St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard crouched to slap hands with students. Mayor Melvin Carter stopped by, as well.

And Principal Abdisalam Adam, after a flurry of summertime work to establish a new school in Frogtown, made East African Elementary Magnet School official.

"I'm here to announce that it's real. The school is open," Adam said, relieved and proud as students and family members filed past. "The students are here. The parents are here. The great staff is here."

The celebration Tuesday came as more than 800,000 students across Minnesota returned to classrooms for a new school year.

St. Paul school leaders announced the creation of East African Elementary in May as the latest entry in the district's tightly focused cultural offerings — in this case a dive into the countries of East Africa and languages of Somali, Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Arabic and Swahili. The district's fast-moving venture is in essence an effort to beat the charter schools at their own game.

The state's second-largest district has been losing hundreds of Somali students to two charter schools that boast high percentages of English language learners. Higher Ground Academy, the larger of the two, had 1,052 students in 2022-2023.

The new East African Elementary preK-5 school, housed in what was formerly Jackson Elementary, has overshot enrollment projections and has room to grow if it can find the staff. Lessons in East African culture and languages still are in the works. But bilingual speakers now are at the ready, including staff member Ubah Jama, who greeted kids as they arrived on buses Tuesday.

"This is an important day for St. Paul Public Schools," Gothard said. "Some would say it's an important day for the nation in recognizing the importance of being culturally responsive in a way that meets the needs of families and the education they desire for their children."

The district already has elementary schools with special culture and language programs, including Mandarin, Spanish and French immersion schools, and Txuj Ci HMong Language and Culture, a magnet focused on Hmong studies. Altogether, those schools serve more than 1,300 of the district's approximately 33,000 students.

'Let's get good grades'

In a second-floor classroom, Adam greeted third-graders who were beginning the day with breakfast and a "Rhino Tales" coloring exercise. Outside in the hallways, families looked for their children's classrooms, and so, too, did staff members who consulted laptops as they walked.

Adam told students: "Let's work hard. Let's get good grades. Let's make our parents proud."

Keng Xiong taught for three years at Garlough Environmental Magnet School in West St. Paul before signing on at East African Elementary. He said that while he does not "reflect, physically, the population here," he is the product of an immigrant family, and is ready to give back to St. Paul students and help families navigate the school system.

His students will be spending time with East African language and cultural specialists, although not just yet. This week, they'll take phy-ed with newly named teacher Khalid El-Amin, the former Minneapolis North and Connecticut Huskies basketball standout.

"I googled his name," Xiong said when told of the hire.

El-Amin said that he has worshipped at the same mosque with Adam on occasion. Recently, he took over as coach of the Anoka-Ramsey Community College men's basketball team, and had been interested in teaching, "so it kind of worked out that way," he said.

"I'm always around younger children in the gym, around my home, around my community in Minneapolis," El-Amin added. "So I just want to have fun with them, help them grow and be that connection."

Community partnership

Back in May, East African Elementary was put on the tightest of timelines, with the opening to take place in less than four months and with Adam, the principal, being the lone employee at the time.

The staff hires and hunt for students then began in earnest, with East African community members serving as active partners.

At a school board briefing this summer, Jackie Turner, the district's executive chief of administration and operations, spoke of a family event in July that included tours of the school and games for kids, plus a unique recruitment effort led by 12 East African community members.

They set out with clipboards in hand, Turner said, knocking on doors, attending fairs, festivals and events, asking people to be part of a "movement" at East African Elementary.

"That is why this school is going to be vibrant on the first day — because it's members of the community owning this," she said. "So when a school wants to know what they can do (to build enrollment), this is what they can do. The East African magnet school is the bar."

Gothard hoped in mid-July the school would have as many as 200 students.

The tally as of Tuesday was 256 kids, with a third preschool classroom having been added, too. Seventy percent of the students are new to the district, Gothard said.

'Bigger than me'

Adam has been with the district since 1997 and most recently served as assistant principal at Highland Park High School. He speaks Somali and Arabic, and was an English language learner instructor earlier in his career at several St. Paul schools.

He was asked if he had the chance to take any vacation time this summer.

"Not at all," he said.

But at the same time, Adam has sought to make clear: "This is bigger than me."

And there's more work ahead. The school comes together completely on Thursday when it welcomes its littlest learners: three sections of preschoolers and two sections of kindergarteners.