Salaad O'Barrow teaches a Somali language class at Rosa Parks Elementary School in North Portland.

Salaad O’Barrow teaches a Somali language class at Rosa Parks Elementary School in North Portland.

Stefan Fries/OPB

A first-of-its-kind Somali language class is up and running in a Portland elementary school.

Other states like Minnesota have Somali programs but those classes focus on just one Somali language.

The classes that Salaad O’Barrow is teaching at Portland’s Rosa Parks Elementary include both the more commonly taught Maxaa and the less common Maay-Maay.

That means kids from Portland’s Somali Bantu community can use what they learn of Maay-Maay at home.

Administrators are trying to address low achievement and high dropout rates among Somali students. Language is seen as a good way to strengthen the connection between Somali families and school — often a key component in academic success. 

O’Barrow started his twice-a-week lessons this week, by using pictures to teach basic words.

At times, O’Barrow invites students to tell him if they know a different word for a picture, testing to see if they might know the Maay-Maay word. But mostly the children follow O’Barrow’s lead. 

Portland Public plans to teach the Somali languages in two more schools this fall. The most likely candidates are Madison High School and Harrison Park K-8, in southeast Portland.