Rochester school prepares students for careers in medicine and technologyby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Zakaria Mahamed wants to go to college and become a pediatrician, training he hopes will someday land him at the Mayo Clinic.
"When I see my family doctor, it makes me feel like I could be there one day," he said. "I could help these kids, I could find new cures for diseases, I can make a difference in my community."
But first, Mahamed has to make it through high school. The 11th grader thinks his chances of doing so are much better at the STEM Academy in Rochester, a charter school that aims to prepare immigrant and minority students for fields such as microbiology, nursing and engineering.
Inside the STEM Academy, teenage girls wear colorful hijabs on their heads and groups of boys speak Somali as they make their way to science, engineering and math classes. Nearly all of the 60 students are Somali-American.
Some are betting the school, in its second year, will help students who struggle in traditional schools find careers to build successful futures.
Mahamed is among them. Born in Rochester to Somali parents, he finished ninth grade at one of Rochester's traditional high schools before transferring to the math and science-focused school.
"When you're in a regular big school that doesn't have a small environment, everything is like you don't have enough time to talk and you'll never meet anybody," he said. "But here, you'll talk to everybody, you know everybody, everyone knows you, you know them."
The science and math academy has given an extra boost to Somali students from immigrant families who struggle with English, larger class sizes and social isolation in traditional public schools.
The academy is one of three public charter schools in Rochester. The others are the Rochester Off-Campus Charter High School for at-risk students, and the Rochester Math and Science Academy, a school for students from kindergarten through eighth grade that also serves the city's East African population.
Minority students comprise about 32 percent of students enrolled in the Rochester Public School District. About 13 percent of the district's students percent speak a language other than English at home.
Housed in a brown, brick building that used to be a Baptist church in southwest Rochester, the STEM Academy aims to better serve such students with small classes and by instilling confidence in core areas, director Kate Cannons said.
"Kids think, 'Oh my gosh, I can't even speak English, how am I going to do that math, or how am I going to do that engineering or that technology,' " Cannons said. "So they're afraid of it before they even try it."
The school has six teachers, three interpreters and an average of 10 students per class. Cannons said the smaller setting has also helped Somali parents become involved with the school.
"There's been a learning curve as far as the Somali parents here, teaching them that it's okay for them to come to school, it's okay for them to have a role in school, it's okay for them to know what grades their kids have," she said. "That's culturally very different for them."
Students at the academy are underperforming academically, compared to 10th grade students across the state.
Last year its students scored 52 percent on reading proficiency tests, compared to the state average of 76.8 percent.
But when compared to other Minnesota students for whom English is a second language, the academy's students scored significantly higher. Statewide, the average reading proficiency score for such students was 23.9 percent.
That's an important distinction for former Rochester School Board member Mohamoud Hamud, one of the academy's founders. He has faced criticism from some in the community who say the school isolates immigrant students.
Rather than isolate African immigrant students from their counterparts in traditional public schools, Hamud believes classes at the academy have the potential to better prepare them for math and science programs at the college level.
"We are not afraid that they won't be integrated," he said. "We are afraid that they might be left out. Integrating to the mainstream, if you are not bringing anything to the table, is meaningless. But when they have good educational background, they will bring something to the table."
Hamud hopes that in five years, the students will be able to compete in a job market that will increasingly demand math and science skills from workers.
- Morning Edition, 09/18/2012, 8:24 a.m.