Girls in uniforms and Muslim headscarves circled around fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Kruske in the cement courtyard. She squinted at the ingredients listed on a Doritos bag, then conferred with the girls before sharing. Unlike them, her shoulders were bare in the spring sun.

“Isn’t Yellow 5 haram?” she asked, using the Arabic word for “forbidden.”

Cross-cultural moments like these have multiplied over the past decade as City Heights schools absorbed thousands of East African students: A non-Muslim teacher asking her Muslim students if a food dye breaks religious dietary laws. And it epitomizes the mission of Iftin, a fledgling charter school where Somali-speaking parents are comfortable, Arabic is offered, and perfecting English is a mission.

Two years ago, a cluster of East African parents broke away from San Diego Unified School District, disheartened by low test scores and language barriers at City Heights schools. Their brainchild, Iftin Charter School, faces daunting challenges. Nearly all of its 150 students are learning English. All come from low-income households. And refugees with little education are still trickling into the school, which teaches kindergarten through 7th grade. For some refugees, it’s the first school they’ve ever attended. For many of their teachers, it’s their first job.

The school’s name means “enlightenment” in Somali.

Confronting that challenge is a crew of fresh-faced teachers working out of rented classrooms in a cement Salvation Army center. Iftin’s first batch of test scores was among the lowest in San Diego. But its cadre of hopeful teachers — mostly non-African — is eager to tackle its task. Here, teachers navigate the complex intersection of East African cultural mores and the drive to achieve American success. They scrutinize foods to hew to Muslim diets; all take a short introductory class on Somali customs to smooth relations with parents.

Still, surprises crop up frequently. Taboos and norms that held fast in East Africa are easily and unintentionally violated by school staff: Unlike U.S.-born kids, Somali children often think dogs are disgusting, and could make them unclean for prayer, as one teacher discovered while reading a canine-themed book. Some Somali parents believe studying music is frivolous. And children may shy from drawing people, lest they commit idolatry under orthodox Islam.

“And Skittles are haram,” said Jamie Esposita, a first grade teacher who joined Iftin last year. It’s her first full-time teaching job. “I learned that the hard way.”

Yet Iftin’s core focus is academic, not cultural. Iftin’s teachers speak English, aided only intermittently by Somali-speaking aides. Most knew little about Somalia or Islam before joining the school. School director Abdulkadir Mohamed, who handles the school’s business and administrative functions, says he judges his teachers on test scores. He aims for at least 90 percent of his students to attend college — if not more. The students break into groups by English level daily, switching classrooms for 45 minutes of tutoring. Their classes are small, rarely exceeding 20 students.

“I can’t imagine having 30 students,” Kruske said. “Not with this span of abilities and English proficiency.”

On a recent Tuesday, 7th grade teacher Demi Sakadelis gently coached a bashful boy, sitting cross-legged on the floor. A Burmese phrasebook lay alongside her. She tried to explain the English word “wet.” Behind them, guest teacher Ugas Ismail Mohamed drilled the other students in Arabic.

“Is rain wet?” Sakadelis asked.

“Wet?” the boy asked, smiling.

“Is rain wet?” she asked again.

“Yes,” he said.

“Is water wet?” she asked.

He squinted. “No.”

Sakadelis tried again. “If I put water on you, are you wet?” she asked.

As a fourth grader, Abdirahmano Shamarke couldn’t read. Now she reads the “Jimmy Neutron” books excitedly, and dreams of being a teacher. Her nickname “RAHMA” is printed on the spines of her textbooks. Classmate Yahye Dini immigrated at age 4, spotted flyers for Iftin at his mosque as a 3rd grader, and persuaded his mother to let him transfer from Marshall Elementary.

“I don’t talk as much as I did. I don’t run around as much. And I visit the library way more,” Dini said, chatting easily in English. The 11-year-old is one of Iftin’s few English-proficient students. “Now, I check out five or six books. I want to be a lawyer or a brain surgeon. I haven’t decided yet.”

Citywide, public schools have scrambled to serve the burgeoning East African population. Exact numbers aren’t available, but the San Diego community is believed to number 10,000 refugees, said Bob Montgomery, regional resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee. Community leaders give higher estimates of 20,000 to 35,000 people.

