The Outsiders

A new generation of Hmong makes its own exodus

What Tou Yia Yang desired was simple: The freshman at North High School wanted to take a class in English.

Since enrolling in the Minneapolis Public School system the previous fall, Tou Yia had participated in the English Language Learners program. But the recent Hmong refugee was frustrated at his slow progress in picking up the new language. "In the Hmong class, we just speak Hmong most of the time," he explains.

So in December of 2005, Tou Yia approached a school official and asked to join one mainstream class. For reasons that he still doesn't understand, North High administrators rejected the request. If anyone had anticipated the consequences of that decision—on dozens of students and the district's bottom line—school officials probably would have reconsidered.

Rather than accept the school's decision, Tou Yia began casting about for other options. "I don't like North High School," he says. "I just looked for somewhere else to go."

With the help of Jay Clark, a veteran North Side organizer who has worked closely with recent Hmong refugees, Tou Yia began researching the possibility of attending suburban school districts, including St. Louis Park, Brooklyn Center, and Hopkins. Transportation, however, was a major impediment. Tou Yia lives with his family in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis, and at the time, no one owned a car.

As the 16-year-old recounts his dispute, he sits on a flower-print couch in the sparsely furnished, tiny bungalow that he shares with his parents and four siblings. On one wall is a poster of Gen. Vang Pao, the revered military commander who led the Hmong uprising against the North Vietnamese and Laotian governments in the '60s and '70s. Next to the general is a map of the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand, where Tou Yia and his family lived until three years ago.

Eventually, Tou Yia discovered the "Choice Is Yours" program. As part of a 2000 lawsuit settlement with the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, lower-income Minneapolis students have the option of enrolling in neighboring suburban districts. What's more, free transportation is provided to the kids who choose to attend classes elsewhere. Through Choice Is Yours, Tou Yia learned, he was eligible to enroll in the Hopkins School District.

The North High freshman was hardly alone in his frustration with the Minneapolis schools. His discovery of the Choice Is Yours program triggered a chain reaction in the tight-knit community of Wat Tham Krabok refugees. In recent months at least 76 such students have applied to enroll in the Hopkins school system. If all of them are accepted, it will mean a loss of nearly $1 million in state reimbursements for the Minneapolis Public School system. The strapped district can scarcely afford the financial blow, as it already faces a $50 million budget shortfall over the next three years.

The Hmong refugees aren't the only ones fleeing the Minneapolis public schools. In just the last six years, the district's enrollment has fallen from 48,689 to 36,428—a drop of 25 percent. Enrollment in Choice Is Yours has ballooned from 472 students in its initial year, 2001, to 1,878 during the last school year. Charter schools have claimed still more students. Enrollment at North High School has plummeted from 1,274 to 950 over the last five years.

The experience of the recent Hmong arrivals provides a telling snapshot of the difficulties and dysfunction that plague the Minneapolis system. Yeng Yang says his math class had nearly twice the number of students recommended by the school district. Lee Chang describes getting punched in the mouth during a racially tinged dustup at North High School. Even something as simple as poor cafeteria food soured some kids on the Minneapolis schools.

Addressing these complaints now, however, may be academic.

A few days before Christmas break last year, roughly a dozen Hmong stu dents at North High School were playing soccer on their lunch break. In the middle of the game, a group of African American kids challenged them to a match. The Hmong students accepted. But according to Chang, a sophomore who was involved in the game, it quickly became apparent that the challengers were more interested in kicking their opponents than the ball.

"The African Americans, they want to fight my friends," says Chang.

The Hmong students retreated to the doors of the school as the bell sounded the end of the lunch period.

But that was not to be the end of the fight. It continued in a school hallway, with both groups hurling insults at each other, including the epithet "nigger." Then things got physical. The smaller Hmong students bore the worst of the encounter. Chang was punched in the lip. During the melee, a 10th-grade Hmong student stabbed an African American kid with a pencil.

The bad vibes spilled over into the next school day. Sophomore Yeng Yang says eight African American students confronted him and two companions near the gym. As the group approached, Yeng sensed trouble. "My two friends ran away, but I fell down," he recalls. Yeng got kicked once before escaping. Yeng says that the African American kids mistakenly believed that he'd been involved in the brawl the previous day. In fact, he'd missed the school bus and stayed home that day.

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