St. Cloud schools to offer state’s first Somali language immersion program

Two people stand for a photo.
Ahmed Jama (left) and Munira Ahmed were two of about 40 students in the St. Cloud school district who took a yearlong Somali language course for native speakers in 2021. The two Tech High School students said they hoped to improve their Somali reading and writing skills, and learn more about their cultural identity.
Courtesy of Ryan Unger, St. Cloud Area School District.

Kindergartners in the St. Cloud school district will soon be able to learn both English and Somali through a dual language immersion program.

Students in a dual language immersion program will receive instruction half the day in Somali, and half the day in English. In current research, the dual language immersion model is emerging as the best option for students no matter what language they speak at home, said Lori Posch, executive director of learning and teaching. 

The program will be offered starting next fall at two elementary schools in the district. It’s believed to be the first Somali language immersion program in Minnesota, and possibly in the nation.

“We know that being bilingual — trilingual, in some of our students’ cases — really is a huge benefit in terms of brain development,” said Posch.

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There are also many English speakers in the community and schools who have expressed interest in learning the Somali language, Posch continued. 

“So this is a great way for us to start that at a really young age, when we know that brains are eager and hungry for language development,” she said.

Growing diversity

The language program’s expansion reflects the growing diversity of the St. Cloud school district, where about 56 percent of students are non-white. About 40 percent of this year’s kindergartners speak a language other than English at home.

“In central Minnesota, we are unique,” Superintendent Laurie Putnam said. “We're really committed to embracing and loving and serving the families that are in the St. Cloud school district. No matter who you are, we want everyone to be able to find a place here and to be able to have rich educational opportunities.”

While many students in St. Cloud are Somali American, they may not have had formal education in their native language, especially how to read and write it, Posch said.

“We also know that it's important for us to not lose language and the connections between elders and between parents and grandparents,” she said. “Being able to value and honor the language, and being able to keep that language alive and growing is important to us.”

Demand for language classes

In 2020, the St. Cloud district began offering an elective yearlong Somali language course for native Somali speakers. Due to demand, the course was expanded to both high schools and one junior high in 2021.

The St. Cloud district also currently offers full immersion programs for elementary students in Spanish and Chinese. In class they learn math, reading, writing, social studies and other subjects, all in the language they are studying.

Beginning with kindergartners in the fall of 2023, the district plans to transition its Spanish immersion program to dual, or two-way, immersion model.  

The district also plans to expand the Spanish program to a second elementary school in west St. Cloud in hopes of reaching more students, Putnam said. 

“We are certain that there are families in surrounding school districts that also value that sort of education and that global perspective,” she said.

District officials believe the benefits of immersion education are far reaching. It improves academic performance in both languages, enhances cognitive brain development and social emotional development, they said.

“There are studies that show physical changes in the brain in terms of attention and problem solving, and areas of the brain that fire differently when people can speak more than one language,” Posch said.

Registration for the immersion programs for fall 2023 will open in January.