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WATCH: Columbia Heights school help immigrant students and parents through special programs

Thursday May 2, 2024
By Kirsten Mitchell

COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn. — Minnesota is home to more than half a million immigrants.

Census data shows most of them came here from Mexico and Somalia. More recently though, we're seeing hundreds of people from Ecuador. Many of them are kids making their way through our schools.

In Columbia Heights, English learners now make up 44% of their student population. That's an 8% jump from last school year.

Eight-year-old Henry from Ecuador is eager to learn, but learning in a language that's not his own is tough.

"It's difficult to speak English for me," he said.

Henry moved to the U.S. with his mom and brother. He started at Valley View Elementary School this year.

Patrick Schulz is one of give English learner teachers serving the entire school.

"I've talked to many parents and most of the reasons people are coming is because they want a better life for their children and they work really hard to make that happen," Schulz said.

When families arrive, the district screens the students to properly place them.

"We have some families that have spent six months to come here," said Leueen Saavedra, Placement Center Cultural Liaison. "It's not just the academic piece, it's the social and emotional piece."

It's a big change for not only the students but parents too.

"We have something we provide called 'classes para padres,'" Saavedra said.

During the six weeks of classes, parents learn financial literacy, how to create a healthy lifestyle and tools to help their children succeed.

"A lot of it is just learning the education system," said Kevin Centeno, Valley View Elementary Home School Liaison.

Many also lack medical and dental care, so twice a year, the district provides free dental exams and basic cleanings through a partnership with "Ready Set Smile."

They also have a clothing and food shelf available for families.

"My ultimate goal is making sure every family is taken care of," Centeno said.

Centeno says they rely heavily on donations, grants and community partners.

"Finding resources that are free or low cost for our families is a big struggle," Centeno said.

"As a public school, we are open to receive all students who come. But the reality is when we serve English language learners, the state doesn't always provide all the funds because we're operating at a deficit," Executive Director of Educational Services Bondo Nyembwe said when asked if the district is equipped to handle the influx of students.

Nyembwe says if they had the funds, they would hire more English learner teachers. They only have 23 full-time.

Despite funding strains, in 2023, 82.5% of English learner students graduated from the Columbia Heights School District — nearly 20% more than the state's average.

"It's great. For me, it's the reason I do this job, and it's my favorite part of my job, getting to meet kids from all over the world and sort of be the bridge between home and school for them," Schulz said.

Henry isn't quite ready for graduation, but he is finding his way in this new place.


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