Minneapolis Public Schools was forced to reverse course after pushback from Somali and Hmong parents and teachers, some of whom said they would leave the district if it moved forward with proposed cuts to its Somali and Hmong heritage language programs due to budget constraints, URL Media partner Sahan Journal reported last week.

“In less than a week, our parents were able to advocate for their kids’ heritage language learning,” Deqa Muhidin, who coordinates Somali heritage language programs for Minneapolis Public Schools, told Sahan Journal. “Our parents were able to advocate for multilingual leaders. And the district was surprisingly able to receive the message and respond appropriately.”

Earlier this year, Muhidin, who is also a children’s book author, spoke with Sahan Journal about the Somali Heritage Language program, which she launched in 2021 when about 4,000 of its students identified as Somali. The program started small with about 70 kindergarten and first-grade students in its first year. The following year, the program added second- and third-graders more than doubling the size of the program, bringing enrollment to 162. 

Now, in its third year, the program serves 350 students in kindergarten through third grade. The district also offers Somali language classes at two of its high schools.

“We started this program because we knew long-term how that would impact student lives,” Muhidin told Sahan Journal. “We knew that parents would be supportive, and parents asked for it. And to see it become a movement of its own is very, very surreal.”

However, Superintendent Joe Gothard in neighboring St. Paul has publicly gone on the record to say culturally affirming schools were among his top priority to protect as its school district also faces major budget cuts. Those schools have been credited with stabilizing the district’s enrollment after years of steady decline, Sahan Journal reported.

The charge from the community is many of our students and families leave because they don’t feel seen, heard, and valued in St. Paul Public Schools,” Gothard told Sahan Journal. “And that hits my heart as an educator, as someone who cares about the children.”

The district last year opened the nation’s first East African magnet school with just three months of lead time. The year before, Sahan Journal reported that the district opened the nation’s first Hmong language and culture middle school.

And it’s not surprising that these schools and programs would flourish in Minnesota, especially in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, that has long been a place of refuge for people fleeing crises in their home countries.

In the 1970s, Hmong refugees began arriving as a result of their work with the U.S. during the Vietnam War in neighboring Laos, as the Star Tribune reported in this story co-published by Sahan Journal. Twenty years later, Somali refugees began arriving in the state after the collapse of their government led to extreme violence, as MPR News noted in this story also co-published by Sahan Journal.

There are more than 500,000 immigrant residents in the state — accounting for nearly 9% of the population — according to the American Immigration Council. The largest immigrant groups to call Minnesota home hail from Mexico, Somalia, India, Ethiopia and Thailand, though there are people from more than two dozen countries living in the state.

It’s clear that the immigrant communities across Minnesota have been able to make their mark in the state, especially when it comes to education. Let’s just hope that these school districts continue to serve them — especially when money is tight. — Alicia Ramirez

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