OWATONNA — Hussein Osman was brought on by the Owatonna Public Schools in October to take over the role of Somali bilingual liaison after his predecessor — who had been with the district for roughly a decade — moved on from the position. Osman is now also coming in at a time when the title of “bilingual liaison” is seeing a bit of an expansion and redesign thanks to a three-year grant from the Minnesota Department of Education.
Rebranded “success coach” over the summer, Martina Wagner — coordinator of educational equity for the district — said the schools are seeking to expand the position into more of an advocacy role, with the help of added professional development and training opportunities for staff.
Owatonna Public Schools currently employs eight success coaches in total, spread throughout the district; half work specifically with the Somali population, and half with Latino and Latina students, although they’re all available for any child needing extra support.
According to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, Somali and Latino students accounted for roughly 4% and 8% of last year’s enrollment, respectively, and Wagner noted that the bilingual liaison position is nothing new.
“I taught in the district 22 years ago at Willow Creek and we had bilingual liaisons when our first influx of Somali refugees came into the district,” she explained. “In the past, they’ve been used more as homework support and we do a little bit of that now, but it’s more about getting students to find their voice with teachers and building that capacity.”
Wagner said that the district was awarded the grant last year, but that the changes to the liaison role didn’t take effect until this school year. She added that the district is trying to launch the new program in its entirety at the high school, while having coaches at other sites transition more slowly into their updated responsibilities.
“When I started, this was my job description,” said Osman, of coming in straightaway to the expanded role. “I’m adapting quickly, telling the kids, ‘I’m only here to support you. You have to be reliant on yourself.’”
‘I can bring those two together’
Among the district’s Somali success coaches, Osman is based out of Owatonna High School and also services the Alternative Learning Center. There is another coach stationed at the middle school, and one at Wilson Elementary who is also responsible for district-wide support — including at Lincoln and Washington elementary schools, where there is no dedicated coach.
Nura Elmi is based at McKinley Elementary, and has been the success coach there for the past five years. While her work is in many ways different from Osman’s, they both get connected to students through the school and then work with kids, teachers and families to try and help those who are struggling or falling behind.
“We connect first with the student and the staff. Then, we connect with the family,” Elmi explained.
Her responsibilities include setting up and attending any meetings that the student needs to have, translating both school- and district-wide materials from English into Somali and trying to engage kids in deeper conversations on their emotional and academic well-being.
“I have one family whose student used to attend Washington and then last year, she came to McKinley,” Elmi explained. “There were always misunderstandings, and it was because she hadn’t been to a success coach who understands her and talks to her deeply. Overall, you think it’s a behavior problem. It wasn’t. It was the lack of language and the misunderstanding between the two cultures.”
Both she and Osman also noted that school can get more difficult for students going into high school, making a solid early education paramount to later success. Osman noted the significant jump in expectations between eighth and ninth grade, including more mandatory assignments for more impactful grades.
“The challenge in high school is that we want them to graduate,” added Wagner. “They have credits they have to earn, so we’re combing through transcripts and looking at students’ needs and what pathways we can create.”
In his first two months on the job, Osman added that teens haven’t always necessarily asked for help. Oftentimes, he said it’s on him to reach out and keep up the rapport after the school identifies a student for him to work with.
“You have to say, ‘Hey, I see you’re having an issue. What can I help you with?’” he explained. “I’m trying to build that relationship where they can feel comfortable coming to me and asking for help.”
If a student is struggling in the classroom, Osman said his job is then to provide them with tools so that they can advocate for themselves and communicate effectively with their classroom teachers or other available academic supports.
“We get them connected with someone who can give them the most help, someone who is an expert in that field,” said Osman. “In order for me to help him, I’d have to learn all of those [subjects]. But the teacher is willing to help him, and I can bring those two together.”
Helping new students
Osman explained that a new student had started at the school just this past Monday, and that on her first day he had gone to every class with her in order to help ask questions and get her orientated. After that initial shadow, however, he said he’s now trying to connect her with other students who can assist her in getting used to the new school.
“It’s not atypical for me when I get over to the high school to see Hussein doing an intake of a family,” said Wagner. “[Coaches] will give tours to our students. They’re there as we onboard new students to the high school.”
Osman added that, since arriving to the high school in October, he’s seen three new Somali students enroll. Wagner added that Owatonna High School has eight new, new-to-country students this fall, coupled with two from the previous year.
While she said that annual figure seems to be hit-or-miss, she noted, “We’re trying to be responsive in terms of offering them pathways or a six-year graduation plan, so they have two years of English immersion and then they start to accrue their credits toward graduation.”
In total, Wagner said the district has just over 450 multilingual students, out of a total enrollment of about 5,000.
Going forward, she said she hopes to see the success coach roles at all sites continue to grow, and plans to do that with the help of regular trainings and partnerships both within and without the district, which at the moment include the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and College Possible.
“We really just wanted to ramp up our liaison role and their status within the district,” Wagner said. “They’re invaluable.”