On the eve of her resignation, Superintendent Mo Chang looks up from the head of a long table in the basement library of Community School of Excellence. She peers into a crowd of cold stares. Seated wall to wall, cramped between the bookshelves, are the teachers and staff that run her school, their faces steely, hardened with resentment.
She has chosen to step down, Mo announces. After nine years of growing Community School of Excellence from the germ of an idea to one of St. Paul's largest Hmong charter schools, "Auntie Mo," she says, will be leaving for good.
One teacher stands to speak. He offers no kindness to gild Mo's announcement. Instead he raises the abrupt firing of third-grade teacher Eric Johnson the day before.
"Even if a new classroom teacher is found quickly for Johnson's class, their education has already been impacted, today, by his dismissal," says Rob Aurand, who teaches English as a second language at the school. "His special needs students may very well believe that he left because they have done something wrong."
Another teacher joins him, weeping and recounting the staff who had left in droves over the years. "Is this what it is supposed to be like in a school setting?" she asks. "I feel so horrible. What about his kids?"
The audience fiercely nods along. Deep in the back of the room sits Eric Johnson with his face flush. Mo is stony-eyed and silent.
For Mo, Johnson was a constant foil, the one teacher who made it his personal mission to challenge her leadership. He was a union spokesman, agitator, and whistleblower on CSE's many public scandals throughout his term.
And to many people, Johnson's termination on the day before Mo's resignation reeked of last-minute revenge.
II. The pride of the Hmong community
For Twin Cities' Hmong students, Community School of Excellence was the solution to a public school system that was not built for them.
William Song, president of CSE's parent-teacher organization, remembers his early days at Johnson High School in St. Paul, a time rife with homesickness, of embarrassing bouts of indigestion brought on by unfamiliar American lunches rich in dairy, of having to play charades anytime he wanted to communicate something to the teacher.
As the first generation of Hmong arrived here in the 1970s and 80s, they found a public education system with few Hmong translators and a limited understanding of its new group of students.
So a decade ago, when Mo Chang first approached Song with the vision of a community school where the Hmong could raise their children to remember the language, culture, and history of their people, he threw his full support behind her ambition.
Song enrolled his six children at CSE. His 7-year-old daughter can now read folk tales in Hmong. His eldest sons have taken the annual
CSE trip to Laos and Thailand to visit their ancestral homes. Each winter, his family attends CSE's famous Hmong New Year celebration, a colossal one-night festival for 3,000.
He was successfully raising a Hmong family in Minnesota. CSE was successful, too. Over the years, Mo grew CSE from 175 students to a K-8 school of 1,000 strong. Each child brought about $9,000 in state funds, making for an annual budget of $9 million. In 2010, the school unveiled a new building at 170 Rose Avenue, illuminated with murals of Hmong village life and draped with tapestries depicting Hmong children at play. Two years later, CSE received a prestigious elementary and middle school International Baccalaureate accreditation. A waiting list formed.
As Mo left her fingerprint on the school's every success, she became a recognized champion of education in St. Paul's Hmong community. CSE's second-floor hallway displayed a series of oil paintings honoring great Hmong leaders throughout history. There was General Vang Pao, who had commanded the Hmong Army against communist North Vietnam, and there was fabled fighter pilot Lee Lue, who'd flown more than 5,000 missions before being shot down over the skies of Laos.
At the end of this hall of venerated Hmong heroes hung a painting of a beaming Mo Chang.
III. A culture of fear
Behind the velvety curtain of CSE's celebrated public image, discontent brewed among Mo's rank-and-file staff.
While CSE would easily drop more than $20,000 on its annual New Year celebration, or upwards of $92,000 on an international trip for 30 students, some years the school would employ just one social worker for a thousand children. Students went another year without a single registered nurse.
By 2015 the middle school had only a part-time International Baccalaureate curriculum coordinator. The elementary school had none. Teachers say they were denied IB professional development workshops.
Test scores were dismal. In 2011, only five percent of students met expectations in science. In 2013, reading scraped an all-time low of 15 percent proficiency. Last year, scores made a slight recovery to meet 23 percent proficiency in reading overall, 37 percent in math, and 12 percent in science. Still, CSE regularly performs well below state averages.
Former Hmong language and culture teacher Mee Yang says she used to be told, two months before state standardized tests, that she needed to help students crunch for math and reading during Hmong class. Mee Yang was licensed to teach language arts, but not math. "When it comes down to that, what do you want me to do?" she says. "I wasn't sure if I could be teaching math, quite honestly."
