Principal Abdisalam Adam (Photo by Aaron Nesheim / Sahan Journal)

Starting America’s First East African Magnet School, in Just Three Months

After decades of declining enrollment, St. Paul Public Schools made a bold bet: offer families a school with support in seven different languages. The school’s first-time principal had one summer to get it done.

Story by Becky Dernbach

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This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for Sahan’s free newsletter to receive more stories in your inbox.

On a hazy day in mid-May, I sat on a folding chair in a school parking lot as St. Paul Public Schools made a historic announcement. The district planned to open an elementary magnet school focused on East African culture, supporting students in seven languages. The school would open in the fall—just three-and-a-half months away.

The atmosphere was festive. Supporters from the East African community filled the parking lot, cheering on the new school. Mayor Melvin Carter, city council members, school board members, and state legislators all shared their enthusiastic support. On stage, Abdisalam Adam, the school’s new principal, described the plan as a “historic moment that brings our communities together.”

The community enthusiasm was palpable. But the proposed timeline was short.

When the time came for reporters to ask questions, I took my turn. “The school is opening just a few months from now,” I observed. “Can you tell us a little bit about your plans to create a whole school in that time, to fill it with students and staff who speak all these languages?”

Superintendent Joe Gothard acknowledged the challenge, but said postponing the school’s opening was not an option.

“I looked at our team and I said, if not now, then when?” he said. “How long do we have to wait for us to innovate?”

Gothard pointed to the enrollment challenges St. Paul Public Schools has faced. In recent years, the district has lost students every year. That adds up: Over the past two decades, St. Paul Public Schools enrollment has declined by more than a quarter. Last year, the district had about 32,000 students, down from 43,000 twenty years ago. One key factor in declining enrollment: More and more students are choosing charter schools that cater to immigrant communities.

Nearly 13,000 St. Paul students attended charter schools in the 2020–2021 school year. A 2022 Sahan Journal data analysis found that Asian students leaving the district were overwhelmingly attending charter schools where most students speak Hmong at home. Similarly, many Black students leaving St. Paul Public Schools opted for charter schools where most students spoke Somali.

In December 2021, as the district grappled with enrollment drops, the school board voted to close six schools. At the same time, the district has doubled down on increasing cultural programming in its schools. Last fall, it opened its first Hmong language and culture middle school. In February, the district announced its plans to debut Karen language classes in four high schools and online. School officials believe these classes will mark the first Karen language instruction offered at any public school district in the United States.

Now, St. Paul Public Schools is expanding its cultural offerings to the East African community. With its new pre-K–5 school, the district plans to focus on the diverse cultures of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

One of the schools that closed in the spring of 2022 was Jackson Elementary, in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, a mile west of the state Capitol. That building sat empty for a year, serving as a St. Paul Public Schools storage site. Now, it will become the new East African Elementary Magnet School. And it will be led by Abdisalam Adam.

Abdisalam, one of Minnesota’s first Somali teachers, has worked for 27 years in St. Paul Public Schools, as an educator and assistant principal. He recently earned a doctorate of education from Bethel University. He is also an imam and the vice chair of the Fridley school board. He talks about his role in the community as a public intellectual—and with his tortoiseshell glasses and gray beard, he looks the part. Now, he will be a principal for the first time.

In the wake of that May announcement, the task before him was momentous. Over the summer, he would have to recruit hundreds of students; hire an entire school staff, including people who could speak Arabic, Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Swahili, and Tigrinya; and manage the process of cleaning up the building to make it a usable school again.

Back on stage in the school parking lot, Gothard continued answering my question. “You can continue to do things the same way and you will see trends continue,” he said. “Or you can say you know what, this is a unique opportunity in our history to do something different.”

He pointed to the supporters filling the school parking lot. “If I was doing this alone, I’d be concerned, but I’m far from alone,” Gothard said. “There is a community behind us to make sure that we are ready to go for our September start.”

At the beginning of July, I called Abdisalam to hear how things were going. It was his first official day on the job, and he’d only recently gained access to the building. About 80 kids had enrolled so far, he said—far from the district’s projection of 244 students. But he wasn’t worried. Families were still in a holiday mood from Eid Al-Adha, he said. And it was the “East African way” to register closer to the start of the school year.

