Choua Yang, principal and cofounder of Prairie Seeds Academy, died of the coronavirus October 9. Credit: May Lee | LLoveLee Photography

Choua Lee Yang opened a Hmong cultural charter school in 2004, but her message to students to bring their culture with them when they entered the school resonated throughout Brooklyn Park’s wider immigrant community.

With Yang as principal, the Prairie Seeds Academy student body grew. Eventually, half of the students came from East African or Latino backgrounds. During Hmong New Year, for example, Yang would lend Hmong clothing to her coworkers. Later, she would just encourage her staff and students to wear their own cultural clothing instead.

“Choua Yang’s legacy—to immigrant and refugee children, and children of refugees and immigrants—is to say your story matters, your culture is important, and never ever forget where you came from,” said Tou Ger Xiong, a consultant at Prairie Seeds Academy.

Yang died October 9 after a month-long battle with COVID-19. She was 53 years old. 

Yang’s family remembers her for her ability to lift others with humor and high spirits. Her colleagues remember her as a visionary who inspired the creation of Hmong cultural schools across the country.

Xiong, whom Yang mentored for 20 years, described her as the school’s mother figure. When Yang and her husband, Cha Ger Yang, opened Prairie Seeds Academy, they decided to run the school as if they were raising their own kids, Xiong said. The individualized attention they gave to students paired with the environment they created —Hmong story cloths on the hallway’s walls next to other cultural artifacts—made parents feel that their children were home.

Xiong said his fondest memories of Yang are when she would simply order food for the staff. 

“As busy as she was, she would always take the time to say, ‘Hey, come and grab some breakfast,’” Xiong said. “It’s a small gesture to folks, but to me, that’s where her Hmong side, that she never lost a hold of, comes out.”

Yang is survived by her husband, her five children and their spouses, and 14 grandchildren.

Yang was born October 30, 1966, in San Luang, Laos. She moved to New York in 1978. There, she met her husband and they married in 1985. 

Yang and her family then moved to Wisconsin in 1991 so she could pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin Stout. She moved to Minnesota afterward and lived here for the remainder of her life.

Yang earned advanced degrees in educational administration and K-12 licensure from Saint Mary’s University. She also received a master’s in curriculum and K-12 instruction at the University of St. Thomas, and ESL and K-12 bilingual education at Hamline University.

She began her teaching career in 1996 as a bilingual social studies and Hmong literacy teacher at Folwell Middle School. In 2004, she became a project coordinator at Jenny Lind Elementary School. That same year Yang founded Prairie Seeds Academy.

Two years later, while her husband served as principal of the new charter school, Yang became the principal of St. Paul Family Learning Center. Before she assumed this position, the school had not been meeting federal performance levels based on standardized testing. It took Yang a year to bring it back up to standard. 

Yang returned to the Minneapolis Public School District as assistant principal at North High School. She was then promoted to director of the English Language Learner program at the Minneapolis Schools Central Office where she managed 90 ELL school sites.

Yang left in 2008 and became the principal of Prairie Seeds Academy where she managed academics from Kindergarten through 12th grade. 

Brody Derks, a teacher at Prairie Seeds Academy, worked with Yang for 11 years and said the loss he felt upon hearing of Yang’s passing was immeasurable. Derks added that most of the emails he received from students demonstrated a common sense of disbelief.

“She really had a warmth about her,” Derks said. “With students, they can tell, especially students that have had backgrounds that have been challenging. They know how to read people and know if they’re authentic or not.”

Derks remembers Yang’s visionary speeches. At the beginning of the school year, Yang would give a speech to teachers and parents in the foyer of the school. She would often call upon a metaphor she thought of with her husband—that the school was a boat and the students and staff were all rowing in the same direction.

This year, the school was closed due to COVID-19. So Yang sent a video message to staff that Derks recently watched again as he processed Yang’s death. This time, she reminded teachers to continue treating each student as an individual despite distance learning.

“We’re going to honor her memory by moving her vision forward. She had a great roadmap for our school for the next five years, and even further,” Derks said. “We are giving an oath to ourselves to keep that vision. She will not be forgotten.”

Despite her commitment to keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus, Derks said the fact that she had contracted the disease made it all the more difficult to process Yang’s death.

Xiong echoed that sentiment, saying Yang cared as much about the safety of the school’s custodians and bus drivers as she did about students and teachers.  

“Her death from COVID-19 is such a huge reminder to our community, particularly the immigrant and refugee community, to not take this virus lightly,” Xiong said.

Yang’s family organized a GoFundMe page to raise funds for her funeral. 

On the crowdfunding page, the family wrote that Yang aimed to see the best in people.

“She faced challenges and obstacles with a smile and always trusted that everything happened for a reason,” the family wrote in the post. “Her entire life was dedicated to serving others.”

The family is holding visitation at the Koslak-Radulovich Funeral Chapel in Blaine October 25 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. A public visitation will follow from 1 p.m.–8 p.m. Another visitation will be held October 26 from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. followed by interment at Hillside Cemetery.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.