Another part of the challenge of raising student performance was CSE's tremendous 26 percent teacher turnover rate, says former fourth-grade teacher Bong Xiong. Within the span of a year, new hires would fully adapt to the bilingual learning needs of CSE's students. The problem was keeping them around.
"People were scared to speak up," Xiong says. "It was ruthless with Mo. She got rid of people right and left, people who had kids going to that school. We used to joke around, 'Oh no you've gone and put a target on your back. You're on Mo's Most Wanted.' If she wanted to get you, she'd find whatever way she could."
The teachers' working environment was the students' learning environment, he says, and the teachers' working environment was one of fear.
Office assistants Joua Lor and Mai Nhia Lor say Mo would not allow them to eat lunch together or speak to each other at work. They could not email to meet up after hours.
When Mai Nhia Lor was hired as an office assistant in 2012, Mo took her aside before the school year even started to relay some foreboding advice.
"She told me do not get into any gossip because she doesn't trust anyone, but because I'm new, she wants to trust me," Mai Nhia said.
She resolved to keep her head down, never expecting that a conflict involving her own family would arise.
Early in the year, a student related to Mai Nhia started "tabooing" — dating a boy with the same last name — which is akin to incest in Hmong tradition, even though the two were not actually related. Mai Nhia told the girl's mother, and she told Mo.
The children's parents urged the young couple to break it off. Others in the Hmong community would ostracize them if they persisted, parents on both sides cautioned. The girl accepted their advice, but the boy was harder to convince. Heartbroken, he lagged in his classes.
Mai Nhia says Mo was concerned for the boy and began to call the two children down to her office at odd hours of the day. The girl later told her mother that Mo would serve them food and drink and have the two meet in secret during class. It happened a handful of times, sometimes with Mo's supervision and sometimes without.
The girl became increasingly unhappy about the secret meetings, and eventually told her mother. But as furious as the girl's mother was, she says she never confronted Mo. Mai Nhia still worked at CSE, and the girl's mother says she was afraid that angering Mo would thwart Mai Nhia's career. Instead, she transferred all her children to St. Paul Public Schools.
"My kids told me they learned better at CSE," she says. "They loved the activities at the school and they liked the teachers. I did too. But I had to move my kids out."
IV. The crusader
Eric Johnson is a wiry, hawkish man with a face worn gaunt from years of stress. Like many grade school teachers, he has a calm, kind disposition. But when he chronicles his tenure at CSE, he speaks with the overly measured diction of someone well-accustomed to the language of lawsuits.
In 2005, he returned from a three-year stint teaching English in Japan in search of a school that valued teachers with bilingual education experience. He found CSE, where he was hired as a fourth-grade teacher.
From the beginning, his personal relationship with Mo was coolly cordial. It wasn't long before tensions began to simmer. Johnson was inundated with unhappy reports from his fellow teachers and staff, tales of Mo's intimidation tactics and controlling behavior. Leery of the scattered claims, Johnson began to canvass past and present CSE employees to build a more complete picture of what happened behind Mo's closed doors.
Several of Johnson's coworkers pointed him toward an internal policy at CSE that prevented teachers — who are state mandated reporters – from notifying Child Protection Services if they suspected their students were being abused at home.
Mo wanted to be the first to know so that she could visit the student's home and personally evaluate claims of abuse. She would then make the final call.
More than 90 percent of CSE's students speak English as a second language. Mo says that she feared miscommunication could lead some teachers to get the wrong idea.
"For example, it's common in our culture that when a child is sick, the parents rub a silver bar on their forehead, their arms, their feet as a treatment," Mo says. "Sometimes that leaves marks that look like little bruises. Sometimes people see those marks as signs of abuse and immediately call Child Protection Services."
The result, she warned, would be innocent Hmong parents taken from their homes in handcuffs, their children confiscated by the state.
Yet teachers feared Mo's instincts left some children open to repeat abuse. In 2012, a kindergartener appeared in class with a glossy black eye. He claimed his mom's boyfriend punched him in the face and whipped him with a guitar.
The child's teacher, who asked not to be named, wanted to call the authorities. She says Mo ordered her to back off.
"I knew in my heart of hearts that it was abuse," the teacher said. "[Mo] said she wanted to find out for herself if it was a cultural thing instead."
Two months later, that student returned to school with fresh bruises, she says, and told her his mom had finally called the cops. The abusive boyfriend was in jail.
The teacher eventually resigned. She says she was unable to cope with the moral strain of working in a school where she was not allowed to intervene in cases of apparent child abuse.
