Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


The Minneapolis Foundation generously supports MinnPost's Community Sketchbook coverage. Learn why.

Report shows Somali kids test kindergarten-ready: Why?

Ask educator Bill Wilson why Somali students do well in school and he’ll answer with authority: “Their families put so much value on education.”

That’s a question I felt compelled to ask after reading the “One Minneapolis: a vision for our city’s success” report released last week by The Minneapolis Foundation.

Intending to follow up on the stats, I only touched on a finding that merits not only a “wow,” but also a “why?”

Here it is: 76 percent of Minneapolis school children coming from homes where Somali is spoken test kindergarten-ready, not terribly far behind the 82 percent of English-speaking kids who are kindergarten ready, and better than some other groups. The graphs below reflect children’s literacy readiness as measured in the fall of their kindergarten year.

Seventy-six percent of Somali-speaking children were ready for kindergarten in 2009.
Courtesy of The Minneapolis Foundation
Seventy-six percent of Somali-speaking children were ready for kindergarten in 2009.

Factor in that many of these Somalis are immigrants and the inquisitive among us would ask: What’s the secret of their success?

Some social-service providers hypothesize it’s because Somali moms are home teaching their kids. 

Others explain higher kindergarten readiness by saying many Somali parents arrived in the United States better educated than some immigrant groups and so are better able to teach their children. (A communications person with the Minneapolis Public Schools could not locate anyone able, willing or available to explore the numbers in detail.)  

But many experts also argue the importance of early childhood programs for kids.

“The majority of [Somali] mothers are home,” says Carolyn Smallwood, executive director of Way to Grow, an early learning program for kids of all colors and their parents. “The Somali moms are great. “

Still, she boasts her program pronounces 87 percent of all its kids are kindergarten-ready, regardless of their backgrounds, thanks to the curriculum of at-home and in-center learning.

Somali parents, Smallwood adds, also, rightfully, benefit from services focusing on new immigrants. I can understand that. A couple of years ago, Sketchbook featured the East African Women’s Center, which offers services to these newcomers in conjunction with specialized English-language, parenting and preschool classes.

“I’m not sure if it’s their status as recent immigrants or if it is part of their culture,’’ says Ann Ruff, but educating their children is important to Somali parents.  

“What we find,’’ she says, “is that the [Somali] parents are extremely focused on education. They will show up and bring their kids to our advantage centers for any program that will help their children be successful learners,’’ says Ruff, vice present of resource development for CommonBond Communities, the largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing with services in the Upper Midwest. Among those services are preschool programs, including Early Childhood Family Education programs provided by Minneapolis Public Schools. 

“Somalis are very much involved with their kids…They really care about their kids,’’ affirms Omar Da’ar, a Somali father with children in Minneapolis Public Schools and an economist working for Wilder Research.

He and his wife agreed she’d stay at home to provide a “stable upbringing” for their four children, he says. The oldest two went to preschool and now are in grade school, a third is in pre-school and the youngest child goes to an Early Childhood Education class with mom.

Educator Wilson sums it up this way: “If parents value education, children value education.”

Courtesy of The Minneapolis Foundation

And that’s what he sees firsthand among his 700 students in the classrooms of Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul where he is executive director. These families — almost all Somali and many of them immigrants — from around the Twin Cities and suburbs, see education as their children’s stepping stone to American success,  he says. Consequently, they motivate their children to learn.

Afro-centric, the K-12 charter school he founded 11 years ago made AYP in 2010 (Minnesota’s measure of academic quality), Wilson says, because his families — most of whom are Somali— and his school “really do a lot of motivating.”     

Families, he says, “make the effort” to prepare their children for school, buying or borrowing English language CDs, buying, borrowing from the library or obtaining free books for their children, thus instilling the value of learning. “A book in the home shows it’s important. It’s treasured.” 

“They encourage their children to read and they coach them,” often learning English words along with them by using simple picture books, he continues. Or these parents sit and watch cartoons with their children, engaging them in conversation to use English and to get them thinking.

The children hear that “if they’re going to make it” in America, they’ve got to get educated, Wilson says.

Families expect their older children to help teach their younger siblings, as well. Wilson says he used to see the same thing in Hmong families when he campaigned door to door for St. Paul City Council in the 1980s and ’90s. Somali families also enroll their children in Head Start programs, adopting educators’ suggestions for what families should do at home to encourage a child’s learning.

At Higher Ground, parents are considered partners in their children’s education with teachers, communicating with every family at least once a month, helping solve learning problems but also celebrating children’s successes, Wilson says. “We tell them, ‘Parents, you’re a big part of this.’ “

This article is made possible in part by the Don W. Taylor Fund of  The Minneapolis Foundation.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 10/12/2011 - 09:26 am.