Among them are between 2,000 and 4,000 Somali and Sudanese schoolchildren attending San Diego Unified schools, said Agin Shaheed, manager of the district’s Race/Human Relations and Advocacy program. Over the past three years, San Diego Unified added Somali interpreters to the staffs of three schools, convened a Somali committee that discusses parent issues, and started developing cultural guides for teachers. Neighboring Lemon Grove has hosted forums and events specifically for Somali parents.

“The [San Diego] Unified schools, I don’t blame them” for the difficulties serving East African families, said Mohamed Arrays, an Iftin board member and parent. “But we wanted another option, so we can have the control of our children.”

Misunderstandings persist. East African parents are often uneducated, and may be illiterate in both English and Somali, said Hamse Warfa, associate executive director of Horn of Africa, a community organization that serves East African refugees. Some shy from contacting teachers. They believe that over-involvement in the classroom connotes disrespect for the teacher, said Buonhong Khommarath, an advocate for Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander and Somali parents in San Diego Unified schools. And though translators are available, the added inconvenience can block communication, especially at schools that don’t have a translator on site.

One Somali mother recounted an upsetting afternoon when she arrived at her son’s elementary school, and found him being quizzed by the police about an out-of-school spat that she said occurred days earlier. Why, she asked, hadn’t the school called her, before calling the police?

“I was shocked that day,” said Fadumo Mohamed, a Somali-speaking classroom aide at Iftin. Three of her children attend the school. “That’s the difference between here and there. Here, they will call (me).”

Iftin isn’t the first San Diego charter school to cater primarily to Somali Muslim students. Another effort was MidCity Charter Academy, which closed in 2006. A nearby public school, Carver Elementary, tried to accommodate the displaced children by adding single-gender classes and setting aside time for prayer. Those efforts proved controversial nationwide, spurring outcry that Muslim students were afforded special treatment. Eventually, the school ended single-gender classes and shifted its schedule so that children could pray at lunchtime.

Nationwide, charter schools that serve East African refugees and other newcomers have multiplied, said Martha Bigelow, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Those schools include Ubah Medical Academy in Minneapolis and the International Community School outside Atlanta. Charters are cropping up because of the unique academic and cultural needs of refugee children, she said. Some have spent years in refugee camps without picking up a pencil or paper.

“If you were a high-achieving 8th grader in Mexico City, you come to the United States with prior literacy. Your jump into 9th grade is going to be pretty quick,” Bigelow said. “When you don’t have prior schooling, it’s just a completely different situation.”

“They’re leaving our big public school districts because we’re failing them,” she added.

But the challenge of teaching just-arrived refugees is no smaller for charters such as Iftin, which faces the additional hurdles of an upstart school. Iftin is currently housed in a community center run by the Salvation Army, pending a move to Jackson Elementary School. Grass is fenced away, leaving the children to jump rope and play tag on the sidewalk. Funding is tight, said Abdulkadir Mohamed, the school’s director. Until last year, he says he went unpaid.

Only recently did Iftin gain an academic leader to oversee curriculum and instruction. Teachers are relieved to have her guidance. Last school year, only 19 percent of Iftin students scored proficient in English, and 17.4 percent scored proficient in math.

“In our second year, it’s tough to improve everything,” Abdulkadir Mohamed said. “It’s better than last year. But still, they aren’t where I want them to be. Our problem is, every month they bring a newcomer. Someone who brings us back.”

And as Iftin forges a path to success for East African students in the U.S., it juggles questions about how to balance East African values and U.S. norms. Iftin is grappling with how to teach sexuality and human development, for instance. Whether Doritos are haram is just the beginning.

“American values and ours too, they will not contradict each other,” said Arrays, the Iftin board member. In fact, Arrays said, Iftin is a fundamentally American enterprise. “America was started by only a few people. They said, ‘We don’t want other people to rule us.’”

“Now we have to rule,” Arrays said, “and face all challenges.”

Correction: The original version of the article mistakenly attributed a quote about classroom sizes to teacher Julie Greene. We regret the error.

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