Signs adorn the Hmong language class at St. Paul's new Hmong Language and Culture Middle School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The hallway walls are mostly bare at the Hmong Language and Culture Middle School, in St. Paul. But they won’t be for long, says Veu Thor, the principal. Teachers and staff have only recently arrived to start setting up their classrooms. Last year, this school on St. Paul’s East Side functioned as a Montessori middle school. For both staff and students, it’s their first year in the building. 

In fact, it’s the first day of school for Hmong Language and Culture Middle School ever. School officials believe this to be the first Hmong middle school in the country.

Veu Thor, the principal of Hmong Language and Culture Middle School, is hopeful the fledgling school will grow. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“We’re hoping that we can get some Hmong artists in here,” Thor said. “We need to display a wealth of culture, so that when our students walk these halls, they get the feeling that it’s very welcoming in their native culture.”

The new Hmong dual-immersion middle school came about as part of St. Paul Public Schools’ “Envision SPPS” plan, which closed some schools and changed programming in others. As part of the plan, two elementary-school Hmong programs consolidated into one building. And graduates of the elementary program will now be able to continue their language and culture studies into middle school.

The new Hmong Language and Culture Middle School is still sparsely decorated, but a few signs line the halls. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“The feedback from our community is that this is something that they have wanted for a long time,” Thor said. “It’s finally becoming a reality.”

The new school represents a longtime goal for district officials, too: They hope it can help retain and eventually increase enrollment among the city’s Asian American students. Declining district enrollment drove the school board’s decision in December to close some schools. One major reason for the district’s enrollment decline: Many families choose charter schools instead. The largest of those charter schools focus specifically on the Hmong community, attracting thousands of St. Paul students. 

Providing a district middle school focused on Hmong language and culture could be a way to win some of those families back.

One major reason for enrollment decline in St. Paul Public Schools: Many families choose charter schools instead. Providing a district middle school focused on Hmong language and culture could be a way to win some of those families back.

This year, the school serves only sixth graders, primarily graduates of Hmong elementary programs. For each of the next two years, the school will expand to add a grade level. Right now, enrollment is small: only about 60 students, taught by six teachers. But growth is only a matter of time, Thor says. 

Right now, many people still don’t know the school exists, or confuse it with a charter school. This year, school officials plan to do more community outreach.

“Hopefully we will be able to reach some of our families here on the East Side,” he says. 

Students work on name tags in art class at Hmong Language and Culture Middle School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In art class, the sixth-graders appear less concerned about making education history than they are with getting through their first day of middle school. Eva Yang, 11, says the weirdest part of middle school is having to dial a combination to open her locker. “If I didn’t need it in elementary, why do I need it now?” she says.

Eleven-year-old Nalee Vang, her hair in two long braids, says she feels nervous about getting to all her classes and worries her schedule might change. But despite the growing pains of adjusting to sixth grade, she says she’s glad to be attending the new Hmong Language and Culture Middle School. 

“I can feel comfortable speaking my native language at school,” she says.

🟥 BACK TO SCHOOL

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.