When charter school principal Bondo Nyembwe sees a classroom filled with the children of immigrants, he feels a professional and personal commitment to help them learn to speak English.
"As a principal [who] immigrated from another country, I'm very aware of the challenges the new families are experiencing," Nyembwe said, "especially those whose parents did not have a lot of education."
Nyembwe leads St. Paul City School, a charter school sponsored by Project for Pride in Living. The school, which serves children in pre-kindergarten through the 8th grade, has 361 students. More than 90 percent of the children are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches as most of the students are from families with very low incomes.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 35-year-old arrived in Minneapolis with his parents when he was 17, determined to succeed.
Part of Nyembwe's motivation to master English, and later earn a master's degree in education from the University of Minnesota, was homegrown. His father was a teacher when they lived in Congo.
It's that kind of commitment that Nyembwe brings to students. St. Paul City School has enlisted the help of Reading Corps, a Minneapolis non-profit, to teach its youngest students English. Instead of one literacy teacher, students in pre-kindergartens have three in each room.
More than 80 percent of students in St. Paul City Schools are from homes where English is the second language, if it is spoken at all, and nearly all are children of families living in poverty.
Many are among the more than 63,000 Minnesota students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, who do not meet state reading standards.
In 2011, there were 388,839 foreign-born residents in Minnesota, some of whom first settled in other states, Minnesota demographer Susan Brower said. That population has grown dramatically since 1990 and is among the fastest-growing in the nation, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit research group based in Washington, D. C.
Minnesota Reading Corps tutor Lark Flynn-Lippert said in her experience students from immigrant families can make huge strides in reading and writing if they have help. Still, she said, many struggle to satisfy testing requirements.
"There are a lot of kids who need help with literacy who just don't get helped because there aren't enough people to go around," Flynn-Lippert said. "I mean every school in which I served had wonderful, wonderful teachers and caring and supportive staff, but just not enough bodies in the room."
Reaching students early can make a difference, as Flynn-Lippert showed when she enlisted a five-year-old named Momo to demonstrate how young children learn to write.
Momo raced ahead and finished her perfectly formed letters well ahead of the tutor's instructions.
Flynn-Lippert said students feel the pressure to learn. She sees it in the emotion they show when they succeed, as a third-grader did last year when taking a test that would determine he advanced to the next reading level.
"I started the timer and he just started going, and I was just clutching my timer praying you know, and he got right on the score he needed to be proficient," Flynn-Lippert said. "We both were just overcome with emotion, and it just meant so much to them."
Flynn-Lippert, who describes herself as an indifferent student who graduated from high school and went on to college but did not earn a degree, said she can identify with the students and their struggle to learn.
"I could be disruptive and I could be a distraction," she said. "I think it helps me understand a kid who is struggling in the classroom a little more and be a little more supportive than someone else might be."
With help from tutors, there are signs of a turnaround at St. Paul City School, where results of standardized tests showed sub-par student performance. After disappointing math and reading scores on state standardized tests four years ago, the 14-year-old charter school sought help from the Minnesota Reading Corps.
The largest program of its kind in the nation, the non-profit Minnesota Reading Corps program is funded by federal and state tax dollars. Statewide, there are more than 1,100 paid Reading Corps tutors and volunteers in schools working with 30,000 children.
At St. Paul City School there are six Reading Corps tutors in the two pre-kindergarten classrooms, or three adults for every 17 students, a much lower ratio than in many other Minnesota schools.
Performance has improved for many but not all of the students.
Nyembe credits school staff and parents for the rising scores among the youngest students.
"Their parents are committed," he said. "They want a better life than they had. Simply what that means, is there is a greater commitment for them to come to school, learn, be respectful to their teachers and appreciate what the school is doing for them."