She wasn't the only one.
In the spring of 2013, a second-grade student confided in teacher Megan Deutschman that he was being abused at home. The nurse recorded injuries that fit the child's story.
Deutschman emailed Mo to say she was calling Child Protection Services. According to allegations in a lawsuit Deutschman later filed, Mo notified the child's parents, called Deutschman down from her classroom, and forced her to confront them despite her protests.
Mo regards the whole Deutschman situation as a case of miscommunication. She said the parents accused of abuse reached out to her, not the other way around. During their meeting, Deutschman popped into the office, jumped to conclusions, and outed herself. It was all a big misunderstanding, Mo insisted.
Nevertheless, St. Paul police say they have an ongoing criminal investigation into Community School of Excellence's mandated reporting issues.
This was only the beginning of trouble for Mo.
V. The takedown
In March of 2013, while the abuse-reporting issue roiled, Mo led the eighth-grade global studies class on a trip to Thailand and back again.
In a complaint later filed in court, two chaperones described how Mo "grossly mismanaged the trip, repeatedly exposing students to risk." A couple of children were lost the very first day. After 36 hours of layovers that took the students from Minneapolis to Chiang Mai, Mo marched the group into a mall food court for breakfast. Afterward, their convoy of buses headed into the hills for a lightning tour of a Hmong village. They pulled beside a roadside market by midday, where the students collapsed in exhaustion at the foot of a landmark Buddha statue.
One chaperone noted that they hadn't done a headcount since landing in Thailand. They were short two girls.
Mo frantically backtracked in search, while the chaperones regrouped at the hotel they'd booked for the night. There they found the missing girls, who had been left all the way back at the food court.
The following morning, chaperones asked Mo to make time for headcounts. They wanted her to come up with a plan in case students were separated in crowds. They say she dismissed them as being "too Western-minded."
The students were set free to roam night markets. According to the chaperones' complaint, when the group touched down at the Thai-Burmese border, in an area plastered with posters warning of sex trafficking, students had free rein there, too.
Once, while the buses were rolling, a motion-sick girl started vomiting at her seat. The chaperones say they signaled the driver to pull over so the child would have a moment to breathe. When they phoned Mo to tell her to wait, Mo was furious. One van did not have the power to hold up the group, she yelled. The delay would make her late to a meeting with the principal of a local Thai school.
The chaperones say they returned from the trip shaken by the superintendent's erratic behavior.
Johnson compiled these accounts from staff and teachers and mailed it all to the Minnesota Department of Education. Flooded with cries for help, MDE investigated the Thailand trip and found that by ignoring basic safety precautions, Mo had subjected 34 children to maltreatment.
Yet another tip would lead the department to audit CSE's food services program. Investigators arrived at the school unannounced and watched as students punched in breakfast codes even if they didn't feel like eating.
Paraprofessional Billie Yang remembers that one day after students were bused off to an all-day field trip where meals were provided, Mo specifically reminded him to key in their lunch codes anyway. Each student is worth $2.50, she said.
Investigators with the Department of Education found a long list of infractions, and fined CSE $200,000.
In the summer of 2013, CSE's charter authorizer, Concordia University, got involved. As the organization responsible for overseeing CSE, Concordia directed the school to hire a law firm to investigate a host of allegations, from failure to report child abuse to employee intimidation. Ratwik, Roszak, and Maloney in Minneapolis reviewed emails and memos and interviewed about 30 staff. The resulting report was devastating.
If angry parents approached Mo about having been roped into child abuse investigations she had no idea about, she would direct her wrath toward the teachers who reported, investigators found. When she was made aware of abuse investigations in advance, she compromised criminal investigations by warning parents ahead of law enforcement.
Investigators concluded that even though CSE changed its policy in 2012, Mo continued to insert herself, threatening and discouraging staff from mandated reporting.
Through intimidation and bullying, Mo had created a "culture of fear and distrust."
It was the first time anyone on the outside had acknowledged the daily reality of the CSE staff, and a moment of triumph for Johnson. But working under Mo soon became even more difficult.
Beleaguered by state investigations, surrounded by nameless informers, Mo began to pull employees into her office to interrogate them one by one, trying to find out who was leaking what.
At the peak of the investigations, which Johnson deems the "dark days" of CSE, employees were given abundant hints to shut up or risk termination. Those who spoke out were placed on "improvement plans" that read more like the missives of a totalitarian regime than the professional reviews of grade school teachers:
"You will not engage in any negative comments or be a part of any negative staff conversations or meetings. Document how you refrain from creating a negative spin on issues, and align your comments to reflect and support the decision of the executive team."
