Equity & Diversity

Out of Africa

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 21, 2001 20 min read
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Photographs by Allison ShelleyAllison ShelleyTop, Deeqo Hassan checks her spelling with classmate Hassan Yusuf, right, during a language-arts class. Many Somali students arrive in the United States with no formal schooling. Above, girls in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya received uniforms as an incentive to attend school.Students at the welcome centers share facilities with other students in the Columbus district but take classes separately for up to one year.Above, Fawzi Ahmed demonstrates to middle school welcome-center students how to use a microscope. He is one of many Somali teacher’s assistants hired by the Columbus school district. At left, a Somali newcomer reflects the conservative values of her Muslim family in her attire.

Stephanie M. Drotus is evaluating aloud how one of her students has written “Sunday” on the blackboard. “Nice ‘d,’ ” she says, with enthusiasm . “Look at that ‘d!’ ” Taking a piece of chalk, she fixes the “a” and the “y” a little so they’re not mistaken for other letters of the alphabet. She also erases the small “s” the student has used to begin “Sunday” and replaces it with a capital letter. “You need to have a capital. It’s big,” she says, and stretches her arms high and low to illustrate the word.

Most students in American schools would consider such a lesson beneath them. But even though the dozen students in this class range in age from 15 to 18, they are excited to be here, eager to learn. The lesson is fresh for them because, up until now, they have never been to school-or at least not for a long enough stint to learn to read and write.

The students are all natives of the East African country of Somalia, refugees of the civil war between tribal groups that erupted in their country in 1990 and continues today. Some of them have witnessed fighting firsthand and lost close family members to the ravages of war; others were forced to flee their homeland and live in crowded refugee camps in Kenya or on the fringes of African cities, often for years.

In the stark refugee camps, “education is pretty limited, and for cultural reasons, girls attend school less than boys,” says Anne Costello, the director of the refugee-service center at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.

  • Out of Africa
    A new wave of refugees from Africa, including many students who have had little or no education, poses a challenge for programs to help immigrants. Includes a photo essay by Education Week‘s photo editor Allison Shelley.
  • The ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan Find a Home
    About 3,600 Sudanese youths who were orphaned by war are being resettled in the United States under a special initiative by the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. The media have dubbed them the “lost boys” of Sudan.

Some children who live in the camps-where food allocations often consist of a single meal of cornmeal per person each day-don’t go to school because they are hungry; they suffer hunger-induced headaches and find it hard to concentrate on classwork.

Many Somali students who are 18 today likely received only three years of formal education before the public school system in their country collapsed at the start of the civil war, says Abdinur S. Mohamud, a Somali native and a consultant in English-as-a-second-language/bilingual education for the Ohio education department.

Somalis have a history of being educated in English, Italian, or Arabic. But many never became literate in their own tongue until after 1972, when the Somali language was written down for the first time and the government launched a national literacy campaign. Before the war, schooling was compulsory in Somalia.

“Anyone younger than 16 has not had any chance of a public education” in Somalia, Mohamud says. And the only way that some Somali children have received a decent education as refugees is through private schooling or home schooling, which have not been options for most, he adds.

But now 1,600 Somali children have enrolled at Columbus’ public schools. That represents two-thirds of all students in esl programs in the 64, 900-student school district, Ohio’s second largest.

When hundreds of Somali students started showing up at Columbus schools three years ago, district officials were taken by surprise. “There was no warning. They just started coming,” says Ken T. Woodard, the esl supervisor for the district. “We were pretty unprepared to receive them.”

How the Columbus district overhauled its esl programs-launched in the 1980s to serve small numbers of Southeast Asians-may provide insight for other districts that receive a sudden increase of students with little or no schooling from far corners of the world that are unfamiliar to most Americans.

“The challenge that is now facing the Columbus school system and [ districts in] other parts of the United States is to develop strategies to help these students, who are not typical esl students whose only challenge is a language barrier,” says Mohamud, who has a doctorate in education administration from Ohio University. “Here, you have academic as well as language barriers.”

If the public schools do a good job with such students early on, he says, they’ll go a long way toward preventing larger challenges down the road, such as problems with youths’ dropping out of school, using alcohol or drugs, or getting involved in crime.

Already, districts in Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, San Diego, Seattle, Fairfax County, Va., and Rochester, Minn., face situations similar to the one in Columbus because they have experienced a large influx of Somalis over the past several years. While some of the Somalis who make those places their homes were resettled there initially by social-service agencies, others moved there after first living elsewhere in the United States.

Somali students need to be led step by step through the process of schooling, notes Bryon D. Bothum, the bilingual coordinator for the 16, 000-student Rochester school system in Minnesota, which has 700 Somali students.

“They come here-and it may be the first time they think of school as a building. They’ve never stood in a lunch line. They’ve never had to return a library book,” Bothum says. “Because they are in a group of people who have similar skills, we’re able to transition them into the mainstream.”