I asked if I could follow his progress as he worked to get the school ready. He agreed to let me tag along. The first stop: a registration night.

One key component to making a school registration drive fun for students: free ice cream. (Photo by Aaron Nesheim / Sahan Journal)
 

Six weeks to go: Registration night

Under a tent in the school parking lot, refreshments awaited guests: Domino’s pizza, mango drink, sambusas, and baklava. Staff sat at tables, ready to help families with registration and interpretation in seven languages. One table had a rack of free books for kids.

In the far corner of the parking lot, an ice cream truck idled. Nearby, a St. Paul Bike Cops for Kids truck prepared to give away freeze pops.

At the start of the event, most of the people present were district staff and school-board members.

“It’s still early by African standards,” Abdisalam said.

Before the registration night started, 136 children had enrolled in the school. Abdisalam offered to show me around as we waited for more families to arrive. The building felt empty. Tiny desks sat in a kindergarten classroom, outfitted with a tiny sink. A cart of folded metal chairs sat at one side of an undecorated hallway. But for the most part, the building was bare.

Abdisalam was not worried. “I’m making use of the district systems,” he said. Many of the items, like furniture, would come from other St. Paul schools; others, like library books, had been ordered new.

Inside the school, we met Amira Hassan, who will be teaching prekindergarten. Amira, who is originally from Sudan, had previously worked as a substitute teacher at St. Paul’s American Indian Magnet School.

Amira explained that the diversity of the East African Elementary Magnet School made her want to teach there. “They have so many languages and dialects,” said Amira, who is bilingual in English and Arabic.

Outside, families had started to gather at tables in the parking lot, eating pizza and sambusas. One little girl nibbled on a Minion ice cream bar.

Mustafa Diriye, a community activist, took the stage. He invited language interpreters to come forward. “If you are a kid, take a ticket for the ice cream and the food. Parents, have a seat,” he said. “Please put your hands together for Dr. Adam, our new principal for East African Magnet School.”

Mustafa descended from the stage and greeted me. I first met Mustafa when he was working with a group of Somali parents at Cedar Riverside Community School, a charter school that closed in June 2021 following years of parent complaints.

Mustafa stressed that he remained independent of any school or organization, and still wanted to hold schools accountable. But he told me he was excited to support the vision for an East African school in a large public school district, something community members have been requesting for years.

“We forced the district to do something about it,” he said.

On stage, Abdisalam gave an overview of the school.

“As far as we know, this is the first school of its kind in the United States: a school that brings so many languages, so many cultures, so much rich history of East Africa,” Abdisalam said to cheers and applause. “We look forward to filling the halls and the classrooms and all our children learning together, thriving together, becoming proud Americans, balancing life here in the United States with the history and connections to their homeland.”

Interpreters behind him on the stage translated his words into Tigrinya, Oromo, Amharic, Swahili, and Somali; Abdisalam interpreted his own words into Arabic.

Elsewhere in the parking lot, families filtered in to explore the school. Keke Rufus and Philip Dewberry, pushing a stroller with a drooling baby, said they were considering enrolling some of their kids in the school. Because they live in the neighborhood, the school would be a convenient option for them.

“It’s good to see they’re opening it up again,” Dewberry said.

Ikran Mohamed, who lives in Maplewood, came with her daughters. She said she was looking for a sense of community in a school. Her eight-year-old daughter, Nusaiba Bulle, had started out at a public school in White Bear Lake before switching to a charter school, STEAM Academy.

“At the school she was going to before, she was the only person that wears a scarf,” Ikran said. “It makes a big difference to see someone that looks like you, talks like you.”

Nusaiba, a rising third-grader, said she was looking forward to starting at the school. “Because I’ll meet a lot of friends,” she said.

A woman who gave her name as D sat at a table with her three godkids, all dressed in yellow. D said they had come from Tanzania in January and spoke Swahili as their first language. The East African focus and access to Swahili interpretation made this school a good fit for them, D said.

“I was super excited about this school opening because it’s just not a lot of schools out here in St. Paul for especially immigrants or refugees,” D said. Families seemed to feel comfortable with this new school, she said. “Representation matters.”