In the midst of Mo's crackdown on dissent, Johnson suggested forming a union for protection.
Teachers surreptitiously pitched the idea throughout their own ranks before and after work in hurried whispers. Three Hmong office assistants recruited the Hmong-speaking kitchen and custodial staff, who often complained of having to come in on the weekends to cook for big events without overtime, Johnson says.
Mo pushed back. She and her administrators isolated the teachers from their assistants, the custodians from the cooks, to deliver a sequence of anti-union speeches.
But the vote was held and the union was formed. And a week and a half following the elections, three Hmong union organizers — Mai Nhia, Joua Lor, and Youa Yang — were fired for "insubordination." Bong Xiong, the fourth-grade teacher, was terminated over winter break.
"The administration made an example of these guys," says Billie Yang. "When that happened, a lot of people felt that if they kept getting involved in this movement, they might not be returning in the fall."
VI. Not going down without a fight
In February 2014, CSE's authorizer, Concordia University, finished reviewing the findings of each investigation and wrote to the board that its decision to retain Mo was unacceptable.
"It should be obvious to the CSE's Board that [Mo's] performance and misconduct warrants dismissal," the letter read. "A change in leadership is imperative."
Concordia gave CSE 21 days to come up with a plan for removing Mo from her position and establishing effective leadership for the school. Otherwise, Concordia would cancel its contract with CSE.
Mo's supporters rallied in defense. Tou Ger Xiong, an educational consultant for CSE, disseminated a petition claiming that Concordia wanted to both fire Mo and shutter their community school. At parent-teacher organization meetings, Mo and Xiong blamed CSE's tainted reputation on white teachers who did not care to learn Hmong culture.
The March 2014 board meeting was held in CSE's big gym and stacked with parents who were ushered in by the busloads. Mo pulled 300 students out of the after-school program to sit in the bleachers for two hours while parents demanded an explanation from Concordia representatives.
In the midst of mounting community outrage, the young Hmong teachers of CSE felt that their voices had no place.
"Since Mo was able to build and open CSE, she's able to be seen as a leader in the community," Mee Yang explains. "That's why it's been so hard for us to speak up against her. Because we're raised to respect our elders, we're afraid to say bad things about someone who is seen as a 'Hmong leader.'"
In February 2015, Johnson filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which eventually ruled that union organizers whom Mo had fired for "insubordination" were in fact victims of retaliation. CSE had to pay ex-employees $40,000 in lost wages and was forced to repent, in three languages, for punishing union activity.
In total, CSE had racked up $300,000 in legal fees.
Still, the board of directors did not dismiss Mo.
Concordia wrote CSE in September 2014 to sever ties with the school. It also elected to abandon sponsorship of the seven other charter schools under its care.
Suddenly, CSE was in actual danger of dissolving if it failed to find another authorizer by June 2016.
As the deadline loomed, Minnesota Guild, a new charter-authorizing body, showed interest. But they had received Concordia's previous letters of lost confidence. They had seen the reports describing Mo's mismanagement and watched as the board wallowed in inaction.
Brad Blue, director of Minnesota Guild, says he doesn't get to make governance decisions for schools, but he did nudge the board to make a choice.
The idea took root: In order for CSE to survive, Mo had to abdicate.
Still, as far as the general Hmong community was concerned, Mo was CSE, and CSE was Mo. William Song, PTO president, feared that a sudden ousting would shatter the fragile school.
"Yes, I think Mo should step aside for the sake of the school, and for the sake of the families, but if we were just pushing her out, the school would fall apart," he warned.
It's a painful lesson in the history of the Hmong people. After General Vang Pao was exiled from Laos and the CIA retreated from Southeast Asia, the Hmong people left behind were exposed to torture and imprisonment at the hands of a vengeful communist majority.
"When the system kicks out our leader, the country falls apart," Song said. "It's very hard for us to build the community together again. We are still hurting from the war. We are still feeling betrayed."
Meanwhile, Johnson watched with mounting frustration as the evidence of Mo's misconduct piled up in the public record with little actual change at CSE to show for it. In April 2015, he took a risk that would eventually lead to his termination.
Posters appeared in the hall one day: A child with hearing loss could not find a $1,000 teacher microphone that helped him listen in class.
Johnson and other teachers questioned their own students. One third-grade boy said he'd seen the hearing aid among his fourth-grade sister's things at home.
Johnson told administrators of the boy's confession, hoping they would confront his sister.
