Hmong teens make it happen: Minneapolis school offers Hmong language class


Neng Vang doesn’t know how to explain the words “scholarship” or “essay” to her non-English-speaking mother. The Patrick Henry High School senior says it’s hard to find the words to tell her mom why she is late coming home on the days she stays after school to get help with college and scholarship applications. 

Vang’s mother, who was born in Laos, “understands basic stuff,” Vang says, but trying to explain certain American cultural concepts to her in the Hmong language doesn’t always work.

“Nowhere on the hilltops of Laos were people applying for money to go to college,” says Paul Compton, Henry High School’s Asian Club adviser.           

Despite being raised in homes where the spoken language is Hmong, Hmong teens say they don’t have the Hmong language skills they need to communicate well with their parents.

That’s one of the reasons a group of Henry High School students lobbied the Minneapolis School Board to allow a Hmong literacy course to be offered at their school. That class-Hmong Literacy and Languages-begins next week. The curriculum includes basic reading and writing skills as well as Hmong history and culture. So far, about 100 students have signed up for the three units of the class that will be offered every morning at the school, and not all of the students who signed up are Hmong.

large group

With the help of Jay Clark (back left) and Paul Compton (back center) these Henry High School students were able to convince the Minneapolis School Board that a Hmong language class was an asset for the school. They are, from left, Neng Vang, Pasee Moua, Ia Vang, Sura Vue, MaiKa Lee and Soua Chang. (Photo ©Debra Fisher Goldstein)

The work to bring the class to the school began last year when members of the school’s Asian Club brainstormed changes they would like to see at Patrick Henry. According to Jay Clark, director for the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing at the University of Minnesota who has been working with the club, number one on that list was “the major huge classes” at the school. Also on the list were getting volleyball at the school, dealing with the less-than-palatable school cafeteria food and a Hmong literacy class. The literacy class wasn’t as high on the list in the beginning, says Clark, but it didn’t take long before it was.

That day came when Clark took several Henry students to visit Como Park High School in Saint Paul to try some of its cafeteria food because they’d heard that Saint Paul Public Schools food service was trying to improve and diversify school lunch by offering ethnic dishes such as Chicken Suqaar and Chicken Curry with Basmati Rice. The day they visited, Hmong Beef Fried Rice was on the menu.

“We agreed: The food was much better,” says Clark. After they sampled the food, the group toured the school. “We walked by one classroom where a teacher was sitting by herself at her desk eating her lunch. She looked suspiciously Asian and suspiciously Hmong,” he laughs. So they stopped in to meet her and ask about the Hmong culture at Como. Clark asked if there was a Hmong language class at the school “and she told us Harding High School had one.” Clark contacted the teacher who taught that class, Dang Soung, and “we had him come over to Henry and talk to leaders of the Asian Club.”

Senior Soua Chang wasn’t a member of the Asian Club last year, but when a petition began circulating around the school to institute a Hmong language class she signed it and got involved. First, the students met with Harding’s Soung. “He filled us in on how it started [at Harding]. He gave us the curriculum,” Chang says. The Patrick Henry course is modeled after that class at Harding.

School board member Lydia Lee and Superintendent Bill Green met separately with the students. “Then we went to talk to the school board,” Chang said. MaiKa Lee, Sura Vue, Neng Vang and Chang all went before the board to present their proposal.

Compton says the students “were able to construct an extraordinarily logical and rational argument as to why this course is necessary and important to Minneapolis Public Schools.”

The presentation was nerve wracking, according to Chang. The students showed their petition, which had 400 names on it, and a board that outlined their proposal.

They emphasized that 39 percent of Patrick Henry’s student population is Hmong and more than 50 percent of the honor roll students are Hmong, Vue says. He also brought up how learning the language can help ease tensions between the American Hmong students (students who have grown up in the United States) and the recent Hmong Thai immigrants.

The clincher: Chang says they pointed out how Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis has a 16 percent Somali population yet the school offers an Arabic language class.

“They had to make a powerful case,” Clark says. “It is a good thing for the district to do this because they want to keep the Hmong students in Minneapolis.”

Pasee Moua, the Asian Club’s public relations officer, was born in the United States. Her parents were born in Laos. “I barely speak Hmong,” she says. “I think it’s important to carry on the Hmong language.”

