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Are Hmong Schools Making the Grade?

Hmong Today, News feature, NAM Award Winner, Wameng Moua Posted: Dec 06, 2008

The shrinking number of Hmong students played a huge role in the budget deficit in public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This story won the Minnesota Ethnic Media Awards by the Twin Cities Media Alliance in partnership with NAM.

There are seven Hmong-focused charter schools in the Twin Cities, each filled beyond projections. Even with limited evidence to suggest these schools are performing at adequate standards, Hmong-focused schools continue to be a huge draw. Take, for instance, the Fresno Hmong community and their highly publicized effort to charter the state's first Hmong-focused school.

With the large numbers of Hmong students switching over to these schools, millions of education dollars are following them to their new institutions. This drainage of Hmong students has played a huge role in the ever increasing budget deficit that the public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul are suffering.

While both public school systems are attempting to slow down the exodus of students by creating their own Hmong-focused magnet schools, all of the existing Hmong charter schools are continuing to grow at astonishing rates with new charters in the works.

Are the Hmong schools succeeding? Does the lack of diversity in these schools constitute self-segregation? And even when test scores continue to linger behind traditional schools, why are educators calling the Hmong-focused schools a great success?

Hmong Today takes a closer look at Hmong-focused schools to try and demystify this increasingly popular school choice. Is it a short-term trend or are Hmong-focused schools the solid choice of the future. You decide:

On an official visit from the United States Department of Education, Todd Zoellick walked through the hallways of the Community School of Excellence (CSE), a Hmong focused charter school that opened this school year in St. Paul, MN.

As the Deputy Secretary's Regional Representative, Zoellick travels throughout the nation to tour schools and assess what he called, "Federal education issues."

His visit to CSE, he revealed, is the first time he has visited a culturally focused school.

"We heard so much about this school and I had to see it for myself," Zoellick explained while confirming that culturally focused schools are quickly becoming a popular option for to families to consider.

Mo Chang, the school's founder and head administrator, leads the tour by pointing to the intricate designs that are painted along the walls.

"These colors and designs can be found on traditional Hmong tapestries," Chang explained of the detailed swirls that adorned the walls. "We wanted to surround our students with cultural artwork to emphasize the importance of where they came from, sending the message to each student that he or she is appreciated here."

As part of the tour, the group visited a third-grade classroom. As the guests entered, each child in the classroom stood up and politely bowed, palms affixed in the traditional South East Asian greeting.

Immediately after being introduced, Zoellick warmed up to the kids by asking simple questions about their class and in particular what they were learning.

A number of hands eagerly shot-up, some waved in the air with the anticipation of being picked.

Politely picking one student at a time, Zoellick continued asking questions, only now with more detail.

"We learned about human bones," answered one bright-eyed youngster in response to a question about science class.

"How many bones are in the human body?" Zoellick asked the girl.

"Two hundred and six," replied the girl after a slight pause.

Acting surprised to get an answer, the visitor from the Department of Education smiled and thanked the girl for the answer, jokingly revealing that he hadn't known the answer up until now.

Jeneane Miller, a teacher at the school, explained to Zoellick that in a traditional public school setting, Hmong children would unlikely raise their hands and assert themselves with such vigor and candor.

"I'm so proud of our kids!" exclaimed Ms. Miller, whose teaching background spans across a variety of different school systems. "One of those kids who had his hands up came to us with a learning disability. Today, I didn't see any disabilities!"

"Our children can be themselves."

Ask any teacher, parent or student about the benefits of attending a Hmong-focused school and you might receive a variety of answers. However, the one answer that will pop-up most frequently will have to do with the student's new found confidence.

This new attitude doesn't just stay at school, comments Kou Xiong, 39, parent of nine-year-old Matthew Xiong, who is attending his first year at CSE.

"He speaks Hmong now," the elder Xiong remarks about his son's transformation at home. "He has confidence to speak to guests with respect and courtesyin Hmong. That's not the same Matthew we used to know."

Though the Xiongs live in White Bear Lake, an affluent suburb of St. Paul, they make the extra effort to get Matthew to school each morning. "We like this school so much we will enroll our youngest child here as well."

Educators such as Sally Bass, director of the SEAT Program at Concordia University (Southeast Asian Teacher Licensure Program), believe that children who are allowed to gain a better understanding of their culture, also gain a better understanding of themselves as a person, which she says leads to better learning.

"When kids are more firmly rooted they have a stronger self-esteem. When they have a foundation to stand on, they are better able to explore, learn and develop," Bass reflected on her 30-plus years as an educator. "At some of the traditional schools, there are natural barriers in place that don't allow for some of these roots to be planted properly."

More than just a casual observer, Bass acts as the liaison between Concordia University and CSE, one of six charter schools that Concordia sponsors (CSE and Hmong Academy are the two Hmong-focused schools).

As the sponsoring agency, Concordia continuously works with the charter schools to respond to deficiencies. As Bass illustrates, when CSE had issues with lower than expected test scores, Concordia facilitated a professional development program to better prepare teachers to the adapt to the testing environment.

"There's no such a thing as a perfect school," Bass continues, "But what I can say about the charter schools that I've been involved with is that the level of commitment from the administrators all the way down to each student is tremendous. These charter schools remind me of an old-time school, centered around a common religion or culture where everybody is involved in the education process."

