St. Paul students celebrate Karen New Year. About 2,500 Karen students attend St. Paul Public Schools. Credit: Ellen Perrault | Saint Paul Public Schools

For the first time this fall, St. Paul Public Schools will offer Karen language classes at four district high schools and online. 

School officials believe these courses will be the first Karen language instruction offered at any public school district in the United States.

The classes represent a major step for a refugee community that has largely been denied the opportunity to learn their native language in schools since a 1962 Burmese military coup. The new regime banished the Karen language from public schools in Burma, which is now often called Myanmar.

Saw Sunshine Timothy, a culture specialist with St. Paul Public Schools, described the classes as a “milestone.”

“Parents have been asking for this for many, many years,” he said. “It’s become reality now.”

Karen is the fifth-most common home language among Minnesota’s public K–12 students, after English, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong. Karen language classes are currently offered at a handful of charter schools. Statewide, about 4,700 students in public school districts and charter schools come from households that primarily speak Karen, according to Minnesota Department of Education data. More than half of those students—about 2,500—attend St. Paul Public Schools. 

Karen refugees, fleeing violence and oppression from the government in Myanmar, began to come to the United States in the mid-2000s. Minnesota is home to the country’s largest Karen community, with about 20,000 residents, according to the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

The idea for the Karen language classes came from the community, said Hsakushee Zan, a bilingual education lead for St. Paul Public Schools. In 2016, Karen school staff and parents asked the St. Paul school board to implement Karen language classes. The parent group learned that to implement Karen language classes, they would need licensed teachers who spoke Karen. 

In 2021, parents began their advocacy again. By this point, the St. Paul Public Schools already employed multiple Karen teachers. Karen parents also spoke with Hmong parents to learn about the Hmong language offerings in the school district.

Hsakushee Zan worked with Megan Budke, the district’s immersion, Indigenous, and world languages coordinator, and a group of Karen staff to develop the curriculum. Because Karen language classes are so rare, the group developing the education materials sometimes had to start from scratch. But they were able to draw on templates from other language classes. Staff also attended a Karen-language teacher training at St. Paul’s Karen Baptist Church.

Community members provided input on the cultural topics they wanted to incorporate into language classes, like Karen clothing and the story of why Karen people came to the United States. 

In the end, the school staff created two courses for high school students: an introductory course for students who do not speak the language, and a course for students who may speak the language at home with their families but do not know how to read or write Karen.

“Karen language is very important for our community,” said Hsakushee Zan. Since the 1962 military coup, several generations of Karen children have learned their language in Christian churches or Buddhist temples, or in refugee camps in Thailand—not at school. Some have not learned it at all. “In our country, we have been prohibited to learn our language.”

Learning language is ‘good for the future generation’

Saw Eh Lay Taw, a minister at the Karen Theological Study Center, spoke at the Karen teacher training last summer. “We would like our future generation to know the Karen, how to read and write,” he said. “That is good for the future generation.”

Karen will be the district’s third “heritage” language program, designed to enhance skills for students who speak a language other than English at home. Spanish and Hmong speakers in similar programs have expressed appreciation for having a space to explore their language and culture in community, Budke said. 

“It’s about learning the language so they can go out directly to their communities and translate and speak with their elders,” she said. “There’s a really deep desire for identity growth and stronger connection within the community.”

Budke said that students who take Karen language classes may also be able to earn a Bilingual Seal, a notation on their transcript that provides college credits in the Minnesota State system. While students can take the test for a Bilingual Seal without receiving formal language instruction, Budke said, students who take heritage language classes tend to perform better on the test.

“I​​ hear a lot from families about how that piece is validation and recognition of the language skills that they already come with,” she said. 

Language a key to Karen enrollment

Sunshine and Hsakushee Zan hope the Karen language courses can lead to better enrollment for St. Paul Public Schools. In recent years, St. Paul has struggled with declining enrollment throughout the school district and difficult decisions about school closures. Many students leaving the district have opted for charter schools that cater to specific immigrant groups. Some of those charter schools provide Karen language instruction, Sunshine said.

Offering Karen language classes could “attract some students who go to charter schools to come back to St. Paul Public Schools,” Sunshine said.

The classes will be available at Como Park Senior High School, Harding Senior High School, Humboldt High School, and Washington Technology Magnet School starting in the fall of 2023. Classes will also be offered online for high school students throughout St. Paul Public Schools. Students can register with their counselors through February and March.

Interest in the classes has already been high. Parents have asked if the classes can be made available for elementary and middle school students, too, Sunshine said. The program may expand in the future, Sunshine said, but for now the district would take things “step by step.” 

More than 200 people attended a Karen school registration night last week. “Some parents even asked, can we register our kid now?” Sunshine recalled.

Update: This story has been updated to include the full name and title of Megan Budke, the district’s immersion, Indigenous, and world languages coordinator.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...