Jackson Magnet continues Hmong bilingual program

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St. Paul’s first Hmong bilingual program began last year.

Last November, Jackson Magnet School initiated the first Hmong bilingual program for K-6 in the Saint Paul Public School System. Jackson educators say that the first year for kindergarteners has exceeded expectations in helping to close the gap between second language speaking children and their peers.

The difference between an immersion and an ELL program is that the children learn in a Hmong and English speaking environment. It is more than a special ELL class or additional support with Hmong speaking assistants.

With introducing the language and culture into the school curriculum, it is hoped that students will not only embrace it and make it part of their daily lives, but that the instruction in early childhood schooling will help them read and write a second language. This would give them a boost to do well when measured against peers and standards tests.

Jackson Magnet Principal Patrick Bryan said that in his 20+ years of work in the district, the immersion language program has become something of a “hidden jewel” that offers bilingual, accelerated learning and enrichment, along with a non-bilingual portion. This has shown to help children develop first and second language and remain on par academically without sacrificing their identity.

The program not only teaches spoken Hmong, but teaches Academic Hmong in reading and writing so that their acquisition of English as their second language will be that much richer and fuller. The goal, says Bryan, is to go on to develop more fully and completely, navigating both worlds, both communities, and making the right decisions for themselves. It will help kids hopefully avoid the pitfalls that can plague teens, and go on to post-secondary education and contribute to their communities.

“This is true bi-literacy, true biculturalism,” he said. “It is a richer, more productive and connective world for all of us.”

The challenge is to get parents to get their kids in the program from pre-school and to keep them in there at least until fourth grade, and ideally until the sixth grade. Only a couple of children have had to drop out of the program after the first year to move to another city.

The program began with two preschool blocks of about 24 kids each, and a first grade block receive about 80 percent of their classroom instruction in the Hmong language, including learning to read and write in English and Hmong.

This year, Jackson will increase the program to three blocks and then phase up until there are around 200 students in the program from kindergarten through sixth grade. As the students move into fourth grade the Hmong component will be reduced to an hour a day and English will be the primary classroom language. The fifth and sixth graders will have a Hmong language specialist working with them in an English speaking classroom.

Teaching language literacy to preschoolers and kindergartners means using a lot of visual aids. The teachers take photos of area people and business, wedding, the Hmong new years, ceremonies to use as recognition tools.

Jackson, like the other schools, have looked beyond the textbooks to supplemented literature sets other enhancement materials. They scrounged up non fiction books and magazines in the first language, and created their own English and Hmong learning books using local pictures and graphics to identify local people with the learning.

They make charts for the kids to bring home for their parents to work with them. Some of the teaching tools came from the San Jose and Merced School Districts in California. The teachers bring in cultural items to make the classroom more familiar.

Gao Vang-Xiong, the Preschool Bilingual Teacher, speaks White Hmong, but will encourage and emphasize Green Hmong to children who speak this dialect. There are different consonant blends based on regional dialects, she said, with a rough comparison in English would be comparing it as it is spoken in the northern and southern United States.

Once the children move up to Ia Vang-Lee, First Grade Bilingual Teacher, she will begin the process of teaching concepts and ideas along with the visual association of preschool.

As the kids get into grade school they want to organize field trips to the Hmong farming community and Hmong markets. Learning is about “touch, feel, do and create,” said Joanne Vang, a first grade teacher.

The more recently arriving Hmong from Thailand, have an advantage in the Hmong and do well in helping their classmates. This is reciprocated in the English learning portions.

The program will help develop the basic academic instruction of the formal and informal language, using a curriculum of spoken and written White and Green Hmong. They teach the phonetics of the language with a foundation that will serve as a standard. They identify and 17 single consonants, 22 double consonants, 14 triple consonants, and 3 quadruple consonants. They agree on 6 single vowels, 7 double vowels and 8 tone markers.

“Once they learn these, then it is a far more predictable language that English,” said Gao.

“We are trying to preserve the language in this way because lot of parents do not read or write Hmong, and can speak socially, but cannot read or write,” said Pa Houa Lee, a second grade teacher who will see her first group of students in the program this year.

A positive spin-off of the program is that they are seeing kids treat their elders very much in line with the cultural standards. It works well when the parents value teachers higher than their doctors. The kids get the reinforcement they need.

“This wasn’t a classroom lesson, but a conversation and it caught on right away,” said Ia. “Knowing the proper terms and names and when to smile and invite someone to sit down means a lot when coming from a five-year-old.”

The curriculum was developed using an English language ability assessment model to determine the child’s knowledge and skills. The child is tested to identify numbers and tones and then a foundation begins and becomes more sophisticated as they move into upper grades.

“It is foundation building for literacy and in this case with Hmong; it is in the first language,” she said. “We are projecting that they will do extremely well in acquiring English.”

Zha Blong Xiong, Ph.D. M.A., a University of Minnesota Professor in the Department of Education and Human Development, will direct a team of graduate assistants to observe the Jackson Hmong Bilingual pilot program over two years.

This can only happen in a school with a predominantly high population of one ethnic group. Jackson is over fifty percent Hmong and this “economy of scale” is what makes the program possible. The other plus is that as a public magnet school, the students are interacting with people of other ethnic and socio-economic groups throughout the day, to reinforce their learning of English and to prepare them for society.

Principal Bryan concluded: “What we are trying to do is develop a multifaceted service to children and families to try and make sure that every one of the kids that walk’s through Jackson’s doors walks out of here confident, independent, very analytical, a very well-reasoning, intelligent, smart, self-driven person.”

For information on the program contact Tseebleej Lee or Pang Yang at 651-293-8650.