s what everybody needs. And I think that at LEAP, we are receiving what we need.”

The school board has scheduled additional public hearings for November 16 and 30, and will likely vote on the proposal December 1.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.