Mankato's English language education focuses on the whole family

Aperngo Cham holds up a book in a preschool classroom
Aperngo Cham holds up a book in a preschool classroom at Lincoln Community Center in Mankato, Minn., on May 8, 2017.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

In the preschool class at the Mankato Area Public Schools' Lincoln Community Center, it was time for the earthworm song.

"Let me have some earthworms," teacher Jennifer Wood-Bonnell said, and nearly every kid's hand went up. Wood-Bonnell chose three volunteers to wriggle around on the color block carpet while everyone else sang: "Did you ever see an earthworm?"

The song was in English, and so was Wood-Bonnell's conversation with the students. But most of the parents who dropped off their preschoolers had said goodbye in other languages.

The parents hadn't gone far. They headed upstairs to the Mankato school district's adult English language classes.

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With Mankato's growing diversity comes a growing number of students who don't speak English.

That's a challenge the city's school district and community organizations are taking on with expanded English language education programs. Their approach is to start early and focus on the whole family.

Preschoolers crawl on the carpet as students sing a song about earthworms.
Children in Jennifer Wood-Bennell's preschool class crawl on the carpet as the students sang a song about earthworms on May 8, 2017.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

"(Parents) want to make sure that their kids are here every single day. So even if they don't feel like coming, they'll come because they know how important it is for the whole family," said adult basic education coordinator Karen Wolters.

The combination program is part of the district's approach to its growing refugee and immigrant population. Wolters said the combination of classes for adults and kids means better outcomes for both — attendance is up at the adult English classes, and more kids are ready for kindergarten.

The Mankato school district has seen an increasing number of students with limited English skills, from 4.8 percent to 5.5 percent over the past seven years. Wolters said about 85 non-English speaking families moved to the district just this year.

That increase reflects the city's changing population. Mankato has gotten increasingly racially diverse in the past 15 years. The metro area is still 89 percent white, but population growth since 2010 has come overwhelmingly from people of color. The share of residents not born in the U.S. has also inched up to 4 percent in the Mankato metro area of Blue Earth and Nicollet counties, according to the Minnesota state demographer's office.

The Mankato school district's adult program also includes information sessions for parents to help orient them to the school system.

Jill Wood plays with Anas Said in a preschool classroom.
Jill Wood plays with Anas Said in a preschool classroom at Lincoln Community Center in Mankato, Minn., on May 8, 2017. Said and most of his classmates come from refugee families.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Parent Maryam Mahamud said she's learned that the U.S. education system is different from what she was used to in Somalia, where she said the parent-school relationship is much more hands-off.

"But here in the U.S. you have to communicate. We get some papers from the school, and we have to sign and check everything and go to the conferences," Mahamud said. Mankato's four-year high school graduation rate for English learners has increased 22 percent since 2012.

Still, not all Mankato's new immigrants can access programs like the one at the school district. Some families have kids who are too young to attend the childcare portion of the program. Other families lack transportation.

But home visits are available in Mankato through a YWCA program called Ready to Learn. Outreach worker Lul Omar said she and her colleagues prepare kids for kindergarten and teach parents about the education system.

Parent Rahma Muhmud said three of her six children went through the YWCA program.

"They're learning ABCs, they're learning numbers, shapes, and all kinds, so I see a lot of progress," Muhmud said in Somali as Omar translated.

Muno Warsame and Julia Lopez take notes during an English class.
Muno Warsame, right, and Julia Lopez take notes during an English language learners class at Lincoln Community Center in Mankato, Minn., on May 8, 2017.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The Mankato region is counting on new immigrants like Muhmud and her children. Without migration, the region's population would be projected to start declining in about 20 years. That could mean a labor shortage, according to state demographer Susan Brower.

Still, there's work to be done. The Mankato school district's state test scores for English learners are low and have declined recently. Reading scores for the group are about equal to the state average for English learners, and math scores are below the state's overall score for the group.

Mankato school board member Abdi Sabrie said immigrants and refugees aren't the only ones who need help in Mankato.

"We also have the economic divide, the less affluent versus the affluent," Sabrie said.

More than a third of Mankato students qualify as low-income, and less than half of those low-income students are proficient on state tests.

Sabrie said both problems are on his to-do list. "We need to do all of (it) at the same time," he said.