Abdisalam Adam addresses the growing crowd at the open house for East African Elementary Magnet School. The community made the school possible, he told them. (Photo by Aaron Nesheim / Sahan Journal)
 

Eight days to go: staff training

On the last Monday in August, the staff of East African Elementary Magnet School sat around tables in the school library. It looked much the same as it had a month ago: bright green paint on the cinder block walls and no books on the shelves.

The energy still felt low without children in the school. But now, with adults in the building, it was starting to feel less empty. About half the 20 staff present were Black. They ate muffins and drank Somali tea as they listened to Abdisalam.

“I think when the dust settles, we’re going to be one of the most diverse staffs in the district of St. Paul,” Abdisalam told his colleagues.

He announced that the school had hit an enrollment of 253—exceeding the district’s projection of 244. “And registration is still open,” he said. In recent days, the school had added a third section of prekindergarten; the new prekindergarten teacher introduced himself to his new colleagues.

Later, I asked a St. Paul Public Schools spokesperson how many of those kids had transferred from outside the district. The answer: 70 percent of the school’s first-through-fifth-grade students were not enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools last year. That meant they were transferring from other districts, charter schools, or private schools.

Back in the library, Abdisalam asked staff members to introduce each other, based on a get-to-know-you activity they’d tried the previous week.

Emily Patzer, who will be teaching fifth grade, introduced her fourth-grade teacher colleague, Ahmed Abdi. “He loves to go on picnics,” she said. “I also love to go on picnics when it’s nice out, so maybe the fourth- and fifth-grade team will just go on a lot of outdoor picnics. And his favorite food is biryani, which is one of my favorite foods.”

Beyond a love of picnics and good food, the staff uncovered other shared experiences that might be harder to find at other schools. Abdisalam introduced himself to his staff, explaining his 27-year career in St. Paul Public Schools and his path to becoming a principal, as well as his early life in Ethiopia and Nigeria. He told them he was born in an ethnically Somali village in Ethiopia. As a child, he was responsible for keeping his family’s flock of sheep safe from predators.

“When I tell people I used to chase lions, they never believe me,” he said to laughter.

Gebre Yohannes, the school science teacher, nodded knowingly.

“What’s your experience with lions?” Abdisalam asked him.

“I used to kill them with a spear,” Gebre replied.

Abdisalam said he came from a large family with 14 siblings. “Can anyone compete with me there?”

“Yes,” Amira, the prekindergarten teacher, said.

“You can?” Abdisalam said, sounding surprised.

“I have 11 brothers and five sisters,” she replied. “We are 17.”

Her colleagues murmured in amazement. “Same mom, same dad?” one staff member asked.

Same mom, same dad, Amira confirmed.

Those shared experiences connect to the school’s vision: bringing together diverse experiences from the East African diaspora into one school community, and helping students feel like their whole selves belong at school. Abdisalam showed the staff a sign with the word for “welcome” in all seven school languages, and encouraged them to learn to greet the students in each language. “Greeting someone in their own language, even if all you know is two or three words, you’ll see them light up,” he said.

Most of their students would be Somali, he told them. The next day’s training would include a presentation about faith issues that would affect the school, like daily prayers, fasting, and Ramadan.

While the staff prepared to watch the documentary The Right to Read, Abdisalam told me he’d been putting in long days getting ready for school to start. He rose at five each morning for daily prayers, then began returning emails. He arrived at school at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until after 7 p.m. Once he got home at night, he had to return still more emails.

Sometimes, Abdisalam continued, he woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly remembering that something needed to be moved out of a classroom.

But the prospect of the first day of school felt “wonderful,” Abdisalam said.

“It’s real,” he said. “No longer a dream.”

Suleiman Ismail picked up a lollipop and a yellow wristband with math facts on it from his new third-grade teacher, Keng Xiong. Photo by Aaron Nesheim / Sahan Journal)

Five days to go: open house

The late-August open house was scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. This was the last Thursday before Labor Day; school would start Tuesday morning. This time around, dozens of parents and children had arrived early. The hallway bustled with families, checking in at the front desk and stopping by tables with information about nutrition services and afterschool programs. Kids leaned against doors, sucking on lollipops. The school, which had felt so empty all summer, was now…crowded.

“Where’s hooyo?” one staff member asked a girl who wandered in without parents readily at hand. “Where’s aabo?”

