Denny International Middle School’s new Somali partnership

(From left, Denny assistant principal Chanda Oatis, Mr. Mohamed, Ms. Habibo, Denny’s Leticia Clausen, student Farhiya)
With more Somali families moving to West Seattle, the schools serving those families are working to build new cultural bridges. Saturday afternoon at Denny International Middle School, families, community leaders and school administrators gathered for what Denny’s English Language Learners program director Leticia Clausen described as “a formal welcome, opening our doors to the Somali community.” According to Denny principal Jeff Clark, this was the third weekend that Denny has housed a new program partnering with local Somali families – a cultural education program in which the families use the school building on Saturday and Sundays, as a supplement to regular school. Clark says Denny will probably have about 100 Somali students next year; he pointed out that district managers announced recently in West Seattle (mentioned in this story) that Somali is now the second most common non-English language in the district. More on Saturday’s event and the expanded outreach, ahead:

The schools that most of the students attend, or will attend – West Seattle Elementary, Denny, and Chief Sealth High – are working to help them feel welcome. Sealth principal John Boyd also visited the Saturday gathering – you can see him with Clark in the background of this photo (which Clark provided, along with the two that follow, later in this story):

According to Clausen, inclusion includes practicalities such as arranging for a place for the prayers the Muslim faith requires at specified times of day; right now, Clausen says, they just have to find places at school wherever they can, like the library. She also talked about celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday ending the month-long Ramadan observance, and about learning more about cultural customs, even bringing in a community leader who explained the traditional dress for women by inviting her to try it on. “So they wrapped me and turned me,” she recalls, smiling, “And one of my Somali boys said, ‘You look better in Somali dress.’ I said, well, thank you, I’ll take that as a compliment!”

Culture means more than dress, religion, language; it includes understanding the dramatically different lifestyles some of the immigrant families used to lead. Clausen explained, “We have Somali students where (in their homeland) their day was getting up at 4 am, spending all day watching the goats.” So, she says she told principal Clark, if they could get two goats for the school, “(the students) will be blooming, knowing something they could teach us!” That already happens, she says, with participation in P-Patch programs at nearby gardens – some students who came from farming backgrounds know all about working the soil and helping crops grow.

After families had arrived for Saturday’s event, sharing snacks and talking, in the Denny cafeteria, presentations began on stage. “It’s an honor to have you come here to Denny,” Clark told them. “We are one community. This is your school, and we are so glad to have you here today.” He in turn was thanked for providing a place for the new Somali weekend education program.

He also shared information about programs including College Bound, the scholarship program offered to middle-schoolers who pledge to graduate from high school with a grade-point average of at least 2.0 and good citizenship and whose families meet income-eligibility requirements (example, a family of 4 who in 2008 had income no greater than $40,800). That information was being provided in three languages, as were handouts about “making reading a family affair” and “tips on helping your teen in school” (the tips include 1 hour of quiet time each night for homework, 8 hours of sleep a night, and a good breakfast before school, including protein).

Part of this new phase in encouraging Somali families’ closer involvement with the schools involves partnership with Neighborhood House, parent organization of the new Neighborhood Center at High Point, which was the site of a meeting two weeks ago (WSB coverage here) giving local families – many of them Somali – a chance to hear from and speak to local school officials (attendees included the principals of Denny and WS Elementary, as well as high-ranking district managers).

Overall, both Clark and Clausen point out, this is part of Denny’s transformation into a truly international school. It’s not all about immigrant families; Clausen also spoke with us about the dual-language class with Spanish immersion – a class that eventually will include students moving up from Concord International Elementary, where the program expands each year and is now into the second grade. (Since they don’t have a true feeder yet, Clausen explained, “We went shopping within our building to see which students would be best-placed into [the immersion class].”) And she described a project under way with eighth-graders, “an avatar project where kids go into a virtual world — talking to kids all around the world. Students are crearting a tapestry that relates to international issues.”

Back to the Somali students – Clark says the estimate of 100 next year might wind up on the low side: “I talked to some of the community leaders who said to expect 200 kids next year.”

