St. Paul Public Schools is going all-in to court a community known for sending its kids elsewhere with the opening this fall of a new East African Magnet Elementary School in the Frogtown neighborhood.

The move follows several months of discussions between community and staff members in the state's second-largest district — people who envisioned a school focused on the language and culture of nine East African countries.

"They just needed someone to build it. And build it we will," Superintendent Joe Gothard wrote in a note to staff members Sunday night.

The preK-5 school will take over the site of the former Jackson Elementary, which housed a Hmong language and culture program that was merged last fall with another on the East Side as part of the district's Envision SPPS redesign.

Gothard also announced the hiring of the school's principal: Abdisalam Adam, who has been with the district since 1997 and most recently served as assistant principal at Highland Park High School. He speaks Somali, English and Arabic.

"Dr. Adam is highly respected as an educator and community leader, and I am confident he will bring many new families to SPPS," Gothard said.

St. Paul now loses many Somali students to two charter schools — Higher Ground Academy and STEP Academy — that boast high percentages of English language learners. Higher Ground is well-established and is the larger of the two with 1,052 students, all of whom identify as Black or African American, according to state data.

The district faces the challenge of drawing children to a school only four months before its opening. Typically, families make school choice decisions in January and February.

Teachers who already work in the district also are just now beginning to be interviewed. Jobs then would be opened to external candidates, Gothard said.

Details about the school's offerings are expected to be released in the coming weeks. But according to the East African Magnet website, the school will be centered on the culture and languages of Somali, Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Arabic and Swahili.

St. Paul now has a large number of Somali families in the East Side area near Highwood Hills Elementary, which was targeted for closure as part of the Envision SPPS restructuring. But it was spared by the school board in 2021, and has been repurposed as a polytechnic program with lessons in technology, engineering and agriculture.

During his tenure in St. Paul, Adam served as an English language learner instructor at Highwood Hills, as well as at Central High and Washington Technology Magnet, among other schools. He graduated from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia with a B.A. degree, and also has lived in Somalia, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

"He is guided by the Somali proverb, 'Lack of Education is Lack of Light,' and believes every child has the right to a world-class 21st century education," the school's website states.

By opening the school at the Jackson Elementary site, the district now has found a use for every building closed as part of the Envision SPPS redesign. LEAP High is moving this fall to the former East Side home of John A. Johnson Elementary, which saw its students shifted this year to nearby Bruce Vento Elementary.