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Willmar, Minn., School District, parents from African community look to work together to help students succeed

Abdulahi Omar gestures Wednesday during an interview in Willmar. Omar, a resident of Willmar the past 12 years, said he is glad the school district wants to work with Somali parents, as it will make them aware of the community's needs. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

It's frustrating for parents to watch their children struggle in school and not know how to help them. For east African parents in Willmar, the pain of that situation is acute.

They are grateful to be in a country that offers a public education for all students, and they want their children to go to school and learn and have a successful future.

But Somali parents who may have never had the chance to go to school themselves are watching their children struggle with the adjustment to their new home.

In the words of a Somali elder in Willmar: "How would you feel if you were dropped in the middle of Somalia?"

Imagine being a 15-year-old who's never been to school because there wasn't one in the refugee camp where you grew up. You don't speak the language or understand the unspoken rules of your new country. Your parents can't help you, because they don't understand the language or the rules yet either.

"The parents are frustrated with this," said Abdirizak Mahboub, who operates West Central Interpreting and Consultant Services in Willmar with his wife Sahra Gure. Mahboub has lived in the United States for 30 years and works with local east African refugees, predominantly from Somalia. They have three children attending Willmar schools.

Representatives of the Willmar School District have been meeting with parents from the African community this summer to discuss ways they can work together to help students succeed.

Mahboub translated for several parents earlier this week as they talked about the relationship between the school district and east African families.

The parents in the community understand that "the solution does not come with the school," and they want to develop a partnership to help their children, Mahboub said.

The state has identified Willmar's schools as having some of the larger achievement gaps in Minnesota. The district is writing improvement plans for its elementary schools this summer and will work on similar plans for the middle and high schools in the fall. Input from minority communities is being sought for the plans.

Abdulahi Omar, who has lived in Willmar for 12 years, said he is glad the school district wants to work with the parents, as it will make them aware of the community's needs. He has four children, most of them born in Willmar.

"It could be beneficial," he said, "but if it only becomes one-sided, it won't help anybody."

The parents raised several issues that they want to work out with the school district.

Omar said he believes an in-home tutoring program is needed for the Somali students who are new to the country.

Mahboub said the mosque and community center the African community plans to open might be a good location for after-school tutoring programs. The community recently purchased the former Lafayette Elementary School. The building will open soon, once a sprinkler system has been installed.

Hassan Muhumed, one of the Somali elders in the community, said there is a concern that they sometimes receive papers to sign that they don't understand. Sometimes it's for a field trip to a place they may not have approved, he said.

"We want to work with the school district and help parents to understand," Hassan Muhumed said. He has eight children, four still in school.

Another concern is the state graduation tests. They are often too difficult for students who began their education just a couple years earlier. Some students go to other states to get their high school diplomas, said Muhumed Hassan, another Somali elder. If they stay here, they don't graduate.

They aren't asking for a waiver from the tests, said Muhumed Hassan. He echoed Omar's wish for more intensive tutoring programs.

The parents don't blame the school district for any miscommunication, Mahboub said, and they appreciate the school's efforts to involve them in problem-solving.

The challenges for the new students go beyond academics, Mahboub said. They are impatient with sitting so long, when they've never had to do it before. They need to learn to stand in line, to raise their hands in class and many other things that other children started learning in pre-school and kindergarten.

"They have to adapt," he said. "If they fail, they become a burden to the community."

The hopes of the Somali parents are like those of other parents, he added -- they want the next generation to be more productive and successful, to benefit their families and their communities.

"It is good, also, to have open channels, so we can have future discussion," said Hassan Muhumed.

Follow Linda Vanderwerf on Twitter @lindavanderwerf.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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