The students at the new East African Magnet Elementary in St. Paul are all ears when their principal, Abdisalam Adam, starts telling stories about herding goats and sheep in Somalia.
Lions would cleverly approach a herd from upwind, he told fifth-graders when I visited the school recently. "Did you kill them?" one boy asked.
"I was not old enough to kill a lion," Adam said. The lions didn't come around often, he said, but when they did, he and his friends scared them by making a lot of noise and commotion.
"Weren't you afraid of dying?" another boy asked.
"We were not afraid," the principal said.
In addition to all the regular lessons of elementary school, East African Magnet opened this fall as the first school in St. Paul specifically designed to teach the cultural heritage of Somali, Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and other East African ethnic groups.
Adam, who has been a teacher and administrator in the St. Paul district for 27 years, pulled together the faculty in just a handful of months.
He hired north Minneapolis basketball legend and former NBA player Khalid El-Amin to teach physical education , one of the district's long-time librarians to run a media center equipped by donations from Target and a recent U grad who was teaching in Brooklyn Center for fifth grade.
That fifth-grade teacher, Emily Patzer, told me she's learning as much as the kids. "I'm always saying, 'Everyone you've ever met knows something you don't know," she said. "Here, it really shows that."
The school enrolled about 200 students this fall and has added more every week. It's one reason the St. Paul district didn't lose as many students as leaders had forecast. In business terms, the district held on to more market share than expected.
Earlier this fall, I heard St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard use the term "market share" in a TV interview about the creation of East African Magnet. I asked to meet him to get a deeper sense of the "business" of schools, and I told him I've upset teachers by comparing schools to businesses.
"Anytime we start thinking of business model, we've got to keep service at the heart of it," Gothard said. "We don't sell. We serve."
State funds flow to schools based on enrollment. The creation of charter schools three decades ago forced school districts, chiefly in cities, into competition more intense than they ever faced from parochial and private schools.
When my father grew up in St. Paul 90 years ago, he attended an elementary school a block from his home, the same one his older brothers did. The people who live in that house today have 24 elementary schools to choose from, according to the district's "school finder" website. They could also choose a charter or private school.
To help parents sort through this smorgasbord, the district will hold its annual School Choice Fair next Saturday. Principals and teachers will answer questions and appeal for enrollment.
The district decided in February to create East African Magnet school after a recommendation from an advisory panel of East African parents, who had been tossing the idea around since the pandemic.
The move came after the district in 2021 and 2022 closed or merged other schools amid declining enrollment. One of the schools that closed then, Jackson Elementary, is now East African Magnet.
Data showed hundreds of St. Paul schoolchildren of East African descent were going elsewhere — to private schools, or charters or to Minneapolis or suburban districts.
"When we started looking at the numbers, we thought, 'Why should a family have to choose a school outside of St. Paul Public Schools to feel like there was a sense of belonging?'" Gothard said.
"For me, it became about two things. Our board and our community talks about equity and enrollment almost in an obsessive way. Well, equity is about serving people where they're at. This is clearly something our community wanted. And it was awesome to help build enrollment."
The district will add sixth grade to the school next year. Parents are already pressing to extend the East African magnet concept up to seventh and eighth grades. "They really want the students to stay together," Adam said.
The district's Hmong magnet goes from pre-K to eighth grade in the recently renamed Txuj Ci lower and upper schools. However, the district's ability to duplicate that model isn't assured. Like other school districts, St. Paul is grappling with whether it can replace federal aid that began in the pandemic and ends next summer.
Adam credits the district's facilities team and teachers for making such a good impression on parents in the first few months of East African Magnet. "Overall, it's working well," he said.
Gothard said, "I knew that with him as the leader that this school would be successful."