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USA:Somali student enrollment surges in Green Bay School District

Green Bay sees increase as families flee strife in African country

Somali fourth-grader Hana Abdi, right, talks with fellow fourth-grader Latavia Bates during lunch Friday at Eisenhower Elementary School in Green Bay. The number of Somali students enrolled in the Green Bay School District has increased from 18 to 90 since June. (H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The number of Somali students enrolled in the Green Bay School District has more than quadrupled since the end of last school year.

The district now enrolls 90 Somalis, compared with 49 in September and just 18 in June. The district's overall student population tops 21,000.

The growing number of Somali students — many of whom need help to improve their English skills — prompted the Green Bay district to hire someone full time to support and instruct students, to work as a parent contact for schools and to interpret. Abdul Nur's first day is Monday.

Families usually come to the United States as refugees from the war-torn African country with hopes of creating better lives for their children, advocates say. Many lived in bigger U.S. cities before migrating to Green Bay.

Julie Seefeldt, assistant director of the district's English Language Learner program, said many Somali students speak some English, but most have lived in the U.S. for less than three years.

Nur speaks the Somali language fluently, Seefeldt said. He will work out of Franklin Middle School and West High School, but also will work with families and students in other schools. Somali students are enrolled in about 18 schools, she said.

District officials expect to see more Somalis moving to the area, Seefeldt said.

"Green Bay doesn't have neighborhoods like Chicago," she said. "They're coming here because they feel safe, and now they have a community."

They also are attracted to the newly located Green Bay mosque of the Islamic Society of Wisconsin, she said.

"We have had an influx of Somalis in the past year and a half or so," said Mohamed Ibrahim, a mosque leader. "They come to worship and be part of a community."

Catholic Charities this year assisted two Somali families who had refugee status to move to the U.S. to reunite with family members, according to the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.

The main reason the Green Bay area has seen an increase in the Somali population is reunification of extended families, said Judy Roemer, family strengthening manager for Catholic Charities.

When refugees have the opportunity to resettle in another country, they often can't choose the place they end up, she said. Families often will live in the city they were relocated to for a year or two and then move to other parts of the country to reconnect with extended families. That's usually the case for families moving into Green Bay, Roemer said.

Somali students join an increasingly diverse student population in Green Bay.

Nearly 40 percent of students were minorities in the 2009-10 school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Hispanics make up the largest minority group, representing about 20 percent of total student population. In 1995-96, nearly 83 percent of the Green Bay student population was white when the overall student count was 19,618.

The district hosts an increasing number of students from around the world. Green Bay schools in May enrolled 4,300 ELL students who spoke 35 different languages, Seefeldt said. The district had about 4,200 ELL students in May 2009.

Spanish-speaking students made up the bulk of ELL learners, at 2,800 last school year. Hmong speakers accounted for another 900.

Seefeldt said the district's primary focus for Somali students is helping them to learn English and to navigate the school system. School social workers will help if students or families have specific needs, such as finding winter clothing, she said.

"The U.S. is a such a huge change for many of them," she said. "The weather in Green Bay will be an adjustment. But I think it helps that there are others in the community who also are from Somalia. They have family and friends here."

Source: Green Bay Press-Gazette