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Inside Sahan Journal: When a charter school closed in Cedar Riverside, we realized we had a lot to learn about getting the news to immigrant parents.

 By Aala Abdullahi
Thursday June 3, 2021

Two months ago, Sahan Journal’s education reporter, Becky Dernbach, broke the news on the closing of Cedar Riverside Community School—a landmark charter school that largely serves Somali families in Minneapolis. At the time, she thought the greatest challenge she’d face would be navigating the school bureaucracy to figure out a definitive answer on the school’s future.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. 

In April, Becky began calling parents of students who attended the school. What did they make of the decision by the school’s nonprofit authorizer, Pillsbury United Communities, to terminate Cedar Riverside Community School’s charter?

Even after the spring announcement, parents responded to the news with surprise and confusion.

“What do you mean it’s closing?”

“Closing? You mean, we’re going back to online learning?”

For many parents, this was the first time they were hearing that the school was headed towards permanent closure; a few weeks later, Pillsbury confirmed that Cedar Riverside Community School would be shutting its doors on June 30, 2021. 

The school’s location—Riverside Plaza, an apartment complex popular with Somali families—made it a community hub. In 2010, the school had earned public praise for its high engagement level with parents. But over a decade later, things were drastically different.

In fact, Pillsbury had specifically cited a lack of parental and community engagement in its letter explaining the decision to close the school. In this environment, the school struggled with low test scores, falling enrollment, huge staff turnover, and growing parental complaints. 

Many parents seemed frustrated, checked out, or simply unaware of the school’s grave challenges. 

For this reason, we knew we couldn’t just press the publish button on this story and walk away, trusting that the parents who needed this information would read the piece. We had to find a creative, culturally relevant, and digestible way to communicate the months-long reporting that Becky had so diligently put together. 

We began starting off with what we knew:

  1. There was a language barrier. Many of the families who attended Cedar Riverside Community School spoke Somali as their first language; others spoke Spanish, Oromo, or Amharic. 
  2. It was not enough to publish a written piece, even if it was translated into Somali, or any other language spoken by parents at the school. We noticed a higher level of engagement from Somali parents in Facebook groups and on WhatApp, in the form of video and audio snippets.

Essentially, we realized that we needed to create a version of this story that came to life through video or audio, produce it in a more familiar language, and publish it on a platform where our audience already existed.

That is why we chose to partner with Somali TV Minnesota, a Somali-language digital TV channel on Facebook Live, run by Siyad Salah and hosted by Abdirahman Mukhtar. The TV channel has a large audience based in the Twin Cities; its innovative and responsive programming relies heavily on questions and comments from viewers, who can call in to its shows.

In this sense, Somali TV Minnesota seemed like the perfect partner for our first bilingual and interactive presentation of a Sahan Journal story. The goal was to produce a show that put parents and concerned community members in the best position to make informed decisions about what to do next: Where should they send their children next year? What could replace the school’s role in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood? And who would be responsible for bringing about that change? 

We thought the best approach would be to get all the key players in one room—even if it was virtual—to shed some light on why the school was closing and what would happen next. Because it was a call-in show, we planned to spend the majority of the segment allowing viewers to ask questions and share their experiences at the school. 

We booked four guests, including Becky: school board member Abdirahman Dahir; Pillsbury’s director of the office of public charter schools, Samantha Diaz; and state Representative Mohamud Noor. To ensure we heard from parents and families impacted by the school’s closure, we called parents and community members ahead of time—with the help of contacts within the community—to invite them to tune in and call in with their questions.  

The show aired the evening of May 27, 2021, and since then, it has been viewed nearly 9,000 times. We received some notable comments and questions from concerned community members and advocates. And some of their questions expanded beyond what was happening at Riverside Plaza: How can we ensure that other schools, attended largely by Black and brown students, do not meet the same fate as Cedar Riverside Community School? 

Where do we go from here?

This was Sahan Journal’s first live event, and the newsroom’s first real partnership with the purpose of engaging with the communities we serve. This comes at a time when many nonprofit newsrooms are experimenting with how to deliver news in less conventional ways: through daily SMS and WhatsApp messages, and unruly Facebook groups, to name a few. 

What made our show with Somali TV fascinating, however, was the crossing of old and new: We held a live event over a digital TV service that was widely popular on Facebook, and wildly significant to a very specific community. 

Considering this was our first real engagement event, what did we learn?

We obviously did not reach all parents or families impacted by the school’s closure. Not all families who attend the school are Somali, and not all people are on Facebook, or tune into Somali TV. 

So, how can we reach people even more directly? Could the community benefit from one-page flyers—translated in multiple languages—that summarize Becky’s reporting, and provide viable next steps for families (as explained by Pillsbury and community advocates)? What if we distributed these fliers directly at Cedar Riverside Community School and the apartment complex? These are some of the questions we’re asking ourselves after last week’s broadcast. 

Going beyond this event, and looking towards the future of what “community engagement” looks like at Sahan Journal, we recognize that there’s a lot to learn from community media. Many of these newsrooms have spent years building trust and serving the audiences that mainstream newsrooms don’t. An entirely Facebook-based community news outlet like Somali TV Minnesota, for example, doesn’t just happen overnight; the channel has amassed over 150,000 followers since its inception in 1997. Every show relies on contributions from Somali community members from around the world, and its relevance and impact continues to grow through word of mouth.

The overall reach of community media may be at a smaller scale than national news outlets, but with direct and close contact with community members comes real impact, something that has become especially relevant during the global pandemic. 

We also recognize that one size does not fit all. That is to say, we expect that with every community we want to develop deeper relationships with, there will be a specific avenue or method that works best. And we intend to keep asking the most important and relevant audience-centric questions—Who do we want to reach? Who is left out? What is the best way to connect them with news?—in order to get there. 

As Becky wrote after the event to some of our readers: Our partnership with Somali TV was the first of its kind in our newsroom, but it definitely won’t be the last.


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