Dr. Brian Rossi, Executive Director of STEM Academy, and Ali Ashkir, Office Manager of STEM Academy and a local imam, talk about Somali culture, common misconceptions of Islam, and creating a thriving educational environment based on respect and focused on higher education.
L to R: Ali Ashkir, Torres Hodges, Dr. Brian Rossi
Can you please give us an overview of what STEM Academy is?
BR: The community, back in 2010, wanted to create a high school that had a STEM focus, and the community that put it together had a Somali and Somali refugee background. It wasn’t meant to be a Somali school. I like the dictionary definition of diversity which means a variety. Often people say “Oh, you’re diverse,” which means you’re all black, but it really is the whole spectrum of human differences that makes up our diversity. We have 103 students. 102 of them are Somali and we have one Southeast Asian student. I did have a recruiting program to include some Latino students, white students, Asian students, Pacific Islander students, and Native students to try to have a more diverse school. After many ads in the newspaper and months of meetings at the library and historical centers, we did not increase our enrollment from those populations.
Why do you think that is?
BR: The school has changed dramatically over the last 5 years. It had a tendency to attract students who weren’t successful in the mainstream, that weren’t serious students. We had a lot of behavior problems, a lot of disciplinary problems. We had a reputation that we weren’t a real school, that we were—in the modern vernacular of “fake news”—we were a “fake school” with “fake diplomas.” And so we’ve really re-established ourselves with our credibility.
Part of it has to deal with our PSEO 2018 strategy… We went through this [strategic planning], and the idea was that in 2018 all students would graduate with a high school diploma and a 2-year associates degree from RCTC. I realize that’s a really lofty goal, that next year is 2018, and that every senior won’t graduate with an associates, but we’ll have 5 that are really close. They won’t get their AA because they’ve decided to focus on prerequisites for their chosen colleges and universities. That Post-Secondary Enrollment Options focus has really transformed the school.
There’s a lot of things that go behind our PSEO strategy. For one thing you can’t dig a ditch without a certificate beyond high school. You have to go and operate a $20,000 ditch digging machine. One of the only ways to do that around here is to go to RCTC, take a couple of classes, and get the certificate.
The other piece being, in my opinion, high schools are an artificial environment. We’ve created something that’s an alternative reality... Only since 1910 and the invention of the Carnegie unit have we had the school system that we now know as a U.S. high school. It’s a new invention, and we’ve tried to make it a be all and end all. From just the fact that you need X amount of credits in math, science, and English; then we created football, basketball, prom, National Honor Society – all these things that are trying to create this culture of high school in and of itself and has no foothold in reality.
So, every Wednesday I meet with the students and I say, “We are getting you ready for college. You tell us when. If it’s not until spring of your senior year, that’s fine, that’s normal. But if you think you’re ready sooner, let us know.”
We do after-school tutoring, ACCUPLACER test prep, career and college readiness classes. And so the real notion is that high school is supposed to get you ready for college. You need to go to college and do something, get something, a PCA [Personal Care Assistant certificate]. Even most entry level jobs require some form of post-secondary training. And so that’s been the focus.
And so now 13 out of our 103 students are taking college classes, general classes. So they’re getting their college credits right now. We’ve just had 4 more students pass the ACCUPLACER test. Three of them are freshmen. We’ll have five 10th graders taking college classes, probably 20 at RCTC part or full-time.
We’ve really pushed for a culture of literacy and offer classes on PSAT and ACT writing prompts… If you use Word, there is a grammar check that gives you a Flesch-Kincaid scale which tells you which grade level you are writing at. So we have them run all of their essays and prompts through this scale in order to assess their writing skill level. That helps. How are you going to get through college if you’re writing at an 8th grade level? You have to step up your writing. And so that’s our culture of literacy.
We’ve also pushed for a culture of numeracy. America is so math-phobic. Part of the artificial nature of high school that we’ve created in 1910 is that subject areas are discrete – English is separate from social studies; social studies is separate from math; math is separate from science. That’s abominable. The math you have to do for science ends up being discrete and separate. When the bell rings you get up from a class studying the quadratic formula, then you go over to science and you start looking at valences and atomic weights, molar solutions – all of them requiring mathematical calculations and formulas but no relationship to math. So that’s what we’re trying to do here with numeracy and with engineering, which I teach.
