- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

ST. PAUL, Minn.

May Lee Xiong never has forgotten the day she told her third-grade class that she had seven brothers and three sisters.

“My teacher said, ‘Oh my God, that’s such a big family,’ and I was so ashamed,” Miss Xiong said. “And I just never wanted to talk about my family again.”

Back then, the 9-year-old girl who had come to St. Paul from a Thailand refugee camp tried hard to fit in with her schoolmates. Asked what her family liked to eat, she wrote down pizza instead of sticky rice with eggs.

Two decades later, Miss Xiong is giving a new wave of young Hmong immigrants a different school experience, teaching in a new one-year program tailored for students who often have arrived from refugee camps with no English and little other schooling.

The Transitional Language Centers, begun last fall and now in four St. Paul elementary schools, draw on the children’s past while preparing them for regular classroom learning.

“They are benefiting from the lessons the schools learned from our generation,” Miss Xiong said.

Miss Xiong arrived in 1979, as the ethnic-Hmong minority began migrating to the United States in large numbers, having fled Laos after the communists seized control in 1975.

St. Paul’s Hmong community took root as new arrivals joined the immigrants who first were welcomed to Minnesota by church-based refugee groups, and it continues to grow.

Just since last fall, more than 1,000 Hmong students have joined the St. Paul school district in the latest federal resettlement program, and about 26 percent of the students enrolled in St. Paul public schools are Hmong — the nation’s highest concentration.

St. Paul schools are trying to keep up. Teachers are given guidance in Hmong culture and are supplied with Hmong picture dictionaries. Among teachers the district hired this school year, 11 percent were Asian, mostly Hmong.

Miss Xiong’s school, Phalen Lake Elementary, has 17 Hmong staffers. Her fifth- and sixth-graders respond to questions in a mix of English and Hmong.

“They are not at fifth-grade-level reading, fifth-grade-level writing, not fifth-grade-level anything,” Miss Xiong said.

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