FREE SPEECH ZONE | Hmong students at Henry High collect 530 postcards to save school buses

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At the May 18 Henry High May Show, students at the North Minneapolis public school collected over 530 signed postcards addressed to school board members Kim Ellison and Alberto Monserrate. The postcards ask that the Go-To mass transit bus card be optional for the 2012-2013 school year, with school bus rides available.

Henry Hmong students have been busy collecting and mailing postcards since the day in late April when the news broke that the school buses would be a thing of the past.  Henry high students were informed that in the fall school bus rides would be eliminated at Henry, and eligible students could instead receive Go-To cards, enabling them to ride city buses for free.

When school personnel arrived at the Henry Asian club to extol the benefits of the Go-To card, Asian club members peppered the school staff with questions for nearly an hour.  After the school officials left, Asian club members said that they and their families did not know about the card  and were never asked their opinions or ideas on the city bus plan.

There are several advantages to the Go-To city bus card, and especially for students who already use mass transit regularly, the Go-To card can be a desirable option. However, many Henry families are resistant, and at the top of the list are Henry’s Hmong families. The Hmong make up 47% of Henry’s student population.

Many Hmong families do not use public transportation.  20 Hmong students were recently asked if they had ever used mass transit:  only two hands went up. The others said that the top reasons they do not use mass transit are concern about safety and fear of getting lost. Most Asian club members said they had used mass transit at some time in their lives, but very few use it regularly. Safety again was a top reason given.

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Safety concerns were raised by many Henry Hmong families as news spread that the school buses would be gone and city buses would be their only option. Some Hmong families, when told they would be forced to use mass transit for their children’s ride to school, said they were considering transferring their children to another school.  Many parents of eighth graders said they wanted to send their children to a high school that uses school buses.

A previous exodus of Hmong students from Minneapolis Public Schools offers a sobering lesson. In 2005 the last Hmong refugee camp in Thailand closed, and a thousand  Hmong Thai refugees came to North Minneapolis; well over 100 Hmong Thai were enrolled at North High. However, many of these students were told they were ineligible for school bus rides. Staff from the Hmong Academy charter school went house-to-house offering school bus rides to Hmong Thai students who switched to Hmong Academy. Within a few weeks, scores of Hmong Thai students transferred from North to Hmong Academy. Ultimately, over 80% of the Hmong Thai high school students left the Minneapolis school system. Today more Minneapolis Hmong Thai students attend Hopkins High than either Henry or North.

Many Hmong student leaders are concerned that the abrupt elimination of school buses and the mandatory switch to city buses could also lead to a drop in Hmong enrollment at Henry High.  If Henry Hmong American families are suddenly cut off from school bus rides, and Hmong charter schools go house-to-house offering school bus rides to these high school students, Henry high could face an exodus of students. Further, parents of 8th grade Hmong students could opt to enroll their children in high schools offering school bus rides.

In the current 2011-2012 year, Edison and Roosevelt High schools have offered the Go-To card as pilot projects, with some students opting to use Go-To cards,  while still making school buses available. Many Hmong student leaders believe that Henry High is less likely to lose Hmong students if the Go-To bus card is an option at Henry in 2012-2013, with school bus rides available. That, they say, would give the Minneapolis school system a year to talk with Hmong families and get their feedback on the city bus proposal.

If some Henry students use the Go-To card, and there are no problems on the city buses, then this could be a major selling point to help  convince Hmong families that using the Go-To card can be safe. If some Henry students use the Go-To card and there are lots of problems on the city buses, then the school system may need to modify its transportation plans.

Either way, making the introduction of the Go-To card more gradual and leaving the school bus option open  in 2012-2013 gives Henry High a better chance of not losing students because safety-conscious families feel they are being forced to use city buses.

Combined with other postcards already collected and in the mail, school board members Ellison and Monserrate will each have over 500 postcards in their mailboxes by the end of the week.