Gideon Pond Elementary social worker Abdullahi Khalif, right, consulted with a parent in her native Somali language Friday, September 23, at the school in Burnsville. Credit: Elizabeth Flores | Star Tribune

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This story comes to you from the Star Tribune, through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

Landon Nelson knows which teachers approve of their LGBTQ students’ sexual orientation and which ones don’t.

The 15-year-old Annandale High School sophomore says he feels comfortable and more easily engaged in his art, English, and Spanish classes.

“Anytime I’m in their class, I feel like I can talk to them,” Landon said.

But one of his other teachers will rarely acknowledge him, much less make conversation. Landon is convinced it’s because he’s the president of the Annandale Gay-Straight Alliance at the school about an hour northwest of Minneapolis.

As Minnesota moves toward requiring cultural competency training for newly licensed teachers, some students, and educators say such a standard would go a long way toward making pupils feel comfortable in the classroom. And that, in turn, makes kids more likely to succeed.

You cannot teach a student unless they feel safe.

Abdullahi Khalif, school social worker at Gideon Pond Elementary

“You cannot teach a student unless they feel safe,” said Abdullahi Khalif, a school social worker at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville. “They want to know, ‘Will you respect my culture? Will you connect with me?'”

The debate over a proposed cultural competency standard for educators echoes the national debate over how and whether students and teachers should be allowed to express their identity in the classroom.

In states such as UtahOregon, and Wisconsin, school boards have moved to adopt policies that effectively bar teachers from displaying pride symbols in classrooms. Book bans across the United States have also reached a fever pitch as more than 1,600 titles have been ousted from schools—the majority of them dealing in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, or predominantly featuring characters of color, according to PEN America, a national nonprofit that promotes freedom of speech in literature.

And in Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has signed legislation aimed at curbing the way sexual orientation and gender identity is discussed in the state’s classrooms.

Minnesota’s Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board is moving in the opposite direction. The board wants the state’s teacher preparatory programs to include cultural competency components, such as training on implicit bias and similar subjects, before teachers are credentialed for the classroom.

While the board won’t require colleges and universities to adopt a particular curriculum, its proposed rules say the trainings should include self-reflection and discussion on topics such as gender identity, systemic racism, and mental health issues.

Administrative Law Judge James Mortenson will likely decide whether the new standards can take effect by mid-October.

Opponents turned out in droves to the final public hearing on the proposed rules this month, led in part by partisan rallying cries after Republican gubernatorial hopeful Scott Jensen said the standards amount to indoctrination and the introduction of critical race theory into classrooms.

The president of Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Gene Pfeifer, submitted written testimony opposing the standards, saying he believes requiring educators to “affirm” a student’s sexual orientation may violate their religious beliefs.

In an interview, Pfeifer said Bethany Lutheranhas no plans to alter its teacher prep programs.

He said he worries that requiring professors and teachers to affirm—or, as he interprets it, potentially encourage and promote—LGBTQ identity would run counter to the religious beliefs of several Bethany Lutheran professors and students.

That may cause the Christian liberal arts school to run afoul of the proposed state standards and create a problem when Bethany Lutheran must renew its accreditation.

“We’re doing good things and we don’t want them to be harmed,” Pfeifer said.

He conceded that his concerns may be for naught if the state licensing boards interpretation of what it means to “affirm” a student’s identity merely means educators should recognize the particular struggles LGBTQ students face and empathize with them.

“Let’s just be clear on what ‘affirm’ means,” Pfeifer said. “Maybe it doesn’t mean what some are fearing.”

Officials at the state licensing board, in response to Pfeifer’s testimony and similar comments, said the proposed standards merely mean educators should prove their “capacity to provide a safe environment for all students to learn.”

Pfeifer said he’s comfortable with that interpretation. He said Bethany Lutheran graduates already teach in schools and interact with LGBTQ students across the state.

“As a Christian, we are to show love, kindness, care, concern, respect, and dignity for all people,” he said.

Writing in support of the rules, education professors across the University of Minnesota system argued that the proposed standards mirror what several teacher preparation programs already practice. K-12 educators say culturally inclusive practices help them break through to students who need extra help adjusting to the classroom environment.

Weeks before the start of the academic year, Gideon Pond educators, including Principal Salma Hussein, and Abdullahi, the school social worker, visited families in a predominantly Somali apartment complex.

Abdullahi and Salma are Somali Americans and said the visits were meant to show families the Burnsville school will be a welcoming place for their children.

“When a child comes into this school, I want them to feel at home,” Abdullahi said.

When he started at Gideon Pond seven years ago, Abdullahi noticed teachers expected students to focus on their schoolwork immediately after entering the classroom. He likens a child’s mind to a basket that carries every aspect of their identity—from cultural customs to family traditions and their religion.

Over the years, Abdullahi has pushed educators to consider every aspect of their students’ identity and home lives.

“Teachers expect kids to come with empty baskets and fill them with education. That’s the wrong way,” he said. “We want every kid to keep that basket and add education into it.”

Gideon Pond officials say students have flourished under that culturally responsive approach. About 40 percent of the school’s enrollment is Somali. Gideon Pond students consistently outperform the state in math and reading proficiency, according to Minnesota Department of Education data.

Where fewer than half of Minnesota elementary and middle schoolers tested proficient in math last year, 61 percent of Gideon Pond students did. About 56 percent of the school’s Black students met state math benchmarks, as did half of pupils learning English as a second language. Nearly half the school’s Black students met state reading benchmarks this year compared with about 32 percent statewide. Among students learning English as a second language, 38 percent scored proficient, 10 points higher than the statewide percentage.

“The data matters, and people need to know that when kids feel safe, learning happens,” Salma said. “Culturally responsive standards are good for everybody.”

In Annandale, controversy erupted this year when administrators instructed teachers to remove posters from their classrooms featuring a rainbow swirl and the words “safe space.”

Landon, the president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said tensions have eased now that the raucous debates over signage have subsided. District officials convened a group of students and staff to come up with a new design for posters meant to cultivate a sense of belonging among pupils.

That push continues to matter, Landon said, because he has felt more comfortable and ready to learn in classrooms where he knows teachers accept his sexual orientation.

He said he believes the backlash against the rainbow posters stemmed in large part from people who have never had to confront opposition to a key part of their identity.

“The people who oppose [the rainbow signs] never have to fear that they don’t belong someplace,” Landon said. “They’ve never had that experience. It’s really important for them to listen to people who have had this experience.”

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Eder Campuzano covers statewide education for the Star Tribune.