Somali community becomes stronger voice for change

By Matthew Stolle

Something interesting happened at the general membership meeting of the Rochester branch of the NAACP.

Rochester public schools Superintendent Jerry Williams was present to answer questions about the dismal test scores of Rochester's black students. Virtually all the seats were filled, many of them taken by members of the Rochester Somali community. That was a first for the local NAACP.

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What had brought them together -- both African-Americans and Somalis -- were concerns about the educational divide separating whites and blacks in Rochester.

"There were no Somalis represented at the meeting last year. I think a third of the people there (on Monday) may have been Somalis," said W.C. Jordan, president of the Rochester branch of the NAACP

Jordan heads an organization that of late has taken a more high-profile role in the affairs of Rochester K-12 education. Eventually, the organization plans to present the Rochester School Board with its own list of recommendations for closing the achievement gap.

His North Carolina origins evident in a mild accent, Jordan, now in his fourth month as president, disputes the impression that the NAACP has suddenly emerged "out of the blue" to assert a more activist role. The organization has always been there, he says, although its dealings with district officials might not have been public. The group also continues to learn about how it can be more effective in promoting its goals.

"The first time, we didn't do recommendations to the school board, and some of the issues that we had on the table may not have gotten addressed to our satisfaction," he said. "So now, we're saying, 'Let's take it a little bit further. Let's go to the board.'"

Jordan has both good and bad things to say about the district. He is critical of the district's approach to what he calls a crisis in its schools, as well as its leader, Williams, whom he described as being "evasive" in some of his answers at the recent NAACP meeting.

But he also credits the district with showing a willingness to work with the organization. He says NAACP representatives have never been shut out of a meeting it sought. And as long as the communication lines remain open, "the potential for improvement exists."

Even so, Jordan said he's not convinced that the district is prepared to take the steps necessary to close the gap "in a timely manner." He said other school districts have faced similar, if not worse, demographic pressures as Rochester, but have been more successful in closing the gap. He said he believed the Twin Cities have been more successful in dealing with such issues.

Jordan said he hasn't done enough research to understand all the causes behind the gap. But he thinks a starting point for improvement is the district's ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program, which he believes should be more "user-friendly." He said hiring more Somali bilingual interpreters and counselors would help.

"Here the instructor only speaks English and the kids can only speak Somali. You have one-way communication," he said. "And even though there may be some learning going on, it's being stifled, because there is (no) two-way communication."