The kids coming off the buses Tuesday were planning on spending the day meeting their teachers, making new friends, and settling into a new school routine. Making history was not on their minds.
But as the first students to attend St. Paul’s East African Elementary Magnet School in St. Paul, that’s what they were doing.
“This is an important day for St. Paul Public Schools,” said Superintendent Joe Gothard, standing outside the school. “Some would say this is an important day for the nation, in recognizing the importance of being culturally responsive in a way that meets the needs of families, and the education they desire for their children.”
St. Paul Public Schools tasked Abdisalam Adam, a longtime St. Paul educator and first-time principal, with opening the school—the first of its kind in the nation—in just three months. Administrators were betting that the school, which offers language support in Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, Somali, Oromo, and Tigrinya, would attract new families and help stem St. Paul’s enrollment decline.
On Tuesday, students started classes there for the first time. And 80 percent of the school’s 256 students were new to the school district.
Standing next to Gothard, Abdisalam sought to expand credit for the school’s success.
“It’s not about any particular person, it’s about the aspirations of generations of families who have chosen the United States as their homeland from now on,” he said. “I’ve never seen this amount of collaboration at all the different levels, from facilities to nutrition to curriculum.”
Inside the school, Mohamed Hadi, a Somali cultural specialist for the school district, said the quick establishment of the elementary school has inspired the community to push for a middle school and a high school. The new school’s mission is resonating with families, he said.
“Charter schools, they feel home, and here it’s the same,” he said. “They don’t feel scared or strange or anything.”
Upstairs, students trickled in, some arriving late because of transportation difficulties. In the third-grade classroom, children ate breakfast and tried to identify rhinos in a morning worksheet. Some students asked where to find the bathrooms. Another asked for a Band-Aid.
Abdisalam stopped by to greet the class. “Work hard and get good grades; make your parents proud,” he encouraged the students.
“I always forget the school’s name,” one girl said.
“It’s a bit long, right?” Abdisalam agreed. “Just remember, East African. That’s good enough. Can you say that, everybody?”
“East African,” the children said in chorus.
“The rest will come later,” Abdisalam said.
‘They’re loved here’
As students settled into their worksheets, Keng Xiong, a third-grade teacher with a Hmong story cloth tattoo on his left arm, said he is excited to be teaching in the district where he attended school.
“Even though I don’t reflect the students here, I can still connect with them with parents as immigrants,” he said.
From his own experience, Xiong said he knew it would be important to pronounce the names of the students and their family members correctly. He said he is glad to see high levels of parental engagement already, and hopes that continues throughout the year.
“My biggest hope for today is to show the kids that they’re loved here, they’re welcomed here, as well as their family,” he said. “They can come in anytime.”