The New American Academy in Edina offers tutoring for Somali schoolchildren as well as classes for their parents.
Volunteer tutor Carolyn Korbel helped, left to right, Subeyda Salah, Suhur Salah and Nasteho Abdullahi with homework at the New American Academy in Edina. The Salah sisters attend Cedar Ridge Elementary in Eden Prairie, and Nasteho attends Eden Lake Elementary in Eden Prairie.
Abdi Nuur is running out of time to figure out the Cartesian Diver, a classic science experiment that teaches students about properties such as density and buoyancy.
So the Eden Prairie middle school student goes for help to the New American Academy, a program focused on helping the west metro's East African community with education, housing and transportation issues.
"They are usually able to help me with whatever subject," said Nuur, 14. "By the time I get to school, I really get it."
Since the academy moved into its Edina location just over a year ago, it has been offering after-school tutoring Monday through Friday, usually from 5 to 9 p.m.
The program has proven to be immensely popular among Somali students. On some days up to 70 students seek tutoring, provided by the program's cadre of volunteers. Students come from Edina, Eden Prairie, Bloomington and Richfield.
One reason why parents have latched onto the program is because the academy also provides simultaneous services for them, such as classes that help them prepare for citizenship exams, language courses and career counseling.
Moreover, there are several bilingual tutors available to help. Most of their work is concentrated on math and reading instruction.
"The language barrier is a real issue that exists between the community and schools," said Asad Shane, the academy's director. "Parents feel very comfortable talking to us."
Getting extra help
That's certainly the case for Rahma Mohamed, who has five children in Eden Prairie schools. She used to shuttle them across town to the University of Minnesota to get extra school help.
Now, with her kids receiving tutoring help at the New American Academy, her drive time has been cut by more than half.
"I feel like my kids have improved a lot since they've been here," she said through a translator. "I'm very happy with it."
One of the reasons why west metro Somali parents are turning to the program is that they feel somewhat shortchanged by local schools.
While many schools have programs that cater specifically to Somali students, often there's a disconnect caused by language problems or a lack of cultural understanding, parents say. Consequently, student performance sometimes suffers.
Hussein Ibrahim said his oldest daughter failed Minnesota's standardized test for the past two years. This year, he expects different results because of the extra help she's getting at the academy.
"I know she's going to pass this year," he said.
Closing the gap
What drives the academy's tutoring program is its volunteer tutors, many of whom are retirees, former educators and teachers in training.
Carolyn Korbel is a retired business consultant who works with fifth- and sixth-graders at the academy, focusing mostly on math instruction.
"One of the things I enjoy is the fact that these are respectful children who are here because they want to learn," Korbel said. "It's fun to work with kids that are this receptive."
It's unclear just how well students are faring who use tutoring services offered at the academy; there is only one year of standardized test results to evaluate.
But Shane, a former Eden Prairie math teacher, said many students have gone from reading below grade level to reading at or above the level of their peers. The same goes for math, he said.
To keep students engaged, the academy will offer several summer programs including a soccer camp for girls, Shane said.
He added that the academy wants to expand its services, including those geared toward students, but will need additional support from local communities, businesses and schools.
If that happens, Shane said he sees no reason why students from the west metro's Somali community can't academically thrive.
"This is one of the ways the achievement gap will be closed," he said.
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469