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.
The kid who wielded the pencil was eventually expelled from North High. At least four other people involved in the ruckus were suspended.
(North High principal Michael Favor did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)
Later that week, Chang and a friend who was also involved in the fight paid a visit to Hopkins High School. Within the month, they and at least 20 other Hmong students had applied to enroll in the suburban school system. The student who was expelled ended up transferring to a charter school, Lighthouse Academy of Nations.
Such violent incidents are one reason why many recent Hmong refugees are opting out of Minneapolis Public Schools, according to interviews with a half-dozen students who are heading to Hopkins next year. They describe an atmosphere in which they've routinely been harassed by larger, intimidating, American-born students.
"When I first came here, they just put me over at North," says Yeng, who has long, spiky hair that hangs over his eyes, and a hint of a moustache. "I didn't know what to think of it. Now I know what I don't like."
As Yeng discusses his time at North High, slumped on the couch, his younger sisters circle about. Other kids run around the lush vegetable garden, which has taken over the front yard. There are seven kids in this Hawthorne-neighborhood home, ranging in age from 7 to 16. Next year, when Yeng starts going to Hopkins, all six of his school-aged siblings will come with him.
Yeng's father, Wa Chora Yang, says he heard troubling stories about North High. "It's kind of wild in school," he says, speaking through a translator. "I'm afraid that my kids will get involved in fights. At Hopkins I don't expect there to be fights."
MPS officials deny that safety issues plague Hmong students attending schools on the North Side. Choua Yang, a school official who is Hmong, acknowledges that there were some concerns at North High School, but claims that they have abated since a Hmong assistant principal was hired at the school. "I don't hear any complaints or rumors about safety anymore," he says.
Safety isn't the only problem. Wa Chora Yang also worried that his children weren't making sufficient progress speaking English at the Minneapolis schools. "They just put all the Hmong there in one class," he says. "They just speak Hmong all the time. They don't speak English."
Yang believes that attending school in Hopkins will give his children a better chance at integrating into American society. "I want my kids to go to college," he says. "I want my kids to be able to speak English and go far in life."
The other constant concern among Hmong parents is class size, particularly for students enrolled in the Hmong International Academy, housed at Jordan Park Community School. At one point during the school year that ended last week, there were 45 students in the eighth-grade math class. That class was eventually split in half. But according to numerous students enrolled at the school, many other classes had upward of 30 students.
Kaoxue Vang just completed eighth grade at the Hmong International Academy. The classes she took in the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp, where she lived until three years ago, may have prepared her for the problems in Minneapolis. "The teachers in Thailand are mean," she says. "They can hit the students."
Today, Kaoxue lives in an eight-unit apartment complex in the Harrison neighborhood with her parents and five siblings. She says that there were 42 students in her social studies class, but other classes were smaller. When the district prepares a headcount for next year, though, they won't need to tally her: Kaoxue, too, is headed to Hopkins High School. She believes that enrolling in the suburban school district will bolster her English skills and ultimately help her get into college. But she also worries about the workload. "I think the classes might be hard," Kaoxue says.
Luis E. Ortega, MPS's executive director for multicultural and multilingual education, acknowledges that class sizes for the eighth-graders at the Hmong International Academy got too large. But he maintains it was an isolated issue that the district addressed swiftly. He points out that projections for how many students will enroll in any given year are imperfect.
"When you start a new program you don't have that history piece," Ortega says. "You don't have that track record of information."
He points out, as well, that students and families sought out the Hmong magnet program at Jordan Park. "The understanding is that there will be Hmong culture and Hmong language maintained at that site," Ortega says. "If you don't want that, then you would look to go somewhere else. We do have a choice option in this district."
Freshman school board member Chris Stewart blames some of the trouble at Jordan Park on the fact that there were two distinct schools housed within the same facility. "When you divide two groups within the same building, you can't help but step on landmines over time," he says. "I think Americans all should go to school together. I'm not really into ethnically specific schools."
Any problems at Jordan Park are now a relic of the past. The facility is one of five North Side schools that will be closed for next September. The K-8 Hmong magnet program is expected to be relocated to Lucy Craft Laney school. It remains an open question whether there will be enough Hmong ELL students left to warrant the program's continued existence.
On a Tuesday evening in May, roughly 40 Hmong students and parents descended on North Junior High in Hopkins for a meet-and-greet event. North is part of a cluster of three schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade. Teachers led students around on a tour of their respective schools. Administrators held a question-and-answer session, with translators at the ready. Specialists tested the kids for English proficiency.
"We were wanting to assess their language needs," explains Scott Endo, an ELL instructor at Hopkins High School who helped put together the event. "I think that felt real and direct and welcoming to the families."
Jay Clark, who organized the caravan to Hopkins, describes a somewhat different scene. "It was clear they did not feel entirely steady on their feet," he says.