Many Somalis in Columbus say they moved here because of a perception that Ohio’s capital city offered more affordable housing, better jobs, and a more tolerant atmosphere toward followers of Islam, the predominant religion in Somalia, than some of their ports of entry to the United States.

Districts such as Philadelphia have recently experienced an increase in refugee students from other African countries, such as Sudan, Sierre Leone, Liberia, and Ethiopia. Those students often have had experiences similar to those of the Somalis in Columbus because their countries, too, were wracked by war. (See related story, Page 34.)

And more refugees from Africa are on the way. Thanks in part to strong advocacy from the Congressional Black Caucus, the U.S. Department of State has nearly tripled the number of refugees the United States accepts from Africa over the past three years. This year, one in four of the 80,000 refugees expected to be resettled in the United States is slated to come from African countries, according to the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Refugees.

Schools have modified their programs for students with limited proficiency in English, founded for the most part in the 1970s, for various waves of immigrants, but some educators say their programs have not had to adjust for such a large influx of refugees with significant gaps in schooling since the late 1970s and 1980s, when large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees entered the United States following the Vietnam War.

That has been the case with Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, which received in the 1990s first a small influx of refugees from Ethiopia with little schooling followed by a very large influx of Somali refugees. Nearly 30 percent of the school’s 1,500 students are Somali. “Sometimes we would get 10 a day and it was overwhelming for us,” says Fred Meyer, who retired last year as the school’s principal. “We accommodated them with little help or resources from our district.”

“Somalia is not good,” says 16- year-old Hodan Omar, who attended school for the first time when she enrolled in the Columbus public schools two years ago. “They killed you. They killed my father and my three brothers.”

She stands up abruptly, puts on a stern look, and pretends she is a soldier holding a gun and barking orders. “They say, ‘Don’t go there. You don’t have to go anywhere'-like that,” she says, sitting down again.

“In Columbus-school now,” says 15-year-old Hassan Yasuf, one of the students in Drotus’ class. Yasuf understands simple questions in English, such as “What is your name?” and “When did you come to Columbus?” He can follow basic instructions from his teacher. But he doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to converse in English.

So instead of conversing, he finds a children’s picture book in his classroom and demonstrates how in the several months he’s been in Columbus-the only time he’s ever spent in school-he has learned to read.

He carefully sounds out all the words in the book, Up Went the Goat, pointing to illustrations that correspond with words in the story, such as " coat” or “goat.”

The Columbus district’s overall strategy for helping the Somali students has been to create separate short-term programs for them-and for any other immigrant students in need of making up a great deal of ground academically.

While Somalis at the elementary level participate in regular esl programs, older Somali children can attend one of two “welcome centers” at the middle and high school levels before entering a regular esl program. The welcome centers are now in their second year.

From the beginning, the strategy was attacked by some members of the Somali community, and some are still critical of the approach. But other Somalis, particularly those who participate in the programs as bilingual teachers’ assistants, give it strong backing.

“There was a crisis at the time when the welcome center was established,” explains Mohamud. “The local paper here published an article with the headline, ‘Special School for Somalis,’ or something to that effect. A lot of people felt that by putting Somalis in one school, you are segregating them from the regular community.”

But now, he adds, “I don’t think anyone would argue that these students should be sent to a school in a sink-or-swim plan.”

Only 13 of the city’s 144 schools had esl programs at the time Somalis started immigrating to Columbus in significant numbers during the 1997-1998 school year, and those schools were the first to feel the effects of the new wave of immigrants. In schools with esl programs, students attend regular classes for most of the day but are taught English skills in separate classes for students with limited proficiency in English for two periods a day. Teachers in regular classes, particularly those in the upper grades, were overwhelmed by dealing with students who didn’t know the basics of reading and writing, school officials say.

Immigrant students attend a welcome center for only one year, where they receive instruction in math, science, and social studies, as well as English. The centers’ teachers either have esl certification or are taking courses in the field. Class sizes are small-each teacher has 25 or fewer students. The instruction is primarily in English and the program is officially an esl program, but the centers employ teachers’ assistants who speak English and Somali or another language, such as Spanish, that is the native language of some of the immigrant students.

While the immigrant students at a welcome center may interact with native-born American students at lunch or during electives, such as a computer class, all of the core academic classes are self-contained and are overwhelmingly composed of Somali students. Students are further divided into six levels according to their literacy skills, with the lowest-level class for students who arrive throughout the school year who haven’t yet learned to read and write. At the high school welcome center, which enrolls 135 students, that is the class Drotus teaches.

The occasional Mexican, Ethiopian, or Chinese student is surrounded by Somali girls with flowing head coverings and long skirts-worn in accordance with their Muslim beliefs-and Somali boys clad in typical American teenage boy attire.

