East African teachers connect with younger versions of themselves

Abdiasis Hirsi teaches.
Abdiasis Hirsi teaches a beginning writing class for English language learners at Wellstone International High School in Minneapolis on March 11, 2015. He wants his students to be able to write full paragraphs and sentences by the end of this school year.
Tim Post | MPR News

The 14 students in Abdiasis Hirsi's writing class at Wellstone International High School, housed within Roosevelt High School in south Minneapolis, haven't lived in the United States very long.

Most have been in Minnesota a few months, and some arrived a few weeks ago. Half of the students speak Somali as their first language. They're learning English from Hirsi, a native of Somalia who came to the United States 10 years ago.

Hirsi wants his students to succeed, but because their surroundings and the language are new to them, he's starting with modest aims.

"By the end of this year, a goal for me is that my students are able to write a decent paragraph," he said.

Hirsi, a student teacher from Augsburg College, is part of a special program to recruit and train teachers who came to the United States from East Africa, particularly from Somali and Ethiopian communities.

The Twin Cities college is making an extra effort to recruit and train teachers of East African descent as the need for those teachers and other teachers of color is growing increasingly important.

According to state Department of Education data, there are 252,574 students of color in Minnesota, or 29.5 percent of all students. The department doesn't have projections for minority students in coming years, but the largest population growth by 2030 in Minnesota will be among the state's black, Latino and Asian populations, state demographers say.

With that in mind, leaders of the East African Student to Teacher program say there is a critical need to quickly place its teachers into classrooms.

At Augsburg, scholarships cover the student teachers' tuition. They meet twice a month to discuss teaching, and offer each other support.

The need for teachers who connect with students is something Asma Ibrahim, who was born in Pakistan to Somali refugee parents, understands well. When Ibrahim moved to Owatonna at age seven, she found it difficult to adjust to school where no one was prepared to help her.

"I never felt comfortable with my teachers, because they were all white, and they didn't understand me," she recalled.

Ibrahim also struggled with the curriculum. She didn't hear much in the classroom that connected with Somali culture.

That helped motivate her to become a teacher. At 21, she is studying elementary education at Augsburg.

According to state data, only 3.8 percent of the 55,000 K-12 teachers in Minnesota are nonwhite. The number of fully licensed teachers of East African descent, estimated at about 20, barely registers.

Ibrahim wants to do her part to raise that number. When she earns her teaching license, she hopes to lead a classroom full of students of color.

"I just want to make them comfortable enough to learn," she said. "That's my goal."

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that minority teachers are better able to increase the achievement of students of color.

That's one reason to increase the number of teachers of color in Minnesota, said Audrey Lensmire, an assistant professor at Augsburg and director of the EAST program.

Lensmire said teachers of color also can bring a new perspective to schools, something other teachers benefit from.

"We believe that by having more teachers of color in our K-12 system, their professional voice will be shared by their colleagues," she said.

Lensmire hopes the school can expand the program to its Rochester campus.

The Augsburg program — like similar efforts to train, recruit and retain teachers of color at Concordia University, St. Thomas University and Hamline University — is funded through the state's Collaborative Urban Educator Program. It provided $390,000 in funding to the four schools in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years.

Gov. Mark Dayton's education bill for this legislative session seeks to continue that funding at the same level through 2017.

State Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, has introduced a bill at the Legislature that would nearly double the program's funding over the next two years.

Several of the student teachers in the Augsburg program, including Hirsi, already have some teaching experience.

Born in Somalia, he moved with his family to Kenya when he was about 10. At 19, Hirsi helped open a school in Nairobi before his family moved to Minneapolis.

The school's mission was to teach English to Somali refugees on their way to Europe, Australia and the United States. "I experimented with the profession of teaching at a very young age," he said. "Coming to the U.S. from that background, I had hopes and dreams to be successful in my new adopted country."

Hirsi said the students he teaches in Minnesota today are going through an experience that mirrors the one the students he taught in Kenya went through more than a decade ago: They're learning a new language in a new school while adjusting to a new country.

He thinks he's better able to reach those students, particularly Somali immigrants, than a white teacher would.

"I talk to them; I ask how they are doing," he said. "I try to connect them to the services that we have at the district level and services at the community level."

Correction (March 20, 2015): The original version of this story incorrectly reported where Hirsi is a student teacher. The story also incorrectly stated when Hirsi came to the United States. The current version is correct.

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