Edgar Hernandez spreads his fingers across the screen of his iPad, zooming in on a map of Africa. He smiles as he locates the Nile River, then turns to a classmate and together they search for the Sahara Desert.
A student’s sense of place is key at LEAP High School, which serves immigrants and refugees who have had little or no experience in mainstream education.
For 20 years, the St. Paul school has been adapting to an ever-changing student body, and a quickly diversifying Minnesota population.
“I can tell when they come to my class they’re genuinely excited to be there. They’re engaged and they help each other,” social studies teacher Paul Gore said.
When the school was founded in 1994, most of the students were Hmong. Over the years the population has changed from being primarily Asian to 46 percent African in 2003, and now to more than half Karen — an ethnic minority from Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Warsan Osman moved from California two years ago. Before that, she lived in Nairobi and never had a chance to attend school. The 17-year-old is one of four LEAP students from Kenya.
Changes in the student body are often linked to world conflicts and trends, said Principal Rose Santos. Many LEAP students have escaped violence and political turmoil in their homelands. Santos hired on 10 years ago, just as a Thai refugee camp closed and brought a large wave of Hmong refugees to the Twin Cities, increasing the school’s population to more than 400.
Today, LEAP serves about 330 English language learners between 16 and 21 years old. Enrollment fluctuates as new arrivals join and older students move on.
LEAP students are part of the growing international population of Minnesota, which has gained about 12,000 people from other countries each year since 2010. The influx of international residents has offset out-migration from the state.
Newcomers don’t need prom or homecoming, school leaders say, but a program that eases them into the school environment by emphasizing language, reading and writing.
“We start at the very beginning by teaching them how to read,” Santos continued. “We keep them reading through science, through social studies, and even art so they can learn what mainstream students have been learning since kindergarten.”
Gore said what sets LEAP apart from other alternative schools is that it was created solely for immigrant students who had little educational background. It is one of a few such programs in the Twin Cities. Though 60 percent of LEAP students never attended school in their native countries, they see the opportunities that can come with education. Osman said going to college has always been a goal of hers, and that she can’t wait to start applying in the fall. Her dream is to become a writer. “It just comes easy to me, and I really like that I can be creative,” she said.
Although students in alternative schools are considered at risk for not graduating, Santos said that more than 80 percent of LEAP students continue on in postsecondary education.
So many have shown interest in health-related fields that for the first time ever this year the school is holding a certified nursing class with an instructor who comes from Inver Hills Community College three times per week to teach 12 senior-level students.
Santos hopes LEAP can offer more of these courses in the future, giving students a taste of the college experience, because some students “age out” at 21 before they get to higher grade levels. That goes on record as a dropout, she said.
Gore said many efforts have been made since 2006 to get the Legislature to increase the public school age limit to at least 23, giving students the chance to learn longer and further develop language skills. “If we can keep students long enough to make progress, they will,” he added.
Gore, who is one of 30 LEAP instructors, said he has learned a lot about different cultures during his time at LEAP and remains impressed by his students’ love of learning. He said some are so enthusiastic that they even ask if they have to take vacations.
“Then I have to explain that school won’t be open because its Presidents’ Day,” Santos said with a laugh.
Tina Munnell is a student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.