The welcome centers, also called newcomer centers, are part of a relatively uncommon approach to educating immigrant students in the United States, but one that is gaining momentum.

Their central philosophy is that immigrant students with very limited English should be placed in a transitional, self-contained program for a short time to learn esl and academic content before attending regular schools.

One aspect of the Columbus program that fits well with what researchers favor for students who move to the United States in their teenage years is that it provides instruction-in English, with the occasional explanation in Somali-in all core academic subjects to students from their very first day at school.

“Particularly at the secondary level, the students have to start getting the academic material as soon as possible,” says Deborah J. Short, a language-education researcher at the Center for Applied Linguistics who tracks newcomer programs. “Otherwise, they’ll run out of time before graduation.”

On his first day of school ever, therefore, 12-year-old Abdi Shakur Warsame this winter attends a science class where, with a small group of fellow students, he examines a live crayfish.

Before he even knows how to write his name, he is exposed to science vocabulary in English. The teacher helps the class understand a key term for the day: behavior. And the laboratory activity, accompanied with a great deal of pantomime on the part of the teacher, consists of students’ learning to identify the crayfish’s pinchers and antennae and learn what they do.

The majority of the classes have a Somali teacher’s assistant, usually a man who received a high school or university education before war broke out in Somalia. Those assistants play an active role in the classroom and with communication between teachers and parents.

Unfortunately, says Woodard, the district’s esl supervisor, the school system has had a hard time retaining Somali teachers’ assistants because the pay is low-$9.70 an hour. He wants to see their wages raised.

In a social studies class at the middle school welcome center, assistant Mohamed Hussain stands at the front of the classroom alongside Theresa Dearing, the teacher, as she tries to explain to students what a “test” is . “It’s when I ask you questions,” she says, “and you give me the answers.”

She has Hussain help her illustrate the point. “Mr. Hussain, what time is it now?” Hussain casually looks at his watch and says, “Oh, 15 past 12.” " That’s an answer,” Dearing says, turning to the students, “I asked him a question.”

And during a presentation later about Native Americans in which Dearing uses a lot of visual aids, Hussain strolls the aisles, chiming in both in English and Somali. Sometimes he translates parts of Dearing’s presentation into Somali. Twice during the class, in a good-natured tone of voice, Hussain corrects Dearing’s pronunciation of the new student’s first name: Abdi Shakur (it’s “AHBdee shawCORE”).Occasionally he targets a Somali student for a cross look and a command in Somali to shape up.

“We start from scratch, how to read and write-how to behave,” Hussain says about the welcome center, which has 96 middle school students. When many Somali children first arrive, they don’t know how to sit still in school because they were accustomed to having the run of the refugee camps, he says.

But in about three months, they learn the basics of school culture, everything from how to hold a pencil to how to form a line to go to the cafeteria. “Now, they behave,” Hussain says with pride, gesturing toward the 18 students in the social studies class.

Students who attended one of the welcome centers last year say it eased their adjustment to American schooling.

Somali student Faisal Nur, 16, who now goes to Linden McKinley High School in Columbus, says that without the welcome center, school is “too hard.”

“You didn’t know any English,” he says.

Hodan Omar, the girl who lost her father and brothers to war, likes the welcome centers. “They give you a paper that says you have to read, study,” she says. “You have to read more in your home. You have to [be] quiet in your class. You have to give your teacher respect.”

But neither student receives most instruction from mainstream teachers yet at McKinley.

Nur and Omar are participants in a program that the district began piloting this year at McKinley as yet another means of giving older Somali students-or any high-school-age immigrants with poor schooling-instruction at their academic level. The district calls it “sheltered English” instruction, in which core academic classes are taught in rudimentary English, a method that is used by some other U.S. districts as well for immigrants who arrive in the upper grades.

While after a year in the welcome center, students such as Omar and Nur can function socially in an English environment and can read and write, they’re still likely to feel lost and isolated in a regular classroom, according to teachers and the principal of McKinley.

The high school was “failing miserably” in teaching such students by placing them in regular classrooms and having esl teachers tutor them within those classrooms, says Nick W. Lugin, an esl math teacher at McKinley. “The teachers were doing algebraic equations on the board, and our students didn’t know what three-times-three was. I had girls cry because they had done their homework, and they were failing.”

He has no doubts that the Somali students with very limited academic skills are participating more fully in school in separate academic classrooms than they would be if they were in the mainstream. “They would never read in the conventional classrooms-they’d be embarrassed,” Lugin says. “Or they’d do it once and they’d be ridiculed.”

While the district doesn’t have statistics that break out the proportion of Somalis who leave school, many Somalis and teachers tell stories of students who dropped out because they felt they couldn’t understand enough of what was going on to bother attending. They add that some of the students get help with schoolwork at home, and others don’t, sometimes because their parents are busy working, or haven’t ever been to school themselves.

