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Hispanic, Somali leaders speak with Owatonna volunteers

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Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2013 4:30 pm         |                         Updated: 9:05 pm, Thu Aug 22, 2013.           

OWATONNA — To help the organization’s volunteers better serve minority students, leaders of Grandparents for Education asked Somali and Hispanic residents to speak at the group’s annual meeting.

Grandparents for Education invited Ibrahim Hussien, Hanzi Ali, Chely Flores and the Rev. Brent Carlson, a local pastor who spent time in Asia, to Thursday’s meeting at Wilson Elementary School in Owatonna. Sonja von Arb, co-founder of Grandparents for Education, said the panel was asked to the meeting to allow volunteers to gain a better understanding of the differences in cultures.

Each panel member spoke for about 10 minutes to the crowd of roughly 50 volunteers, teachers and district administrators. After the introductions, the crowd asked questions.

Von Arb asked the panel if there was anything people did, unknowingly, that was offensive. The panel agreed that people shouldn’t stereotype or judge a book by its cover.

Ali, a student at Owatonna High School, shared a story of how a woman told him, while he was working as Cash Wise, that she couldn’t believe how well he spoke English.

“She said she couldn’t believe I spoke ‘so good.’ I had to fight the urge to correct her grammar,” Ali said.



The panel was also asked if it was possible for bilingual students to only speak English at home in order to master the language faster. All four members of the panel said it’s important for Somali and Latino residents to speak their parents’ language when at home.

“I was happy to hear that a lot of people thought they wanted to make sure that their kids improve their English, but I don’t agree with just speaking English at home,” said Flores, who for the past 10 years has been a social worker in the Owatonna school district. “I want our kids to learn to be fluent in both languages. Kids need to practice and talk Spanish at home.”

Flores said she appreciated the invitation to talk about her culture.

“It was wonderful,” she said. “I was so excited to see so many people wanting to have this discussion and wanting to take an interest in our culture.”

Hussein is the founder of the non-profit Somali Americans Cultural Society of Owatonna. He said he is happy to see Somali students, like Ali, succeed in school.

“We (the Somali community) are doing a good job,” Hussein said. “We are very happy with this small town. We like it here. We like the school district. It’s going well, but when English is your second language, you need a lot of help. That’s why I started the non-profit to help the Somali community get caught up.”

Flores said she has also seen a lot of Hispanic students succeed in Owatonna schools. She points to Title I funds, after-school homework help and additional ELL (English language learners) teachers as reasons more and more Hispanic students are doing well in school.

“(Hispanic students) are more engaged now,” she said. “Also, there is more support in place for our ELL students. A lot of times they may not get much support at home, but now they are getting it at school.”

Grandparents for Education is a non-profit group, started in 2009, which provides volunteer tutors and educators to local schools. In the past four years, the group has had as many as 100 volunteers working in area schools.

Reach reporter Derek Sullivan at 444-2372, or follow him on Twitter @OPPSullivan


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