MaiKa Lee agrees: “We are losing our culture.” Lee was born in Thailand. Her parents were born in Laos and she says they don’t speak English. Learning their language is a “way to understand our parents more,” she says.

laughing students

Pasee Moua, Ia Vang and Asian Club adviser Paul Compton try to explain that some English words just don’t translate into Hmong. (Photo ©Debra Fisher Goldstein)

Of the six students interviewed for this story, three were born in the United States. The other three were born in refugee camps in either Thailand or Laos. Because they have been raised in homes where Hmong is the spoken language, Compton says teachers assume the students are fluent in their parents’ native language.  

“What they are really speaking is ‘Hmonglish,'” he says. “Some ideas or words don’t translate. Parents have no concept of what their student is doing.”

Parent-teacher conferences are trying for both parents and teachers. Parents “don’t come to the conferences because they don’t understand what the teachers are saying,” Chang says.

Neng Vang

Henry High School senior Neng Vang says she does not know how to explain words like “scholarship” and “essay” to her non-English-speaking mother. (Photo ©Debra Fisher Goldstein)

Neng Vang says she tries to translate to her mother, “but my Hmong is not as good. I’m not saying exactly what the teacher is saying. My mom asks if I’m telling her everything.”

Compton says that’s a problem for both teachers and parents. “The teacher says she said all this stuff and the student only says a sentence to the parent.”

Even the words “Asian Club” have no translation into the Hmong language. Chang says the best word they can come up with in Hmong translates as “agency.” Ia Vang, a junior, says school in general is hard to talk about with parents.

The downside to this new class is that many of the seniors will not be able to take it because they’d have to drop another class. “Many are involved in the International Baccalaureate program and are working on their IB diplomas,” says Ia Vang. To get those diplomas they need to be in six of the IB classes this next semester.

Nevertheless, Chang says Patrick Henry needs a class like this: “It’s an identity, a pride thing. Our school is made up of 39 percent Hmong. We play a large role in our community.”

11 thoughts on “Hmong teens make it happen: Minneapolis school offers Hmong language class

  1. People can do amazing thing when they work together instead of against each other. I am so proud of the students at Patrick Henry. Thanks to Jay Clark, Paul Compton, and the Minneapolis school district for making this a reality.

  2. What a great story. It’s a testiment to all parties involved.

    I love the idea of the Asian Club asking the students about their wants and how the students responded by expressing what was important to them.

    What a rich experience it was to take the tour of Como Park and the happenstance of running into a teacher who told them about the program at Harding. It just demonstrates how sometimes you have to go through a process, an effort, for the the next possibility reveal itself.

    What a great argument the students and advisors constructed to present to the School Board. I’m happy to know that the School Board listened, recognized the benefits and responded in a positive way. Great story. Thank you Kristal for sharing it.

  3. I go to Henry and i am very very happy that we got a Hmong class…i am Hmong and i am looking forward to this class..I am so PROUD OF HENRY STUDENTS and COMPTON AND JAY CLARK..THANKS FOR THIS AWESOME OPPERTUNITY!! —

  4. After many long years it had finally be won. The opportunity to have a Hmong class in PHHS!!! I am an ALumni Memebr and am Extremly Happy to read that this goal that started long ago will not be conceptualized into something real! GO PATRIOTS!!!!

  5. Great job you guys.. if it weren’t for you guys, we wouldn’y never get hmong literacy.. I hope our language does carry on and i hope people around the world won’t use it negativley but positively to their peers.. You guys deserve it… Lets just say that i’m proud of all of this action.

  6. I am also an alumni of PHHS, class of 2007. I am so glad to to see the changes and the oppportunity for many Hmong students to take the class. I went back for the Asian Club’s new year and I see the changes that exist. I amproud of you all and wish all the best for the class!!!

  7. So finally a Hmong literacy class at PHHS!! I am so proud and extremely happy to hear about the determination of getting this class set up for the many younger Hmong generations that will be coming to Henry in the future. I am also an alumni of PHHS and it’s so good to hear about success at the school!

  8. I applaud the Asian Club for making this happen. Thanks to Jay Clark and also Yia Yang at the U! If only I can go back and take this class. I wish it great long term success.

  9. Wow!! Am I glad to have stumbled across this article. I am so glad that you guys are keeping our language and our culture alive.

    Never EVER let anyone degrade us! Have the Hmong pride that we’re all born with!

    I’m also glad to hear that not only Hmongs are taking the class because when we educate the public it means a more informed community, making us more united as one.

    I for one have stumbled across people who do had never heard of Hmong people so I’m glad that you guys are making a change. Keep it up guys!! 

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