Ansu Kolleh considers himself blessed, by which he means that he has a way with people. Once they get to know him, they usually like him. He’s handsome and he has a flirty smile. Being blessed runs in his family, he says. Being gentlemanly was important to his mother.
If Kolleh is among the half of Minnesota English language learners who graduate from high school, it will be at least in part because of this disposition, which has allowed him to survive being the newcomer over and over again.
At home in Liberia, Kolleh’s teachers loved him and he was a good student. He wore a uniform to school, a blue-and-white check shirt. After classes he would run out into the neighborhood looking for pickup soccer games. He was very good at the game.
He was playing soccer when he learned his mother had died. He was 8. He flew with his two brothers and two sisters first to Ghana and then to Atlanta. When their last flight touched down in Minneapolis, Kolleh met his father for the very first time.
The affluent western suburb where Kolleh’s father lived with his new family was a tough place. He was not one of the 20 percent of Liberians who speak the country’s official language, a pidgin or kreyol variant of English.
There was snow — and when there wasn’t, the kids at the local park played basketball. To play soccer he would have to join a league, which cost a couple hundred dollars.
And there was friction from the start with the kids in his father’s new family. The American siblings were embarrassed by the new arrivals — so much so that the stepbrother who was supposed to help him learn the ropes at his new school wouldn’t sit with him.
His classmates had crude notions of Africa. They teased him relentlessly, making popping noises with their tongues and asking if he lived in a hut and went naked.
Before Kolleh’s first day of eighth grade his father sat him down and talked him through a number of ways he could get into trouble. Kolleh should think twice before standing up for himself or disagreeing with a teacher. The way the system worked, father explained to son, no matter what happened Kolleh was likely to be seen as wrong.
“I was getting bullied and stuff, like everywhere I went in school. Like someone is making a monkey sound, you know, because apparently that’s how Africans talk, and stuff like that. I really didn’t tell anybody, but I’m pretty sure they saw what was going on, but nobody said nothing, really.
“I felt different. Like I’m in class with, what, 30 other people or something, and I’m the only black person, you know. Some of them are just looking at me so weird, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’m just like super uncomfortable because none of them would talk to me. Like when it’s time for like a class project, nobody wants to work with me.”
“I felt like it wasn’t for me. But at the same time, like where I’m from I’ve got to finish school. So I just took it one day at a time and just did it.”
His American teachers loved him, too, but he thought there was no amount of help that would enable him to catch up. He started out behind and moved more slowly than everyone else. He couldn’t keep up with classroom discussions and could tell his frequent questions irritated everyone.
His home district* was integrating quickly, causing tensions in the community. Most of the new arrivals were immigrants looking for better schools than they’d find in the central cities. Still, in the high school lunchroom kids would segregate themselves by color.
“The white wall was the rich people, the cool kids and stuff. And then the black was just known as the trouble side. And then there was a Mexican wall known as, you know, also the trouble side. So it’s like they had all the securities on the black wall and the Mexican wall. But the white wall, there was no securities, which really started to like make me think like, ‘What’s going on here?’ You know what I’m saying, ‘Why are there all these securities here, and then there’s like no securities over there?’ Like we are the ones going to do something.
“They didn’t talk about it. I don’t think people like to talk about uncomfortable stuff, so they just let it be. But they knew. Even the teachers called it the white wall.”
Better to have a place on one of the walls than to be a “vendor” — one of the kids who sat in the no-man’s-land surrounding the vending machines. The vendors didn’t have any friends.
Kolleh might have ended up there but for soccer. The first time he played he lit up the gym. People couldn’t stop talking about how good he was. Everyone wanted him on their team. Lots of Latino students played soccer, too, so Kolleh was welcome on both the black wall and the Mexican wall.
But he still couldn’t keep up academically.
“English, it was lots of reading books and stuff, and I came across new vocabs and things that I had to learn. So I was getting behind in books. When the teacher was explaining, I couldn’t understand her. So when I read by myself I didn’t really understand the books so I had to like look up words. I was basically a slow reader.
“It was the algebra that had me behind, because it was a math I had never seen before. And I love challenges, so it was something I put my all into. I needed 80 percent, I had 78 percent, 78 percent. And I had to start all over because the school year ended. It was just made no sense. Then I was just like, “Man, that’s it.”
Kolleh tried algebra again in summer school and then again his junior year, but his heart really wasn’t in it anymore. Home continued to be tense, so Kolleh moved in with his aunt.
By his senior year, he was enrolled in a credit-recovery program operated by District 287, a consortium of west metro school districts that have joined forces to serve the students with the biggest challenges. In his new program, Kolleh works at his own speed, completing “blocks” of coursework that earn a credit at a time.
This is important not just because of an individualized pace is crucial, but because Kolleh has a hard time getting to school. Minnesota does not require — nor does it pay for — schools to provide transportation to alternative learning centers. He begs family for rides and is absent often.
And when he graduates?
“I still haven’t made up my mind, but my first is the Marines, which I’ve already started talking to my sergeant and everything. And then second is because I love soccer, so hopefully I’m trying to get a scholarship, or something, to anywhere.”
*District 287 provided access to students working to stay in school on the condition that their home school districts, members of the education co-op, not be identified.
Next: Nordame Williams
The way Nordame Williams remembers the choice, it was between the jail — the same facility where Jon Berry teaches — and agreeing to do community service and enroll in an alternative learning center.