Everyone at STEP Academy in St. Paul knew last week that its director, Mustafa Ibrahim, had to deliver on a promise he'd made to advance the cause of literacy.
But the nature of that pledge — he would "kiss a cow" if elementary students met their reading goals in March — still brought suspense: What exactly would the payment of that debt look like? And, would a cow even show up?
So, as a smiling Ibrahim made his way from his office to the gym on Friday, past the banner declaring, "READING IS OUR SUPERPOWER," he heard from a few staff members who saw what was waiting for him.
"The guest of honor is here," one said.
"Are you ready for it?" asked another.
Then, a simple, "Good luck."
As it turns out, luck or not, staff and students at the East Side charter school most certainly have enthusiasm on their side — no matter the task at hand.
The school also had a second major accomplishment to celebrate last week. STEP Academy learned that two of its high school students, Mohamed Ahmed and Latifa Said, had been accepted to Harvard University and had been offered full scholarships, too, Ibrahim said.
"They are the first Harvard-bound students from our school," he said.
Until this year, STEP Academy operated as a secondary school for grades 6-12. Throughout its seven-year history, a majority of students have been English language learners. Most qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Nearly every parent has a history as a refugee, Traci Moore, the school's academic dean, said Friday.
Last year, 39 percent of the academy's high school students met or exceeded state standards on the reading test — a result identical to that for high school students in the St. Paul Public Schools.
This year, the academy expanded to include grades kindergarten through five. Ibrahim and Moore said the school is excited to work with students in their early years and to have math and reading coordinators intervene with those who struggle to perform at grade level.
For high school students, the school continues to emphasize that students not only be college-ready, but also be earning college credits — even when it is not in the best financial interest of STEP Academy.
Seventeen of this year's 36 seniors are in full-time Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) programs, meaning they study on college campuses — and the state revenue they generate follows them to those institutions.
Every senior is on track to graduate, Moore said.
To be sure, it's not unusual for a school to celebrate literacy. But the fact that STEP Academy was in its first year with students at the elementary level called for something special.
"Having our students reading and writing every day to meet not only academic standards but also to have fun and enjoy literacy is a huge accomplishment," said Ginny Maurer, the school's literacy coordinator.
Students read aloud from "Jack and the Beanstalk." Maurer, dressed as Pippi Longstocking, gave out book coupons and pens to students who demonstrated a love for reading and writing. Ibrahim noted how a third-grader, Zakariya Hashmad, will grab a newspaper from the counter each day to read at home.
A short time later, everyone headed to the gym.
Waiting there was Ruthie Peterson of Peterson Hay Farms and Beef in Waverly, Minn., and a two-week-old bull calf named Rex.
Rex, seemingly all legs, danced a bit, unsteadily. Maurer tried to quiet the kids. Then, Ibrahim, milking the moment, as it were, reminded the children of the promise he had made and extended a hand to Rex: "I'm touching. See that?!" Ibrahim said.
The kids had had enough.
"Kiss the cow! Kiss the cow!" they demanded.
With that, Ibrahim leaned over to kiss Rex on the forehead — not once, not twice, but three times.
"He is a man of his word," Moore exclaimed to the children. "But you earned it."