And in fall 2011, Denny will move into brand-new buildings now being constructed on the nearby permanent campus of Chief Sealth High School, which will be the first co-located middle/high school complex in Seattle Public Schools.

ADDED 12:43 AM MONDAY: More details on the new weekend school, sent late last night by Denny’s principal:

I am pleased to share that we have launched a new program, Denny International Somali Weekend School. I am partnering with two Somali community leaders from High Point to offer this exciting new program to our community. We just finished our third weekend of running the 8:30 am to 6:00 pm program on Saturdays and Sundays at Denny. The goal of the program is to give Kindergarten to Twelfth Grade students an opportunity to:

1 – Maintain a positive attitude towards school with the ultimate goal of college graduation
2 – Learn basic Arabic literacy skills
3 – Improve their English literacy and math proficiency
4 – Increase their understanding of Somali culture
5 – Improve their study skills

Each weekend day we have two classes, one morning and one afternoon of approximately 30 students each. At this time, many of the participating children are in elementary school, with only a few secondary students. In the coming weeks we expect the increased participation of secondary students to double the size of the program. There is no real cost for this program as we are all volunteering to make this happen.

7 Replies to "Denny International Middle School's new Somali partnership"

  • christopherboffoli January 24, 2010 (10:08 pm)

    What an interesting story. I’d be curious to know more about the paths some of these families have taken from Somalia to Seattle, the types of experiences they had back in Africa and why West Seattle in particular has become their neighborhood of choice.

    • WSB January 24, 2010 (10:25 pm)

      Totally agree. After covering this event and the High Point meeting two weeks ago, I’m realizing this is an undercovered local story – maybe it was well-covered whenever the emigration started, but certainly I can’t find much written lately about it. While talking to principal Jeff Clark before we left the Denny event, we asked him whether the families are coming directly from Somalia or from another area of the U.S. where they spent some time first – he told us some are coming from Minneapolis, which has America’s largest Somali community.

  • westseattledood January 25, 2010 (12:09 am)

    When I TA’d and tutored in the Writing Center at SSCC a few years ago, I read alot of stories by Somali and Eretrian students who came into the class to get assistance with writing.

    Believe me, there are incredible stories to be told by this lovely community of challenges of survival in a whole so different from ours, their incredible courage, profound faith and the importance of family and community as they establish and orient themselves to American citizenship. That level of exposure to multicultural education was a uniquely. intimate opportunity, and I will never forget those students. They brought me their home cooked food, shared their dreams and ambitions, giggled with me while they corrected my assumptions with patience and humor and a graciousness I will always remember. I learned FAR more from their stories than I could ever hope to teach anyone.

  • cclarue January 25, 2010 (12:10 am)

    I think this is so cool I would love to learn more about the Somali culture. This story warms my heart for the somali familys and at the same time irritates me because if i went to the school and asked for a prayer room and time away from class to do it as a christian i am guessing i would be told no. And my kids cant have christmas parties but can have a winter festival instead. I do not want the Somali kids to not have this offering i just wish we could also have a christmas tree at the school as well. I clearly remember when i was in school in the 70’s and 80’s the school office had a christmas tree.

  • cclarue January 25, 2010 (12:21 am)

    I have to say I do not want to take away from the story that is about these wonderful families, please dont take it that way. It just struck a cord with me while reading it and I got a bit upset about the whole celebrate everything but christian associated holidays feeling here in our big lovely city.

  • Marybeth Turner January 25, 2010 (12:41 pm)

    Thank you for covering the language and cross-cultural experiences in West Seattle. I would like to hear more–also about the hispanic student experiences and family life. It seems most coverage of traditional news outlets is limited to reports of crisis and crime–not stories like this that build understanding and goodwill.

  • Amber January 26, 2010 (8:14 am)

    I see many Somali families up and down Delridge and in High Point, and I sincerely hope that one day soon a family will open up a restaurant serving their special cuisine! It would be a delicious benefit for the entire community.

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