A lot of people assume that Seng Vue, a member of the Henry High School’s Asian Cultural Club, is fluent in Hmong, but she says she’s not. “We have to speak ‘Hmonglish,’” Vue said of herself and others of her generation, “because words we don’t know, we have to fill in the blanks with English.”
Two years ago, the Asian Cultural Club successfully lobbied the school board to allow a Hmong Literacy and Languages class to take place, and last year, Seng Lo taught the class before retiring. The class included basic reading and writing skills, as well as Hmong history and culture.
This year, Vue wanted to enroll in the class, to increase her skills in speaking and writing Hmong, but when she went to sign up for classes, there was no teacher’s name listed for the course. She found out within the first few days that her friends who were taking the class weren’t learning Hmong at all. For two weeks, they were taught by a white substitute teacher who didn’t speak Hmong.
Jay Clark, from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, who works with the Hmong community, said he found out about the issue on September 7, and has sent a flurry of emails and phone calls to school board members and MPS administrators, as well as the media. By Monday, the issue had been resolved, at least temporarily, with the former teacher, Seng Lo, coming out of retirement to teach the course. He began teaching the class on Tuesday.
School board member Lydia Lee said in an interview that she didn’t know why the barriers that were resolved two years ago in offering the class suddenly became a problem now. “You know, I don’t know where to point the finger,” Lee said. “This should not be an issue.”
Vue and two other students from Henry High School’s Asian Cultural Club gave a presentation before the Minneapolis school board on Tuesday evening, thanking members for their help in expediting the process to get a Hmong-speaking teacher to teach the Hmong Literacy and Languages class. In their presentation, the students requested board members to meet with them so that the same thing doesn’t happen next year, when Lo re-retires.
“We would like to understand why there was this delay at the start of the school year,” said Beth Vang, one of the Hmong students. “We hope that if we work together we will be able to find a mutual understanding of what’s required to fill this teaching position so the delay does not happen again the next few years.”
Clark said there was a series of challenges that MPS successfully dealt with two years ago when they first offered the class. “For some reason, those same solvable problems became insuperable barriers this spring and summer,” Clark said in an email, “until administrators suddenly started taking heat from school board members, reporters, etc., then the problems suddenly became solvable again.”
Part of the problem has to do with where the money for the class comes from, according to Clark. The class can’t be considered a “world language” course because there is no teacher license available for teaching Hmong. Also, Henry High School is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, and IB doesn’t classify Hmong as a world language.
Richard Wassen, the Director of Educator Licensing with the Minnesota Department of Education, said that any licensed teacher can teach a Hmong class if they have a variance to do so. There is a Hmong license available through the state, he said, although there is no licensing program offered in the language. However, if a person wanted to obtain a license in the Hmong language, they’d have an option of going through a portfolio process to obtain it.
There are currently 16 language licensure programs offered in the state, Wassen said, which include such languages as Greek, Polish, Ojibwe and Norwegian. Additionally, there is an ASL license program, he said.
Chue Lee, who is an IB student, said that he couldn’t take the Hmong Literacy and Languages course because he has to take a world language as a requirement to graduate in the program, and doesn’t have an extra elective course. Lee said that language is very much a part of Hmong culture. He would like to improve his Hmong language skills in order to better communicate with his parents and the Hmong community.
There are 1161 students enrolled at Henry, according to Rachel Hicks, Assistant Director Media Relations/Public Affairs for MPS. Some 458 of those students speak Hmong at home (39.5%), and there are 31 students enrolled in the two periods of the Hmong Literacy and Language Class. The only other school in the district to offer Hmong language instruction is Hmong International Academy, a Pre-K- 8 school, according to Hicks.
According to Area A Superintendent Michael Thomas, when Seng Lo retired, MPS delayed putting out a position posting, instead hoping to recruit within the Hmong community. However, Thomas said, when no teacher with the right kind of license to teach the course emerged, and Seng Lo agreed to come back, he did not have the clock hours to submit in order for the license to be renewed. The administration addressed the situation with the HR department, and were able to have Lo’s license reviewed by an internal review board in October, though he can still teach the class until then.
According to Wassen, a school is required to post a teaching position at least internally within the school district if the position is part time, and state-wide if it is a full time position.
For Vue, learning Hmong is a way of preserving the culture. “If the language dies, the culture dies,” she said.