So for a second school year in a row, Nur and Omar are receiving their core academic classes in esl classes made up mostly of Somali students and sometimes with teacher’s assistants who speak their native language.

The special sheltered classes have reduced the stress level of mainstream teachers in the school, says Carlton D. Jenkins, McKinley’s principal. " Now you see the students engaged in the class. Before, they were less willing to participate-raise their hands.”

Esl teachers say they feel an urgency to help the Somali students catch up with their American peers. For one, they can’t graduate unless they can pass Ohio’s high school exit exam, which students take for the first time in the 9th grade. Some Somali students already have passed the exam, but most of those students had some schooling before arriving in the United States.

In addition, schooling for some Somali girls is cut short because some marry in their teens, and they customarily drop out of school when they get married, says one esl teacher at McKinley. Just this winter, one of her best Somali students dropped out for that very reason, she says. The girl was 15.

While school officials, teachers, and several Somali teacher’s assistants say the special programs for Somali students are working well, some heads of Somali community organizations don’t share that opinion.

“I’m one of the persons who opposed the welcome center. We thought it was segregation,” says Maryan Warsame, a Somali who has a bachelor’s degree in economics from George Washington University and is the director of the Somali Women’s Association in Columbus.

She worked as a teacher’s assistant in two Columbus elementary schools for two years before quitting in 1999 because she didn’t agree with how the district served Somali students. “If you take the high school students and put them in their own classroom, it’s just like being in the refugee camps again,” Warsame contends. “What they needed was tutoring, or after-school programs, or counseling.”

The welcome-center plan was approved by Hassan Omar, the president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio. But Warsame says he doesn’t represent many Somalis and certainly doesn’t speak for parents. She faults the district for not consulting more closely with parents. “Talk to the parents, rather than think that they’re refugees and don’t know anything,” she says.

Omar acknowledges his initial approval for the welcome center, but criticizes how the program has been carried out. He said he wants to see exit criteria that would enable some students to leave the program in six months, say, instead of a year. And he maintains that Woodard, the esl official, backed down on a promise to hire Somalis as teachers-not just as teachers’ assistants-or at least to work hard to make sure some Somalis who had been teachers previously would become certified to teach in the United States. “The [Somali] people he hired-we don’t know their qualifications,” Omar says.

Omar also denounces a program started this year in which Somali teenagers work toward a General Educational Development diploma while receiving vocational training, rather than continuing to earn credits toward a traditional high school diploma. “Who’s going to hire them?” he asks.

Woodard responds by saying that Somali parents have a choice about whether their children are enrolled in or stay in the welcome centers or any other special programs. In addition, he says, he has been encouraging Somalis to meet state certification requirements so they can become full-fledged teachers; so far, one Somali teacher’s assistant has become an esl teacher. While he’s been open to hearing the views of Somali community leaders, Woodard says, he’s come to realize that no one leader represents the whole community. Leaders’ disagreements on school issues, he says, sometimes result from politics within the community, reflecting in milder form the tribal rivalry that spurred the civil war in Somalia.

Woodard says he tends to rely more on the advice of the Somalis who work for the schools-such as Mohdi M. Ali, the district’s liaison to Somali parents-for insight on educational decisions affecting Somalis.

Ali says he hears the most complaints from parents about school over issues related to their Islamic faith. They often express concern that their children’s experiences in school-such as in a coed gym class-don’t mesh well with Muslim customs of keeping boys and girls separate. Whether schools give Muslim students prayer time is also a source of contention. Devout Muslims pray to Allah five times a day.

Ahmed Farah, a Somali who works as a teacher’s assistant at McKinley High, believes the school system has taken the correct approach in designing separate programs to serve Somali students.

“A student from Africa is in a class with Americans, and the Americans conclude he doesn’t know anything because he doesn’t know English,” Farah says. “We have to teach him something to be accepted.” n

Photo Credit: Somali girls often decorate their hands with henna.Left, Somali students in Columbus use Somali-English dictionaries during an Ohio state proficiency exam. The Columbus high school welcome center, right, is designed to ease immigrant teenagers’ transition into the district’s schools.

Photographs by Allison ShelleyAllison ShelleyTop, Deeqo Hassan checks her spelling with classmate Hassan Yusuf, right, during a language-arts class. Many Somali students arrive in the United States with no formal schooling. Above, girls in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya received uniforms as an incentive to attend school.Students at the welcome centers share facilities with other students in the Columbus district but take classes separately for up to one year.Above, Fawzi Ahmed demonstrates to middle school welcome-center students how to use a microscope. He is one of many Somali teacher’s assistants hired by the Columbus school district. At left, a Somali newcomer reflects the conservative values of her Muslim family in her attire.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Out of Africa


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