CSE sent a representative to the girl's home to retrieve the hearing aid, but her family refused to return it. The student with hearing loss struggled through the rest of the school year, Johnson says.
Looking back, he agonizes over why he became so involved in the case. "You see someone drop the ball a billion times. If you're a teacher and you want to help kids, wouldn't you just pick up the ball and go?"
An anonymous complaint was made to police. When the cops showed up at the fourth-grade girl's home, her parents were outraged. They demanded to know how Mo could allow an issue at her school to bring the police to their doorstep.
Johnson says Mo ordered him into private meetings to find out whether he was the one who called the cops. Johnson refused to cooperate, citing his whistleblower rights. He would not name the other teachers who helped in the search.
Though the hearing aid was never found, the suspected student's family eventually paid to replace it.
For six months, CSE avoided the topic. It wasn't until the end of October, the following school year, that a supervisor again dredged up the incident with Johnson. Fixating on the family's anger over police involvement, the supervisor demanded to know who called the cops. Johnson held his ground.
The following day, he was ordered to pack his things. Johnson's colleagues called foul.
"EJ does what he does because he cares about the students so, so much," union president Blythe Inners says. "He goes outside his comfort zone because he sees something that needs to be done, and he fixes it. He doesn't make trouble just to make trouble. He wanted to make this school a better place."
The day after Johnson was fired, Mo announced her resignation at the monthly board meeting. She turned over leadership of CSE to Bao Vang and Kazoua Kong-Thao of the refugee nonprofit Hmong American Partnership.
Her last day, Halloween, was a lavish affair. Educational assistants were ordered down to the kitchens from their tutoring sessions to help wrap 2,000 eggrolls for a commemorative lunch in Mo's honor. She distributed business cards with her personal phone number and email throughout the cafeteria, reminding all she would ever be their auntie.
Johnson's class got a substitute. Two months after his firing, CSE has not found another full-time third-grade teacher.
VII. A hesitant hope
When Blue strolls through the halls of CSE now, he is just as impressed as the first day he laid eyes on the school, many months ago. Even in its "dark days," he could tell the school had been founded on a very good idea.
"I love what they've done with the murals, the culture, the language immersion, the focus on the global perspective," Blue says. "Here, Hmong students come to a place where they can be safe, where they can learn. I'm all in."
CSE veterans are not so readily assuaged.
"I've been promised change before, I've been given glimmers of hope," says Aurand, the ESL instructor. "Largely they're false, so confident would definitely not be the word. I'm hopeful."
Minnesota Guild might encourage transparency, accountability, respect, and everything else staff have wanted for so long, he says, but the ultimate responsibility of turning things around falls to interim directors Bao Vang and Kazoua Kong-Thao.
Bao Vang admits she doesn't have the full story of all that CSE has gone through. But she has arranged individual meetings with each employee to find out how the chaos came to be.
"If the culture of CSE was a culture of fear, this administration will turn that around," Bao Vang said. "I know a lot of damage has been done, and I know it will take a lot of time to restore faith in each other. I cannot control what people feel. What I can control are my actions."
Inners, CSE's sole remaining union organizer, says ongoing contract negotiations would be an opportune time for the new administration to show its colors. She wants an objective discipline process and basic grievance options.
"These are steps that the administration will need to show that they are following, and these are the steps that staff can take if they disagree with those decisions," she says. "We have never had anything like that before."
Meanwhile, CSE tried to deny Johnson's unemployment benefits, accusing him of bullying the students into telling him the location of the hearing aid. On Christmas Eve, unemployment Judge Christopher Palkovacs decided those allegations were entirely unbelievable.
"In light of the credible evidence that school administrators told union officials they needed 'to control' Johnson, it is far more likely that Johnson was discharged in retaliation for reporting administration abuses to government regulators and the press," Palkovacs wrote.
CSE's union has filed for wrongful termination on Johnson's behalf.
In a law office on the ninth floor of the IDS Tower, Johnson looks back at his time working under Mo's vigilant eye. He's lost 15 pounds from the anxiety.
"I think I stayed on this mission because I thought I was making a lot of progress," he says of the four-year duel that made casualties of both him and Mo.
Among Johnson's legal papers is a file of letters from his students, illustrated in marker, composed in the loving chicken-scratch of children.
One reads, "Dear Mr. EJ, thanks for teaching all of us good things. Most I like that you are teaching us is multiplication. You are the best teacher in CSE school. I want to know where are you?"
"This is kind of the most heartbreaking aspect of the whole thing," he remarks softly. "I would really like to go back and teach my kids."
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