"Low test scores don't reflect the true success of Hmong charter schools"

According to the website www.uscharterschools.org, "Charter schools were developed according to three basic values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility for results."

Minnesota pioneered the first charter school in America, the St. Paul City Academy which opened in 1992. From the very beginning, the Hmong were an integral part of that school and others throughout the Twin Cities metro area (besides the seven Hmong-focused schools).

When HOPE (Hmong Open Partnerships in Education) Academy, the first Hmong-focused charter school, opened its doors in 2001, the doubters wondered if enough Hmong parents would want to send their children to a mostly Hmong populated school.

More than seven years later, the school has grown beyond expectations, recently adding a $3 million multi-use building to expand on its existing campus. More importantly, the school is credited for being the model for other Hmong-focused schools to follow.

With growing enrollment rates and community accolades on the positive side, HOPE Academy and the other Hmong-focused charter schools seem to be headed on the right track.

That is, until the declining test scores are brought to light.

Take for instance the reading scores for the Hmong schools which calculate to an average of 21.75% of the students being considered proficient readers. Compare that to the state average of 68% proficient readers and the deficiencies are alarming.

Pao Yang, operations manager for Hmong Academy, doesn't discount the importance of numbers. What he wants to point out, however, is the fact that those test scores don't take into consideration that a good number of students at Hmong Academy arrived from other schools, thereby diluting the numbers put up by more established Hmong Academy students.

"Realistically we'll need to wait a few more years to test our products," Yang insisted. "Because if you track the students who have been with us from the beginning, you'll see successful numbers. It's just a matter of time before we are able to see the total numbers rise as well."

Yang points to other numbers that are not reflected in test scores. Having graduated its first class of seniors last year, Hmong Academy boasts a 90% graduation rate. Furthermore, numbers such as the attendance rate and retention rate of students, Yang argues, far exceeds the same categories at public schools.

Beyond the numbers, there are more important factors to consider when assessing the success of a school, says Neal Thao, principal of Noble Academy, a first-year Hmong-focused charter school in Brooklyn Center.

"We have 99% parental participation," Thao asserts. "That says a lot about how important education is at a particular school."

From a historical perspective, Thao is quick to note that this is the first time in history that the Hmong have been able to create their own schools which parent especially have learned to appreciate.

"In our homeland, we are too busy trying to survive day to day. This is the first time we have the tools, the money and the political will to educate our children. This is an important step for the advancement of our culture and our language."

Most parents interviewed for this article did indicate that one of the most important factors that lead them to enroll their children in Hmong-focused schools was the cultural and linguistic regiments that are mandatory at these schools.

These sentiments have been picked up by the public school systems in St. Paul and Minneapolis whose declining enrollment have forced them to create their own versions of a Hmong-focused schools.

Hmong International Academy is Minneapolis Public Schools' answer to the Hmong dilemma. Only in its second year, the enrollment has already grown too large for its current building at the Lucy Laney building in North Minneapolis.

The school's principal, Chai Lee, is adamant that a Hmong-focused school within the public school system is the ideal way to educate children because of the resources available in the public school system as opposed to the upstart charter schools.

"We have access to the top teachers and learning tools," Lee continues. "And it's a great feeling to know that we have the support of an entire school district rather than individual schools out there like islands."

In St. Paul, the district will transition Phalen Lake Elementary into a Hmong-focused magnet school with the new name, Phalen Lake Elementary Hmong Studies and Core Knowledge Magnet.

Hoping to keep the school's current level of diversity, principal Catherine Richin an interview with the Twin Cities Daily Planetexplains that the school will not become a Hmong immersion school as some may have misunderstood it to be, but rather a school that combines the Core Knowledge curriculum with Hmong and Spanish language and cultural enrichment classes.

"We are very excited about the changes and about the opportunity to enrich our curriculum in Hmong studies and more broadly represent a very rich and diverse culture," says Rich.

"Are Hmong schools too isolated from the rest of the world?"

Sally Bass from Concordia chuckles when she contemplates the irony of a culturally focused school.

"I thought they tried to get rid of this kind of thing with Brown Vs. Board of Education," Bass asks rhetorically about the reverse desegregation aspect of the Hmong-focused schools. "But I guess in this case, separate isn't too bad afterall."

In her MinnPost editorial, Lorena Duarte asks a number of pertinent questions in regards to culturally specific schools.

"The idea of a culturally-specific public school raises complicated issues and intriguing questions: Is it a focused approach toward student achievement and enrichment, or is it a form of isolation? How do we deal with cultural diversity in public education? And what is the best environment to prepare students to become successful in diverse settings? Do students at culturally-specific schools have enough interaction and knowledge about other cultures to succeed in an increasingly diverse nation and an increasingly interconnected world?"

To help her answer these questions, Duarte asks Lesa Covington Clarkson, assistant professor at the U of M's College of Education & Human Development, who has worked with both African-American and Hmong charter schools in the Twin Cities.

"They are valid concerns," says Clarkson, "But people need to look at the flip side of this what happens if students never understand their own culture?"

Neal Thao may have said it best in reaction to questions of being isolated within the Hmong schools.

"Traditional schools might have diversity, but in many situations, the door hasn't always been open to our community."

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