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Somali Community Gets Approval For Charter High School

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Aired 8/5/09

The San Diego Unified school board will allow a Somali charter school in City Heights to expand. That came despite concerns over the diversity of the school's student population.

The San Diego Unified school board will allow a Somali charter school in City Heights to expand. That came despite concerns over the diversity of the school's student population.

The trustees voted 3 to 2 to allow Iftin charter elementary school to expand to include a new high school. Iftin's Sufyaan Mohamed says this is a special moment for Somali families in City Heights.

“These individuals are frustrated with the system simply because they don't know how they start (the enrollment process) or where to go,” Mohamed said. “We provide an opportunity, a gateway, to take those newcomers, put (the students) through the educational system, make it easier for them, and in one, two or three years, they are fully functioning American citizens.”

But Iftin's high school plan faced some opposition. The district's legal staff advised the board to vote against the proposal. They say the charter school should not be allowed to expand because it has racially isolated itself from the rest of the district. Roughly 90 percent of its students are Somali. School board member Katherine Nakamura who voted against the plan says diversity comes first.

“I think the cultural values of this school is too isolated. It’s not what is within the values of American society,” Nakamura said. “It’s hard to lose your culture … its hard to watch that happen. In American schools, we try to help people with that process. But we cannot help you if you are isolated into your own communities.”

But Somali community members say the school should be judged not based on its racial make-up but for its academic improvement. State test scores show Iftin students are making significant gains since it opened four years ago. Trustee Shelia Jackson says the district should be encouraged to grow.

“A charter school is a school of choice. You cannot force people to come into your school,” Jackson said. “As you start something new, people will be kind of leery … one thing we have to do in our district, that we don’t do very well, is applaud the successes.”

Iftin's school officials pledged to reach out to people outside the Somali community so they can encourage more diversity on their campus.

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