    While we can certainly applaud the fact that a minority immigrant group is able to match the state average for kindergarten prepardness, I feel like the more alarming finding is that only 29% of spanish-speaking students and only 36% of hispanics are prepared for kindergarten. While a smaller divide might be attributable to cultural factors, that great of a schism between ethnicities points to systemic discrimination.

  2. Submitted by craig furguson on 10/12/2011 - 01:25 pm.

    “that great of a schism between ethnicities points to systemic discrimination” I suppose that is a point of view. I think the report shows disparities, it is a leap to go straight to discrimination. I was weird-ed out by the previous MNPOST chart that showed higher income students with lower achievement than white. We should be willing to go where ever the data takes us, whether it be evidence of a lack of family support for education or discrimination.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/12/2011 - 03:37 pm.

    If I’m not mistaken, Hmong kids did pretty well for the first generation too. Now they’re slipping.

    I admit I have no hard evidence what-so-ever, but observation leads me to suspect that new immigrants that arrive in intact family groups (mom, dad & kids)from cultures that still require kids to respect their parents, and for parents to take their jobs seriously have a built-in advantage that overwhelms the burden of discrimination.

    They don’t care what you or I think, they’ve got a job to do and they do it.

    Given a few years, our “just do it, don’t tell your parents; there is no such thing as right and wrong” pop culture tears familial cohesiveness and mutual respect apart, and the victim mentality that leftist social programs teach them does the rest.

    In any case, the success of Somalis sure puts the idea of “free and reduced lunch” as a deciding factor into the shredder.

  4. Submitted by Sam In on 10/12/2011 - 04:05 pm.

    I think it is worth pointing out that this generation of Somali parents benefited from our state’s post-secondary public education system.

    I took advantage of the state’s transfer curriculum to complete two years at Normandale before finishing my degree at the U of MN. At both schools there was a significant number of Somali students, both High Schoolers enrolled through PSEO as well as traditional and non-traditional students working on a two or four year degree.

    As the article stresses, early childhood programs are better able to achieve results when parents are engaged with the process. That commitment was strengthened, in my opinion, by the fact that both the parents and the children have access to higher education. Families can realistically plan for the kids to continue their education after high school because they need not fear that they will be denied access to the Ivory Tower.

  5. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 10/13/2011 - 08:09 am.

    Mr. Quick’s exercises in typing continue…

    It’s curious that he raises the “victim” issue. For he claims to be a victim of “leftist” policy everyday. When one turns on his beloved Fox News one can see Sarah Palin claiming that she has been wronged by the “lame-stream media.” One can also find the Christian Right claiming they are being persecuted by nearly everyone. Clearly, irony is not Mr. Quick’s friend.

    Also, his friends in Big Business sell the “Just Do It” pop culture. It’s all over the media–including his beloved Fox network. Such a mentality is apparently good for business–one would not think Mr. Quick would be so quick to attack it.

    But, I do have to agree with his observation regarding the ambition of many immigrants, but the burden of discrimination would likely be heaped higher should such an ambitious individual or family find their way into Mr. Quick’s subdivision.

  6. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 10/13/2011 - 09:27 am.

    Whereas many use language like “they care, they’re involved, they place value on” when discussing the issue presented here by Cynthia; I feel there is a contract being put into play. The Somali family in this article is making an economic decision to forego, at minimum, a part-time income so that an adult is available to shuttle kids to enrichment programs, shop for educational materials and tutor them. I imagine that there has been a calculation that a bi-weekly check today is less valuable than all four children earning increased wages in their careers later. The reciprocal nature of this arrangement (I will do for you and you in-turn will do for your children) is taught early as the older children are also expected to forego their free-time to tutor their younger siblings. And although not specifically addressed, the children’s scores indicate that they come away with the understanding that their part of the bargain is to perform in school.

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/14/2011 - 05:19 am.

    Sorry, I don’t think we have any evidence that Spanish speaking, or Native American, or Asian American families VALUE education any less than Somali American families.
    We do a lot of work with immigrant families and youngsters. I have no systematic data to present. But I don’t think this report (or Boyd’s column) present any data to support the idea that one group of families “cares more” than others.

  8. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 10/21/2011 - 01:56 pm.

    Joe-You make my point. Virtually everyone cares about their children, understands the importance of education, and values unpolluted rivers and safe streets. The issue is whether individuals can or are able to do the work necessary to create and maintain public goods such as strong schools, clean environments and crime free communities. It’s not about caring more or being more virtuous.

    The Somali family is able to dedicate an adult’s working hours to supplement the education of their children. Some families are unable to do this because they need to prioritize meeting rent and keeping a car in running order, some families are handling a serious chronic illness, and some families choose to spend all the adults working hours and leisure hours in private sector employment at the expense of time with their children’s education. There are many situations where schooling is traded off, whether right or wrong, with other demands on people’s time and resources.

Leave a Reply