A Welcome Home for Refugees
It came as no surprise to the residents of Mankato, Minn. last fall when Forbes magazine called the city a great place for raising a family. The population in the area served by Mankato Area Public Schools, which straddles three counties in the southern part of the state, has reached more than 50,000, thanks to business and recreational opportunities, a low cost of living, state-of the-art health care, great schools, and a welcoming attitude toward newcomers. In fact, Mankato has embraced several hundred refugee and immigrant families in recent years, many of them survivors of poverty and abuse in war-torn Somalia and Sudan. At last count, 31 languages were being spoken in a district that is actively educating all K12 students about the richness found in cultural diversity.
Seven years ago, school board member Jodi Sapp helped found the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, a nonprofit that conducts grade-appropriate prejudice- reduction workshops in every classroom. According to Sapp, school board members feared that some of the momentum driving local diversity education might be lost when Mankato's longstanding superintendent announced he would retire in 2009. "We were doing such great things," she says, "that we didn't want to hit a brick wall and wait for a new superintendent to catch up to us."
Taking the Lead
Enter Sheri Allen, a veteran teacher-turned-administrator who applied for the superintendent job while still executive director of elementary and secondary education for Rochester Public Schools, 125 miles to the east. During the hiring process, Allen held a series of public meetings meetings meetings with Mankato teachers and families to introduce herself and to explore local educational needs.
"Her communication strengths were so great," Sapp recalls with a chuckle, "that every piece of feedback we received said the same thing: ‘Does she need help moving?' Sheri is so collaborative. She embraces every person, whether an adult or a child, and is truly invested in bringing them to the absolute height of what they can be."
"Service to people is the core of everything," says Allen, now in her second year as Mankato superintendent. "Every decision decision comes down to what our students need to be successful and what our staff needs so they are prepared to meet what comes to us."
To address the challenges faced by refugee and immigrant families, Allen hired four full-time community liaisons whose ability to speak East African languages is providing a much-needed bridge between home and school. She culled money for the new positions from various existing sources: adult basic education grants, compensatory and general funds, and the ELL department, which has been expanded and reorganized under her watch.
Allen also hired the director of the Diversity Council part-time to mentor minority youth and to develop the "Circle of Parents": During regular gatherings on school campuses, immigrant mothers and fathers can comfortably ask questions and exchange information with administrators, teachers and community members. Interpreters are present to help explain everything from school lunch choices to curriculum, discipline, adult basic education and college preparation.
Providing refugee and immigrant families opportunities for personal interaction with teachers and administrators will pave the way for student success over time, Allen insists. "It is so important to raise the capacity for engagement and dialogue. Our goal is to help the parents become self-sustaining—to make sure they become citizens who are able to provide for their families and who want to give back to the community."
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer based in northern California.