Nonetheless, most of the Hmong families came away impressed. "They seemed to be very happy," Clark says. "They were trying to sign up more kids to go to Hopkins."
The infusion of Hmong students will be a challenge for Hopkins. The school district currently has 400 students who receive some level of ELL instruction, with the largest ethnic group being Somali. "We have almost no Hmong students," says Endo.
One potential concern for Hopkins is what impact the new students will have on standardized test scores at the three schools. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must show that students are making "adequate yearly progress" or face a raft of penalties. Such a large arrival of ELL students, including many who are still adjusting to the American education system, could scotch the scores.
"We have not had a big issue with that up to this point," says Diane Cowdery, the school district's equity and integration administrator. "We've been able to show that most of our students are making good progress."
Despite the sanguine views expressed by the incoming Hmong students, evidence is mixed as to the effectiveness of the Choice Is Yours program. A 2006 analysis by the Minnesota Department of Education found that kids enrolled in the program did better on standardized tests than their peers in the Minneapolis schools. But a follow-up study, released in January of this year, showed markedly different findings. It determined that, on average, students enrolled in the program fared 15 percent worse in reading comprehension gains and 17 percent worse in math skills increases than their counterparts enrolled in grades three through seven.
That study won't stop the 76 recent Hmong refugees who have applied to enroll in Hopkins. The initial cutoff date for applications to the Choice Is Yours program was January 15, and many of the students missed the deadline. As of last week, the school district had accepted 36 of the students. "There are others who have applied and who are waiting to hear and who are hoping," says Endo.
Tou Yia Yang may have inadvertently started the Hopkins exodus, but his own educational odyssey ultimately took a very different course. One afternoon while researching potential schools for the disgruntled North High freshman, Jay Clark pulled out a map. He wanted to determine which high schools were closest to the Yang's home. What Clark discovered was that the nearest campus was actually the private Breck School. "I practically fell out of my chair," recalls Clark, who works at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
So, Clark began scheming to find a way to get Tou Yia a scholarship to the prestigious school. "I knew it was a very long shot," he says. "But I know how hard this kid studies and I know how determined he is and I know that failure is something that he's never willing to accept."
Initially, Breck informed Tou Yia that there was no more scholarship money available. But after Breck officials read an essay the prospective student had written about his life in a Thai refugee camp, the school offered him a full, four-year scholarship.
The transition to Breck was initially difficult. Tou Yia was required to repeat ninth grade in order to improve his English. "I was a little bit nervous," he says. "American people, they're kind of tall. You walk alone by yourself. There aren't many Asian people."
But Tou Yia eventually found his footing at the elite school. Charlie Rybak, son of the Minneapolis mayor, became his senior mentor. Tou Yia joined the tennis team and memorized poems such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" By the end of the school year, the only blemish on his academic record was an A-minus in English.
"First he had to adjust to America, then he had to adjust to Breck," says Rybak. "It's a private school, lots of upper-class white kids. Tou Yia found his niche and he fit in very well."
Describing his freshman school year on a recent Sunday afternoon, Tou Yia wears a "Breck Soccer" sweatshirt. He has just participated in the AIDS Walk at Minnehaha Park and attended a birthday party at a classmate's house in Edina. His father, Por Yang, uses a Hmong phrase for luck to describe his son's fortuitous entrée into Breck.
But while Tou Yia was flourishing at one of the state's most prestigious educational institutions, his younger brother faced a more difficult path. And it's his story that may hint at what comes next.
Through the Choice Is Yours program, Hue Yang enrolled in the Hopkins school district in September. He was the only "Hmong Thai"—or recent Hmong arrival—at North Junior High. In fact, there were just two other ELL students in his class, one from Somalia and another from Indonesia. He had to repeat seventh grade in order to improve his English. Friends were tough to come by. He wasn't invited over to another student's house. At lunch he sat with the same group of students each day, but never learned their names.
His father worried about his son. "I was kind of nervous," Por says, speaking through an interpreter. "The first month was probably the hardest."
But Hue doesn't regret leaving the Minneapolis system. He's extremely shy and often reverts to Hmong in describing his experiences at Jordan Park. But eventually Hue lays out a litany of difficulties he encountered at the school. American-born kids, often towering over his less-than-five-foot frame, regularly harassed him on the bus. The Hmong students were always scheduled for lunch last, meaning the cafeteria fare had been thoroughly picked over. At one point, Hue's Hmong teacher was fired and replaced by a Chinese instructor. The new teacher didn't speak Hmong, Thai, or even very good English. The classes were large and unruly.
Which is why Hue is happy with the change. "The teachers are good," he says. "We have less students than Jordan Park." Nobody picks on him in the hallways or on the bus. The courses have proven difficult. But he's improved from earning a smattering of B's and C's early in the school year to mostly A's.
And whatever the next school year might bring, one thing is certain: Hue won't be the only Hmong kid anymore.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.