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St. Paul Hmong two-way immersion programs face challenges of enrolling non-Hmong students, developing curriculum
Nou Her is a pre-kindergarten teacher in the first Hmong immersion program in the nation, located at St. Paul’s Jackson Elementary school. She’s also a translator.
During the summer, on weekends, on weeknights and during prep hours, she translates children’s books, district curriculum, wall hangings and songs. “From big books to small books to rhyming to alliteration,” she said.
It’s what’s required for a program that teaches core curriculum in a language for which there exist virtually no commercial curriculum materials.
“We don’t have a Dr. Jean,” Her said, referring to the popular producer of recordings like “Dr. Jean’s Silly Songs.” Her has to become the Hmong Dr. Jean.
In Jackson’s Pre-K to fourth grade immersion program, students spend at least half their time learning in Hmong. Pre-K to first graders speak Hmong all day, except for 50-minute specialist periods. English instruction is gradually added between second and fourth grades. The school also houses traditional English-only classrooms.
Jackson’s six-year-old immersion program shares many of the challenges familiar to Minneapolis’s younger Spanish dual language programs at Andersen and next year Green Central, profiled by the Daily Planet in a previous article, challenges such as students not performing well on third grade assessments, since they don’t reach full English proficiency until sixth grade. As in Minneapolis, teachers at Jackson express concern that separate bilingual program tracks end up segregating EL students from non-EL classmates.
Jackson’s older program differs from the ones at Andersen and Green Central in a couple of key ways. For one, Jackson’s program is delivered in a language that has never been one of power, and that has only had a written form since 1953. Hardly any curricula in Hmong exist. Secondly, all of St. Paul’s bilingual programs accept both native English speakers and English learners. Jackson’s version is called two-way immersion.
Immersion for everybody
One-way immersion programs, like the one at Adams elementary in St. Paul, focus on non-English foreign language acquisition. Developmental one-way dual language programs, like the ones in Minneapolis, focus on research that says if you develop English learner students’ home languages first, they’ll do better in English-only classrooms later. Two-way immersion programs combine the two approaches.
Minneapolis has one Spanish two-way immersion program at Windom. St. Paul has Spanish programs at Wellstone and Riverview, and Hmong programs at Jackson and Phalen-Lake. Bruce Vento’s Spanish program is in its last year.
According to the two-way immersion model, English speakers and immersion language speakers reinforce class work with peer-to-peer interactions in both languages. The ideal two-way program would consist of half English speakers, half Spanish speakers. District ELL program manager Pangjua Xiong said programs typically end up with around 30 percent English speakers, 30 percent immersion language speakers and 30 percent speakers with a little bit of both languages.
A marketing challenge
Maintaining that balance is tough. In Jackson’s program, all but eight students live in a home where Hmong is spoken, and only one of those eight is not of Hmong heritage. Having a parent who speaks Hmong at home does not necessarily mean those 139 students all speak mostly Hmong. The school could not provide data indicating what proportion of the program is made up of English-dominant speakers, but staff said most students have some Hmong, some English.
“Are we truly a two-way? Well, no, because we don’t have non-native [Hmong] speakers,” said Vang. “We want to have both – that would be the ideal.”
Riverview elementary school principal Al Levin sees the issue as a marketing challenge. His school’s Spanish immersion program is in the midst of a seven-year transition towards being offered school-wide. Right now, the two-way immersion track is 30 percent native English speakers, and 70 percent students with a family member in the home who speaks a language other than English, typically Spanish.
“I think there’s a misconception – that some native English speakers think that a [two-way] immersion program is just for the Spanish-speaking kids,” he said. On the other hand, “Spanish-speaking kids think it’s just a Spanish program, and they won’t learn English.”
The challenge is amplified for the Hmong programs. “Hmong is a pretty new language,” Xiong said. “It hasn’t caught on to non-Hmong families yet.”
Riverview is now tracking its first cohort of students to complete the Spanish two-way program. Levin hopes the students will prove that two-way immersion leads to later academic achievement.
Realizing they are Hmong
Jackson staff say Hmong students in the immersion program are doing well. Third grade test data tends to be a poor indicator of success for immersion programs, since students reach English proficiency later, but staff said that students are performing on par with research-based expectations. Meanwhile, they’re developing pride in their identity as Hmong.
“If you’ve visited other classrooms where Hmong students are the minority, they’re quiet, they’re shy, or that’s how they’ve been stereotyped,” Vang said. “It’s hard to get to know one of your Hmong students when they’re in the mainstream classrooms.” In the immersion classrooms she said students clamor to participate in new traditions like a Twin Cities-wide Hmong spelling bee to be held at Concordia University May 25.
“I have kids who come in and think they’re English, think they’re American, not Hmong,” Pre-K teacher Her said. “At the end of the year, they finally realize they are Hmong.”
Her said her classroom could accommodate more English speakers, even if they weren’t of Hmong heritage. But Jackson’s program has a lot on its plate without trying to recruit native English speakers.
A language with no semi-colon
Teaching a district curriculum in Hmong is more than just translating texts verbatim. The Hmong language has eight tones. English phonics and grammar rules don’t apply. Teachers typically have to read through a whole story before they can translate it in a way that conveys the same meaning in Hmong.
There’s a word for quotation mark but no word for semi-colon. The program policy is to avoid inventing language – computer is computer, and semi-colon is semi-colon. Conversely, commonly used non-Hmong words that have crept into Hmong speakers’ vocabulary must be re-taught. Jackson students do not use the commonly used Lao word for color, sii, they use the less colloquial Hmong word kob.
The school collaborates heavily with the district’s curriculum development office and now with Phalen-Lake’s one-year-old Hmong immersion program.
Jackson will add a fifth grade immersion classroom in 2013. After fifth grade, St. Paul students lack a Hmong immersion option, although Washington Technology and Battle Creek middle schools and Harding high school all offer some Hmong language classes. Spanish immersion is offered in the district up to senior year.
Xiong said non-Hmong families are starting to inquire about the district’s Hmong immersion programs. This year Jackson saw its first non-Hmong heritage student enter the Hmong program. The student’s home language is Vietnamese, and administrators initially hesitated to let her enroll, thinking that managing three languages would be too difficult. Principal Vang said the first grader is flourishing.