Abdisalam Adam, the principal of the new East African Elementary Magnet School, spoke at the school site flanked by community leaders including Mayor Melvin Carter and Superintendent Joe Gothard. The school will open in fall 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

A feeling of excitement hung in the air outside the former Jackson Elementary School in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. St. Paul Public Schools had called a press conference to announce that in a few months, the school building would reopen as the district’s first East African Elementary Magnet School.

For many parents, students, and educators, the announcement represented the realization of a long-held aspiration. Amin Omar, a district parent, recalled pushing for a school like this when he chaired a parent advisory council in 2017.

“This is phenomenal,” he said. “This is an approach that we wanted for a long time.”

Amin’s 17-year-old daughter Iman, a student at Highland Park High School, came to support the new school as well. She attended Highwood Hills Elementary, which has a large East African population.

“I think when kids are raised here, they lose connections with their heritage and their traditions,” she said. “When you’re being taught it in schools, there’s more of a lasting impact on you.”

A school like this could help students become more involved in their community, she said.

The school will serve pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students. It will focus on East African cultures and languages, with instruction in Somali, Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Arabic and Swahili. Free busing will be provided throughout most of St. Paul. And it’s scheduled to open in September, less than four months from now.

So far the school has just one employee—Abdisalam Adam, the principal. Abdisalam, an assistant principal at Highland Park High School and longtime St. Paul educator, described the new school as a “lifelong aspiration.”

Under a hazy sky, Superintendent Joe Gothard welcomed guests.

“This is indeed a momentous day for St. Paul Public Schools, as we lay out what we see as an essential and meaningful opportunity to welcome more families into the state’s second-largest school district,” he said.

He praised the diversity of the district’s schools, “where students from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds come together to learn and to grow.”

“That’s a beautiful thing, and it’s the reason that many families choose SPPS,” he said. “We also know that there are families who want something different. They currently have to look outside of the district to find it.”

St. Paul Public Schools has been losing students over the last decade, which led to the closure last year of several district schools—including Jackson Elementary. One reason behind the enrollment decline has been the growth of charter schools, especially those with specific cultural focuses. A Sahan Journal data analysis found that the three most popular destinations for Black students leaving St. Paul Public Schools are all charter schools in which more than 95 percent of students are Black, and more than 75 percent speak Somali at home. 

Some of the district’s most popular programming has a specific cultural focus, Gothard said. Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School is the district’s largest elementary; next year’s pre-kindergarteners in that program will have to attend classes in a different building because they will not fit in the school, he said.

“Culturally specific programs are nothing new in St. Paul Public Schools,” Gothard said. “But what is new is the school that we are here to introduce to all of you today.”

He introduced the school’s new principal, Abdisalam.

“This is a dream come true for not just me, but for the countless families and children who love our great country, the United States of America,” Abdisalam said. “This love also extends to the pride we have in our cultural heritage and traditions rooted in East Africa.”

He invited families from all backgrounds to consider the school.

“Although the name may be East African, this school is open for all families who want to benefit from this unique educational program,” he said.

Halla Henderson, who became the first Eritrean American elected official in Minnesota when she won a seat on St. Paul’s school board, spoke of the importance of representation and community connection at school.

“I speak from firsthand experience as a daughter of an East African immigrant of the pride we have for where we come from and the anxiety of losing what makes our community so beautiful,” she said. “The East African Elementary Magnet School—whew that’s a mouthful!—excites me because it provides us the opportunity to show that a quality education does not mean you have to sacrifice the culture and the languages that make our students and families so brilliant.”

Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul and a proud St. Paul Public Schools graduate, described how companies moving to St. Paul seek out a diverse, multilingual workforce. 

“This announcement today is about ensuring that every single child in our community can enjoy the richness that our St. Paul Public Schools has to offer,” he said.

The district will now need to recruit students and staff for the new school on a short timeline. Most students have already chosen a school for next year. 

Gothard said he had considered the challenge. “I looked at our team and I said, if not now, then when? How long do we have to wait for us to innovate?” he said. But he pointed out the district has faced “incredible challenges” with enrollment for years. Thousands of East African students in St. Paul are currently attending schools outside the district, he said.

“This is a unique opportunity in our history to do something different, to do something bold, to do something innovative,” he said. “What is it that the community is demanding? What is it that can inspire hope and belief in a community? And this is our answer.”

What: East African Elementary Magnet School

Where: 437 Edmund Ave West, St. Paul (former Jackson Elementary)

When: School opens fall 2023

School website: https://www.spps.org/eastafricanmagnet

To apply: Visit https://apply.spps.org/onlineapplication

For more information: You can attend an info session at Midway Peace Park, 416 N. Griggs Street, St. Paul, on Friday, May 19 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. You can meet the principal, learn about the curriculum, and register for next year. Food will be provided.

Questions: Contact Fadumo Salah with the Student Placement Center at 651-632-3709 or fadumo.salah@spps.org.

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...