“Who Are Schools Designed For?”: A Look at East African Elementary in St. Paul

The first school in the United States that specifically focuses on East African cultures and languages is set to open in St. Paul, Minnesota in September 2023. For the city’s East African community, this news calls for a moment of celebration and reflection. Because traditions from the African diaspora are not often taught — and sometimes even suppressed — East African Elementary will offer underrepresented students an education that centers on their identities. Cover graphic by Jewel Justice for Midstory.

Housed at what was previously known as the Jackson Elementary School, East African Elementary Magnet School will teach kindergarten through fifth grade and specialize in six of the most prominent East African languages: Somali, Amharic, Oromo, Arabic, Tigrinya and Swahili. The school resides in Frogtown, a neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Although it’s the first in the country to specialize in East African languages and culture, residents of St. Paul have desired this school for years. 

“This is something that the community has asked for and felt a lot of tension around for a long time,” Halla Henderson, a district board member who is also East African, said.

“When a student’s identity is recognized, when their values are appreciated and they see role models in their buildings, it does translate into higher academic achievement and better performance,” Dr. Abdisalam Adam, the new school’s principal who is of Southeast African descent himself, said.

In the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district, which has some of the most diverse schools in Minnesota, East African students make up about 7.5% of the total student enrollment. Frogtown is ethnically diverse, especially because many families from Africa, Asia and South America moved to the neighborhood in the late 20th century. Of the African families, a large number are from East Africa; Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the U.S., the majority of whom live in the East Side area of St. Paul today.

Although East African people make up a significant portion of St. Paul and SPPS’s population, only recently has the idea of having a school centered on East African languages and cultures materialized. 

“We have a really robust East African community,” Henderson said. “[We are] part of the bedrock of the work that happens in the Twin Cities … but there isn’t a lot of cultural representation or an understanding of where we come from.”

There are precursors within the SPPS system, such as immersion programs in French, Chinese, Spanish and Hmong languages and cultures.

Hmong Language and Culture Middle School, which opened in the fall of 2022, was a model for East African Elementary, Adam said. 

“It drew a lot of interest from the Hmong community in the second generation, people who are yearning for their history and their roots and their culture,” he said.

Thousands of East African students in St. Paul attend schools outside of SPPS, a large percentage of them being charter schools with a more cultural emphasis. Recognizing the declining student enrollment in SPPS schools from these communities and aiming for inclusion, the district launched East African Elementary.

Another component is the profound impact a school like East African Elementary will have on its youth, the majority of whom are expected to resonate with the curriculum through shared identities and languages.

Image courtesy of Dr. Abdisalam Adam via spps.org.  
Image courtesy of Dr. Abdisalam Adam via spps.org.

“We’re hearing from research,” Adam said, “that students and families need to be seen — need to see themselves as part of the American Dream.”

East African students who attend the school will learn about their communities deeply in a way that is not as feasible elsewhere — East African languages and cultures are not part of the typical U.S. public school curriculum. 

As a magnet school, East African Elementary will be able to provide a unique curriculum to suit the needs of its students.

“I am positive that there are schools that must have some sort of language component of wanting to keep those roots,” Henderson said. “But I don’t know that I can find another public school in the country that specifically has this intense [of a focus on East African culture and languages].”

Magnet schools emerged in the U.S. in the late 1960s. The goal was to increase diversity in public schools through specialized curricula, recruitment in different geographical areas and inclusive admission practices. Unlike traditional public schools, magnet schools offer a targeted academic focus and require an application.

“It’s program-based,” Adam said. “Some of the language immersion programs like Spanish immersion or Chinese immersion will draw students from all sides of St. Paul. And for this particular school, it’s East African cultural languages.”

Language immersion is only one type of magnet school that SPPS offers: there are STEM, gifted and talented, arts and other programs.

The magnet school’s position as the first East African-centered school in the country follows a long tradition of erasure in the U.S.

“In the history of the U.S. … the goal has been to remove languages [from] different cultures. You learn English, you’re talking English, you identify as an English-speaking person,” Henderson said. “Folks who come from the diaspora … we have been taught that our languages are not worthy of being studied, that they are not something that we should hold on to and feel deeply rooted in. That’s intentional.”

Henderson said that her high school experience was particularly difficult because she attended a predominantly white school.

“There were people [of color], but in my school, the places that I lived [in southern Minnesota], I was really it. And that was … really startling for me,” Henderson said. “That shift of ‘Oh, I am — I am seen, I am represented, and this is where I should be’ to ‘[I’m] actually an outlier here’ — that’s a really difficult thing to go through. And I think a lot of folks go through that.”

Even in school systems with more diverse student populations, the lack of representation in curriculum and staff remains a common issue White teachers make up about 80% of public school teachers in the nation, yet fewer than half of the students are white.

“The educator pool doesn’t always look like our students,” Henderson said. “And we also know that some of the staff that are integral to our students, and who look like them, are not yet licensed.” 

Henderson said the SPPS district will work to ensure the staff at the elementary school reflects the student population, although it may take some time. 

“On day one, we’re not going to have [an] entire building staff of entirely East African folks,” Henderson said. “That comes in waves and that comes in getting the right folks in the building, making sure the families are represented in the community.”

Both Adam and Henderson acknowledge how essential the elementary school is not only to give students the best education possible, but also to debunk monolithic displays of Africa abroad.

East Africa encompasses over 13 countries and hundreds of languages. According to Adam, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya alone have around 100 languages, and it will be “powerful” to show the beauty and diversity of the continent. 

“We were taught that Africa is one thing,” Henderson said. “It’s just this vague idea of what [African] people are … and our idea of the people that live there is inherently skewed.”

While East African Elementary might be the first of its kind, Henderson and Adam alike are hopeful it can spark larger progress. 

For now, Henderson’s goal is to create a safe space that provides a counternarrative to stereotypes about Africa and immigrant families. 

“If we can say these immigrant communities are not taking resources, they are not being stubborn and refusing to speak English, but are actually valuable, cherished, loved members of our community, and that Black history has a role in every single space in our district,” Henderson said, “then we can start to shift the narrative about who belongs here and who belongs and leads in these spaces. That’s the hope.”


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