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NOTICE: The Charter Vision project is dormant as of January 2008. This website is provided for archival purposes only.

Not ‘Your Grandmother’s Minnesota’ — Or is it?

Many Americans have a somewhat dated image of Minnesota and its now five million residents — perhaps created by some combination of the movie “Fargo,” Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” or Michael Landon’s version of “Little House on the Prairie.” The reality, however, is that Minnesotans are an increasingly diverse group of folks. This is not “Your Grandmother’s Minnesota.” Or is it?

Statistically, Minnesotans remain overwhelmingly White and Northern European and settled by people who have been here for at least several generations. But, beginning with a huge wave of refugees from Southeast Asia in the mid-1970’s, Minnesota is again becoming a state strongly influenced by a new wave of immigrants and refugees. There are hundreds of thousands of “New Minnesotans” from the Horn of Africa, Hmong families originally from the hill country of Laos, and others newly arrived from the former Soviet Union, Bosnia and from Mexico and parts of Central and South America.

The impact of Minnesota’s increasing diversity is greatest on the state’s schools — particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also in selected Twin Cities suburbs and even smaller cities and towns here agribusinesses have been attracting hundreds of immigrant workers and their families who quickly followed. A quarter of the school age population in Worthington — a community of 11,300 in Southwestern Minnesota — are now children of New Minnesotans from Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. St. Paul has the nation’s highest concentration of Hmong students. Despite its reputation for cold winters, Minnesota is now home to more than 50,000 Somali people — more than any other state.

Like past waves of immigrants, these New Minnesotans place a high value on education. And, many of them have not been satisfied with either the environment or the results their children have experienced in traditional district public schools. So, in addition to longer-established African American and Native American communities, these New Minnesotans are creating new charter public schools.

Among them are the Twin Cities International Elementary School and Minnesota International Middle School — serving a total of more than 675 students. More than 90 percent of these students are from war-torn Somalia. Now in their third year of operation, these two schools are co-located in a recently renovated 88,000 square facility near downtown Minneapolis. In the fall of 2004, a sister high school opened on the building’s second floor that focuses on health occupations.

In these schools, certified English Language Learner (ELL) and other teachers work closely with paraprofessionals and Somali elders. The shared leadership in the schools includes a Somali co-director and Somali board members. This is a school in which these New Minnesotans clearly have pride and enjoy acceptance and ownership.

Minnesota now has about 20 what might be called ethno-centric charter schools, with more on the way. They include charters predominantly serving students in the African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Hmong, American-Indian and East African communities. Among the state’s most recently approved charters is a Spanish language immersion elementary school in Worthington. This is the first of what could be a new wave of similar schools serving recent immigrant students in smaller cities and towns outside the Twin Cities metro area.