Teachers are going to extraordinary lengths for St. Paul's Hmong children

With Hmong educational materials scarce, teachers draw board games by hand and build iPad apps that run flash cards and quizzes.

With Hmong educational materials scarce, teachers draw board games by hand and build iPad apps that run flash cards and quizzes.

Twelve years ago, St. Paul Public Schools established a first-in-the-nation Hmong immersion program. Hmong parents wanted their American-bred children to read and write in their own language, to speak with their grandparents, to think in Hmong.

There was just one problem: There are virtually no Hmong educational materials available commercially. So the district hired Hmong teachers, equipped them with the same English curriculum that everyone else gets, and told them to do their best.

Ever since, the district's 22 Hmong immersion educators, located at Jackson and Phalen Lake Elementary Schools, have been doing two jobs for the pay of one. They teach during the day, then translate lessons, books, and worksheets after hours.

The posters that decorate the walls and the board games that students play are hand-drawn. The iPad apps that run flash cards and quizzes are built from scratch. Teachers lounges are cottage industries of translation, where instructors and aides paste Hmong labels over English storybooks and laminating publications of their own design.

Phalen Lake teacher See Pha Vang says there's no point in trying to calculate all the unpaid hours she spends. "All I can tell you is I would go home when the custodians lock up every night, and I would still take work home. It's overwhelming."

And if the district ever updates its curriculum, teachers would have to start the entire process over, Vang laughs.

The immersion program provides fourth and fifth graders with half of their instruction in Hmong. Younger grades get up to 90 percent. That's a big difference from St. Paul's Hmong charter schools, which offer only a sprinkling of Hmong language.

"The parents don't know that ours is immersion," says Phalen Lake teacher Moslais Xiong. "The charter schools, they draw the parents in, but they get 30 or 40 minutes of Hmong a day and the rest is all in English. We're the only Hmong immersion in the whole state -- us and Jackson -- meaning our goal is being able to speak and be literate in both languages."

Hmong teachers have been bargaining with the district for the past four years, trying to find some balance between their working conditions and those of their English language peers. During the 2016-2017 school year, a joint district and union committee was established to review the needs of the program. The small group met for an hour a month after school, but -- according to teachers -- it seemed like "meeting for the sake of meeting."

The district did offer some small remedies to soothe the demands of the job, including shelling out for substitutes for two days so teachers have dedicated translating time, and hiring a half-time teacher to help.

This year the teachers are requesting a $5,000 stipend, a token of acknowledgement. Fully aware that the district is hurting for funds, the teachers will not bargain for anything close to fair compensation.

"Even though we don’t have a lot of stuff, what we do is for the kids," says Vang. "For their learning, for their achievement. We want what’s best for them. So it’s driven by passion, from love for the children, love for teaching, and love for the language."