For a year, the school in Frogtown has stood empty. But on Tuesday, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard was in its parking lot talking about an exciting new future. Before him were supporters, some in traditional African clothing.
Jackson Elementary is to be the home of the new East African Elementary Magnet School. And while the opening is just four months away, with teachers still to be hired, Gothard was optimistic about his district's latest addition to its multilingual offerings.
"If I was doing this alone, I'd be concerned," he said of the tight timeline. "But I am far from alone. There is a community behind us to make sure that we are ready to go."
Tuesday's event served as a formal announcement of news that Gothard shared quietly with staff members last week, and there was a celebratory quality to it.
Along with Principal Abdisalam Adam, speakers included Mayor Melvin Carter; School Board Member Halla Henderson, the daughter of an East African immigrant; and City Council Member Russel Balenger and state Rep. Samakab Hussein, DFL-St. Paul, both of whom represent the Frogtown neighborhood.
Mahmud Kanyare, executive director of Youth and Family Circle, a local organization serving East African immigrants, said: "As a proud parent of SPPS — alongside many other parents — we have a mutual feeling of excitement as this is a historic time ... and a step moving forward in the right direction that honors diversity, culture and heritage."
The school has been months in the making, and plans are to focus the curriculum on the culture and languages of Somali, Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Arabic and Swahili.
The state's second-largest district has about 2,400 East African students, or about 7.5 % of its K-12 enrollment. But officials see it as an opportunity to draw new kids from within and outside the district, noting that 2.7 % of the Twin Cities metro area population speaks an East African language at home.
St. Paul, like other urban districts, has seen sharp enrollment declines in recent years and has been forced to consider: "What is it that the community is demanding? What is it that can inspire hope and belief in the community? And this is our answer," Gothard said.
He said that the district's Mandarin, Spanish and French immersion programs are attracting students from outside the city, and that Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet on the East Side now is the district's largest elementary school.
"We know that the work begins today with this announcement and we look forward to seeing this place busy and bustling and loud — full of scholars in our community," Carter said.
To learn about the program and enroll, visit spps.org/EastAfricanMagnet. The district also is inviting families to meet the principal and register for school at Midway Peace Park, 416 N. Griggs St., on Friday between 5:30 and 8 p.m.