My point is, I should be very connected with my math and science teachers so that when we’re doing things like our solar boat race, the science teachers, math teachers, and I should be looking at and teaching things like how to calculate buoyancy, what is the solar cell generating and how do you measure that, how is it charging the battery that is running the electric motor on the back of the solar boat. So all of that mathematics teaching is coordinated. We are working towards that.
Are any religious practices embedded into the schedule here at the STEM academy?
AA: Students keep up their own prayer life. Prayers are in the morning, noon, afternoon before sunset, sunset, and one hour after sunset.
BR: We’re a public school. So even though students are responsible for their own prayers and religious practices, we are required by law to accommodate their religious needs. So if somebody wants a holiday off, they can have it without penalty.
AA: In some states, like New York and Washington state, our holidays are legally recognized in all schools. But here, it is personal. So the students, yes, they pray and they do everything else, but for us we cannot regulate it, though we do give necessary excusals for holidays and things like that.
How is the divisive rhetoric we are seeing spoken at a national level affecting the students? When I listen to the students’ poetry they speak frequently about Islam being a religion of peace, how one doesn’t represent all. Can we talk about this?
AA: This issue actually is more of a political issue that has nothing to do with the reality of our religion. If we say “peaceful” and are talking about peace, the more you look into our religion you see peace. But there’s some verse that talks about war time and times of difficulty. There is a verse in the Quran addressing every issue of life. So there is a time of peace, to deal with everyone, and there is a time of war. You cannot apply the time of war verse and issue to everything. Every country, even America, has fighters and rules for their fighters. So when you see that one person taking that one verse out of context, you cannot apply that to everyone.
There’s 124 chapters in the Quran. Every chapter starts with the word “peace.” So if you read that way you can see the peace. And see, some chapters say, “Whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.” A lot of chapters speak this way and address peace. In this way, if someone is saying Islam is a religion of peace, then yes, it is true.
Muslim and Islam are different. Islam is a religion. Muslim is a people. They are different. Muslims have their own culture. They live as far as all the way to Russia, Indonesia. They are not one people. They are a lot of people with their own way of life. They have a different culture. There’s some similarities but others have their own way of life and interpretations. I cannot be responsible for the actions of 2 billion people. You cannot carry their own wrongdoing; it is for them.
It is a very unique culture—Somalis. It is the only culture in Africa where everything is one: One language, culture, religion, and ethnicity. Everything is one.
BR: You see, this is a public school. Anybody between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one can come here, and we have a culture of what any given high school would want, which is peace and respect, help each other out, give back to your community. All of these things you find in the Quran… I don’t know what people see when they see our children walking down the sidewalk or at the mall but I know what we see – the future of America right here... We treat them [students] like adults and got the culture turned around to be based on respect. We don’t have detentions anymore. There aren’t any fights.
AA: There’s a lot of kids here who are doing very good now. Dr. Rossi, he is doing very good. Big change since he has come here. Every year is going to be better than the one before.
Reflection: I was particularly motivated and inspired when learning about the unified aspect of Somali culture – one people, one language, one religion. I think we could learn a thing or two about unity from the Somalis. Also it is refreshing to know that we have people like Ali and Dr. Rossi in our community helping equip Somali youth with the skills necessary to become leaders in our nation.
Challenge: I would encourage and challenge any and all Rochester Minnesotans to engage with Somalis by asking them meaningful questions. As Ali said, “you cannot talk about Islam if you do not know about Islam”. Stop and think for a second about your personal feelings and beliefs about Islam. What are the sources of these feelings? Are your feelings rooted in what the mainstream shows you, or have you actually taken the time out to meet with and engage those who practice Islam? I challenge you to personally engage with the Somali people. I am truly blessed and enriched each time that I do. I find and feel nothing but peace, love, courage, and leadership.