Abdi Salah celebrated a small victory last year when he persuaded local elementary schools to post lunch-line warning signs so Somali children who don't eat pork could steer clear of the sausage pizza.

For Salah and the other three cultural liaisons in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and Lakeville School Districts, there is no typical day. Some of them make house visits to track down truant kids, and others tutor high school students. They explain parent worries to teachers, explain school rules to parents and coach families over hurdles such as getting children identified for special education.

They're gap-fillers and cultural brokers for all students who need them, particularly new students and those whose families don't speak English at home.

"We're zeroing in on the relationship between the student and teacher and parent," said Judy Henderson, cultural integration specialist for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district.

For parents new to the United States, sending children to school for the first time can be intimidating. Often, Salah said, "They want to come to school. They want to ask the teachers how their kids are doing." But if they don't speak English, he said, "It's really hard for them."

The cultural liaisons (in Lakeville, they're called intercultural advisers) all know something about that feeling. Salah is from Somalia, while his co-worker, Cynthia Espinoza, moved to the United States from Guatemala when she was 11. The Lakeville district hired Diana Pritsker, who was born in Ukraine, and Lydia Lindsoe, a Chicago native whose dad came to the United States from Mexico.

All four speak at least one language in addition to English, but their jobs go far beyond translating, Henderson said. "We needed people to be able to relate to [families] culturally as well as with their language," she said.

Integrating districts

The liaisons, who started this fall in Lakeville and last year in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, were hired as part of a state-mandated effort to smooth a racial imbalance between the two districts.

Students of color make up 38 percent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district's population, compared with just 12 percent in Lakeville. That makes Burnsville-Eagan-Savage "racially isolated" under Minnesota law, which requires neighboring school districts whose minority populations differ by more than 20 percentage points to find more ways for their students to interact. The state gives them funding to do it.

The cultural liaisons work mostly with students in their own districts, but they meet regularly and work on some of the same projects, such as a college-readiness program with high school students from both districts, Henderson said. Their work serves integration goals such as raising awareness of racial diversity and making sure all students have equal opportunities, said Aldo Sicoli, assistant Burnsville-Eagan-Savage superintendent.

In addition to the liaisons, the integration plan adopted by the two districts includes projects such as field trips and classroom activities that bring their students together. Both are also considering new magnet programs as a way to lure students across district boundaries.

Advocates for families

In some cases, connecting schools and families means spelling out expectations that may not have been as important in a parent's hometown, said Espinoza, who works mainly with Latino families. "They have to understand that this is America, and they have to respect the laws here. ... For example, they have to understand that it's important for their kids to be in school daily," she said.

But advocacy is a big part of the job, said Espinoza, who often tells parents, "I'm a district employee, but my job is to help you out."

And relating isn't hard when you have as much in common with your students as the cultural liaisons sometimes do. This fall, Pritsker is working with one Ukrainian immigrant family with two daughters, one of them a fourth-grader. "I myself remember emigrating when I was in the fourth grade," Pritsker said. "I didn't know a word of English. I didn't even know the alphabet."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016