Somali refugee students struggle through school

Pam Snyder helps Muna Abdi on an opposites worksheet. Snyder says many of her students start with no English and finish the year with a second grader's grasp of the language.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Many teenage refugees have red-headed, soft-spoken Pam Snyder as their first teacher. Snyder teaches the newcomer class at Mayo High School.

It's a class designed for kids with little or no English.

Snyder leans over one student who is struggling with a worksheet on opposites.

Maryan Adow works in her ESOL classes. Adow has spent two years of hard work to become conversational in English.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"Tell me night, what is night?"

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"Opposite," the student answers.

"Yes, but what is night," Snyder asks again. The young woman turns to the interpreter and says something in Somali.

There are 65 languages spoken in Rochester schools. For many of those students there are ESOL classes, or English for Speakers of Other Languages. These days in Snyder's classroom most of the teenagers are Somali or Spanish-speaking. They cling together.

Snyder says she teaches them everything including how to hold a pencil.

"They're adults, with teenage hormones, and having to work and support families and so many things they face," she says. "Yet academically or socially they are like very little children."

While she's teaching them about the United State Constitution and the fundamentals of biology, many are struggling with post-traumatic stress and the shock of their first winter.

Maryan Adow
Maryan Adow
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Maryan Adow (pronounced ah-DUE) studied with Snyder last year. Most kids spend one year in her class. Adow's moved to the next ESOL level. She has the confidence of a woman in charge. She wears a colorful hijab that buttons under her chin. Her first day at school was at 16.

Adow lived in a Kenyan refugee camp.

"When I was nine years old," Adow explains. "I lived in Kenya, and my mothers she said you have to bring the milk at the grocery store. And the police came here, they take me, and then I went to the jail. Five days. Yeah. Five days. Because I don't have any I.D."

In comparison, life in Rochester is easy. By ESOL standards, Adow has done very well. She says she goes to the library every weekend to study and listen to CDs of English.

Adow's goal is to graduate and go to college. She says she wants to be a nurse.

"If my brother he is sick, or my sister is sick or my mother, I can choose the medicine they would take, that's why," Adow smiles.

ESOL class
Pam Snyder works with Erika Lopez Cabello. Lopez-Cabello arrived that day in Snyder's class. Snyder says many of her students arrive and then move to a new town within a matter of six months. Lopez Cabello says she'll be gone by summer's end.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Adow will likely spend a total of six years at Mayo High to graduates. By then, she'll be 21, and state funding for her education will end.

It is unclear how many Somali ESOL students actually graduate. The district only tracks broad racial groups.

The Minnesota Department of Education reports that in Rochester 66 percent of all students with limited English proficiency graduated in 2005. 73 percent of the total black population, which includes Somalis, graduated that same year. White students graduated at a rate of 92 percent. That's no matter how long it took a student to graduate.

Judy Auger is the coordinator for the Limited English Proficiency programs. She says ESOL students need seven to 10 years in school to catch up, but they never get that. She says students are frustrated they aren't moving up, while teachers are frustrated these students slow down a mainstream class.

Judy Auger
Judy Auger is the Coordinator for Limited English Proficiency at Rochester Public Schools.
MPR Photo?Sea Stachura

"We often have teachers who will say to us, 'Why do you let them out of the Newcomers Center when they're only reading at second grade?'" she says.

Auger says additionally it would further isolate a group of students which is already isolated.

Former school board member Mohamoud Hamud agrees. He says the ESOL programming reinforces isolation and leads to disenfranchisement. He says these kids already have obstacles: they are black, Muslim, and lack English.

"So the school system what it does is it lumps them together, which doesn't allow them to integrate with the mainstream. And usually when kids aren't able to succeed in class, they try to succeed in other areas," he says.

Hassan Adow
Hassan Adow has spent two years in newcomers. He struggles to express himself in English and understand words like "frustrated," "photograph" and "index."
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Hamud says overall, Somalis aren't graduating at a high rate, and those who do don't make it to college.

Pam Snyder worries about whether the ESOL programs are really designed for kids to succeed. She says ESOL kids go through more testing than regular students, so there is even less classroom time. But she believes the Newcomers class is critical.

Snyder stands at Hassan Adow's desk helping him on a newspaper assignment. He has a frustrated but sweet expression as he tries to find things like "weather map" and "index" in the paper.

Hassan Adow is Maryan's younger brother. They started in Newcomers together last year, but Hassan stayed behind for a second full school year.

He struggles to speak even short sentences. His vocabulary is limited. Snyder reads the next item on the list for him to find.

"Sports photo. Okay, so here's sports, but what is photo?"

"Picture," he replies.

"Yes. Okay, see if you can find a sports picture."

Hassan at work
Hassan works on an exercise.
MPR Photo

Hassan stares at the page. Above the fold is a photo of two people playing baseball. He keeps staring. He doesn't circle it.

She asks him, "do you see picture?"

"Yes," he says.

"So put a circle around the picture."

Snyder says when she told Hassan she was keeping him in newcomers a second year he was so upset he told her he was leaving.

"He came back," she sighs. "And I'm glad of that. I think he sees that he's not making the progress. And I'm sure that he feels like I'm holding him back."

Snyder thinks Hassan may have a learning disability. However she says he hardly studies and only uses English when forced. She says there are a lot of students who make it, who graduate with high marks while working full-time.

Then there are the students like Hassan, glad to have a chance, but vulnerable.

"I can't sleep at night worrying about them," she says. "It doesn't take too long and they get so discouraged and so depressed about not being able to make it. And then I see their names in the paper and they've had been arrested for drugs or destruction of property."

That is Mohamoud Hamud's point. What's a kid with all these stigmas and no diploma worth to the world? Not much. And this when kids are complaining they aren't being challenged enough, he says.

"We are there for the clients. And the clients are the students. And if the students are not succeeding, then it really puts a question mark, why are you getting a salary out of these kids who are failing," Hamud asks.

Hamud has hopes for Rochester's new superintendent who has experience mainstreaming special needs kids.

In the meantime, Hassan says he will make it. But he admits that last year he went home every day for months with a headache and stomach ache. He doesn't go to the library with his sister. But he swears he will graduate, even if it takes six more years, when he'll be 21. He says he wants to a soldier.