Decorations had started to fill the once-bare hallways. The glass-encased bulletin boards at the entryway, empty a few days ago, now contained written greetings in multiple languages. “East African Elementary Magnet School” was spelled out in yellow letters, accompanied by a paper giraffe that stretched the height of the bulletin board.

And the library, whose shelves had been bare three days before, now appeared full of books: brand-new, glossy, diverse selections prepared with laminated covers and barcodes.

In the gym, Abdisalam’s grin stretched across his whole face. He addressed the growing crowd, about 80 people so far, without a microphone. His soft voice was difficult to hear in the echoey gym. Mustafa, the community activist, tried to quiet the crowd.

“You made it possible,” Abdisalam told the families. “What makes a school? Families, staff, and community coming together. And we have the whole community here tonight.”

Teachers stationed themselves in their classrooms, ready for parents and students to visit. In the third-grade room, eight-year-old Suleiman Ismail met his teacher, Keng Xiong. They practiced pronouncing each other’s names.

“What country are you from?” Suleiman asked.

“My parents are from Laos,” Xiong said. “But I was born here.” He explained that Laos is south of China, and pulled up a map online to show Suleiman.

Suleiman’s mother, Hawo Ali, explained that her son had previously attended the charter school Quantum STEAM Academy, on the West Side of St. Paul. But that location was a little too far away, she said. Plus, she’d heard that in public school, students would have more opportunities and experiences.

“If it’s good, I’ll stay the year,” Suleiman said.

Downstairs, Amira Hassan pondered how she would fit 20 tiny children in her prekindergarten classroom. “It’s going to be crowded,” she said. But she had a plan to spread them throughout the room.

It had been nice to meet some students, she said, but before that point, things had been stressful. “Still we have to unpack all of these,” she said, gesturing to boxes of alphabet tiles and toys for the play kitchen. “They’re waiting on some of the materials to be delivered.”

Down the hall from Amira, kindergarten teacher Khadra Hussien greeted families as they came by. Two little girls in matching green dresses and white headscarves colored at a pod of desks before leaving with their father.

Those girls had not enrolled yet, Khadra explained, but their family showed up hoping to register them both for kindergarten.

“Overwhelming,” Khadra said. “Four months—all this has come together.”

Back in May, when the district first announced its plans for the school, it sounded like a central-office play for student enrollment. But now, families seemed to be showing how much the school’s vision resonated with them. In Khadra’s decade working in the district, she said she had never seen a school with so many students form this quickly.

“You can see how families are interested to see a public school that has people who have their same cultural background,” she said.

Most of the families at this school would be Somali, she said, a demographic that often prefers charter schools. One main reason for that: Somali families often find communication easier at charter schools, Khadra said. It’s easy for them to call the principal or teachers and ask questions in their own language.

Previously in St. Paul Public Schools, she’d heard a lot of complaints about communication. “They have to set up a translator, they have to come at a fixed time,” she said.

The cultural component was important, too, Khadra added. “They are interested in seeing a principal who speaks their language, knows their culture, knows where they’re coming from,” she said. In fifth grade, many Somali students are starting to fast for Ramadan and participate in daily prayers—and it’s important to have teachers who understand, she said.

Now, parents were excited to enroll in a new public school focused on their culture—which Khadra had long hoped for. “I’m really excited, too,” Khadra said. “I want to be part of the history.”

At the end of the open house, Abdisalam told me that the giraffe decorations and the library books had all arrived earlier that day.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “Things are just coming together at the right time.” Volunteers had put up decorations in the last few days without being told, he said. For every task, it seemed like the right person stepped forward.

And now, the building was full of life: the energy and excitement of kids and their parents. Looking back at his years in the district, Abdisalam said, this level of parental involvement stood out. “Historically, Somali parents are not known to participate in big numbers,” he said. “So this is amazing. Something is clicking with people.”

With a three-day weekend ahead, Abdisalam did not plan to slow down. Some students had been assigned bus stops that were too far from their homes, and he would have to address that. He planned to field last-minute questions from staff. And he was still finishing his hiring process—including a new gym teacher, the North Minneapolis basketball legend and former NBA player Khalid El-Amin.

“I feel like something beyond me is happening,” Abdisalam said, and then gazed down the hallway. “It’s bigger than me.”

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal.

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