In a Portland classroom, educational aide Batula Mohamud huddles next to a first-grader named Ramla. Dark scarves shroud their heads, as Ramla writes. Then, Mohamed straightens and looks to a boy named Ali, one table over.
“Ali, did you write a word? Huh? You didn’t write any single word yet?” Mohamud said.
She says she’s tougher with kids like Ali because she knows his family from Portland’s Somali community.
Thousands of Oregon kids live with grown-ups who speak a language other than English. Often those kids struggle in school.
Portland’s Somali students have a 58 percent graduation rate, well below the state average. A recent report found 17 percent of Somali students pass state reading exams, and just 7 percent are passing the math exams.
Numbers like that led Portland administrators to answer the Somali community’s call for a language program.
Over the last few years, Oregon schools have expanded language programs. Spanish offerings are already helping many Latino students do better in school. Now, educators and families have high hopes that a new program will similarly help Somali students.
“The strategy is through embracing the very assets that those children come to school with, which is their linguistic assets, their cultural assets,” said Michael Bacon, Assistant Director of Dual-Language Programs. “When we do that, we have far better academic outcomes.”
But after a year of work, no Somali classes have been taught yet.
Last May, educators visited Minneapolis to see their Somali program.
It was a good sign to Musse Olol, with the Somali American Council of Oregon. He was disappointed that Portland didn’t just implement the Minneapolis model and have classes going already.
“All we needed to do was copy-paste, instead of re-inventing the wheel,” Olol said.
But not everyone thought Portland Public Schools could mirror the Minneapolis program.
“If PPS chooses that route, then they’re not addressing the real need here,” said Abdiasis Mohammed, a Portland’s Somali.
What Mohammed calls the “real need” refers to a cultural divide. It’s a split seen in Olol and Mohammed.
Olol, who favored modeling a program after Minneapolis’s, speaks Somali Maxaa, the language of Somalia’s historic elite. Mohammed is part of the marginalized Somali Bantu community. They speak Maay-Maay, a language Minneapolis wasn’t teaching.
In the end, Portland school officials agreed with the Somali Bantus that the right teacher had to know both languages. And a few weeks ago, they hired Salaad O’Barrow to develop two sets of language lessons.
Portland would like to add a second teacher and maybe a full language immersion program someday. For now, leaders from both language communities are pleased O’Barrow will be teaching Somali later this school year.
“This is a Somali dictionary,” O’Barrow said. “We have some books from the Internet that we are trying to look for and buy.”
O’Barrow likens the different languages to Italian and Portuguese: similar, but distinct.
Listen: The Difference In Somali Languages
He hopes the Maxaa and Maay-Maay programs will help Somali students in school, as other language programs have for immigrant children from other communities.
But O’Barrow also hopes the effect extends beyond school and to the home.
“Many kids they are not engaged with their parents, because of the language barrier, because their parents speak Somali and they speak English,” he said. “If they can learn that language, it would help them also to engage with their parents.”