Sanford Middle School exemplifies how schools are changing

Staff is creating a trauma-informed environment where kids understand adults care


Sanford Middle School has been part of the community for more than 80 years. Located in the Longfellow neighborhood, the school has a long history of multi-cultural heritage. Ahmed Aden Amin was hired as principal this summer. A proud alumnus, he was part of Sanford’s graduating class of 1999.
Amin said, “When the Somali Civil War broke out in 1991, I was only five years old. We lived in Mogadishu at the time, and my family moved many times over the next seven years as refugees. My siblings and I never attended school because we were always on the move. The first time I set foot in a school building was when I walked into Sanford as a sixth grader. I didn’t know any English, but Sanford would become my mecca – my safe haven.”
Amin’s family lived in a shelter in downtown Minneapolis when they first arrived. He remembers a night when his Mom said, “We missed dinner in the dining hall.” It was not the first time hunger had come knocking on their door. Amin and his family knew what hunger tasted like.

Trauma informed education
According to Amin, the work at Sanford is about creating a safe and supportive educational ecosystem. He said, “We’re all coming back from the collective trauma of COVID-19. What we’re trying to create is a trauma-informed teaching environment where the kids understand they are flanked by caring adults – that’s the power. They are not going through this life alone. The social workers are not the only healers in this building.
“Everyone here including the engineers, cafeteria workers, office staff, teachers, counselors, social workers, and administrators will be trained in trauma-centered communication this year. We will all share a common language.
“You can’t teach young people if you don’t know them –and you have to show them that that you care. We’re not looking at some kids and labeling them ‘at-risk’ anymore. In our way of thinking, all of our students have great potential.”

Closing the opportunity gap
Sanford is a full International Baccalaureate (IB) school. The goal of an IB education is to create responsible, socially conscious students who use their cross-cultural education to promote a better, more peaceful world. At Sanford, all of the students participate in IB curriculum – not just some.
Amin said, “We have a great curriculum, but we also have an opportunity gap at Sanford that we need to close. We have to be intentional about our instructional framework, so that all of our students can succeed.
“This is a post-gentrified school. When I came here as a sixth grader, it was predominantly a school for kids of color. Our current student body is 57% White. We’re under 40% free and reduced lunch for the first time in a long time, which is a measure of the change in the make-up of our families. The narrative of Sanford has changed, as the demographics have changed. School can work well for some kids, but be damaging for others. We have to be very careful about that.”

Teaching as critical care
By the time Amin got to Roosevelt High School, he had started showing aptitude for math. As a junior, he ended up in a classroom full of seniors. His math teacher asked the class one day, “Where is everyone hoping to go to college?”
Amin remembers saying he didn’t think of himself as college material. His teacher responded with, “You need to sign up for the ACT today.” She helped him get registered, and drove him to take the test when the day finally came. He said, “I could never have done it without her. That kind of teaching is a form of critical care.”
When his ACT scores came back, Amin had only ranked in the 12th percentile. His math teacher said, “You’re going to do great. Don’t worry. You’ve got this.”
Amin reflected, “I knew then that if I was going to succeed, it was because someone believed in me.”
Amin graduated from Roosevelt High School, and went on to earn a BA in sociology and an MA in education from the University of Minnesota. He returned to Roosevelt as a Social Studies teacher and debate coach before getting his principal’s license.

Remember where you come from
Amin has never forgotten the years he spent as a refugee with his parents and five siblings. He said, “I have an empty picture frame on my desk that says, ‘Honor your Journey.’ When you’ve had trauma in your life, that time can be a blank space in your memory.
“We are working to create an environment at Sanford that honors every student’s journey. We want every student to know that we believe in them.”


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