Stevens Point students learn about Hmong language, culture, history
STEVENS POINT – A new year-long elective class aimed at helping Hmong students connect to their heritage launched this year at Stevens Point Area Senior High. The class is focused on teaching students to read, write and refine their Hmong language skills and pronunciation as well as learn about Hmong culture and history.
“I wish we had something like this when I was in high school,” teacher Lee Vang said.
Vang, a former SPASH graduate, has taken the reins of the new Hmong Heritage Language course. She brings 18 years of teaching experience in the Stevens Point Area Public School District, most recently as an English as an International Language teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School. She has also taught a similar Hmong heritage summer class to fifth- and sixth-graders for four years.
This year she will divide her time between Roosevelt and SPASH. Although this is her first year teaching high school, there are a lot of familiar faces.
“I have a lot of former students,” Vang said. “I had a few that ran up and hugged me. This is why I love being a teacher.”
Vang, who has lived in the area for 36 years, has a strong connection to the Hmong community and the community at large. She not only grew up in Stevens Point, but received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point .
“We are lucky to get her, because as we prepped for this class we wanted someone who knew what they needed,” SPASH Principal Jon Vollendorf said.
Her students are the reason Vang signed on to teach the new class. She knows the desire for a cultural connection is there.
“I think there is a growing trend – as Hmong students get older, they have a tendency to lose their heritage language and as they continue to use English daily in the school settings, they are finding it harder and harder to communicate with their elders in Hmong,” she said. “The older the students become, the more important it is to them to understand their identity and community that they live within. Parents and students are noticing this trend as well, and I think the desire to have such a course became more apparent.”
Senior Asona Chang moved to the area last year and signed up for the class as soon as she could.
“I was really interested,” Chang said. “I came from Minnesota where there was a lot of Hmong classes at the schools.”
Although she is already fluent in the Hmong language, she is hoping to learn more about Hmong history.
“What’s better than signing up for your culture,” she said.
The course was proposed by Ann Marchant, a former teacher in the world language department. It was unanimously approved by the Stevens Point School Board during their Oct. 11, 2021, board meeting.
The proposal for the class stated that students requested the class because they want to be able to read and write in Hmong; have conversations with family members in the Hmong language; and want their own language represented in the world languages department.
“Students were coming to us looking for support in development of not only heritage skills but language,” Vollendorf said.
Vollendorf said he firmly believes improving literacy in a student’s first language improves their literacy in English.
Hmong students are the largest demographic of color at SPASH, Vollendorf said. Of the high school’s 1,600 students, about 6% are Hmong.
Currently, 44 students are registered for the class. The considerable interest is what allowed the class to move forward. Elective classes must have enough students registered in order to be taught.
Some proficiency in the Hmong language is a requirement to take the class, but Vang has high hopes for the future.
“My goal for this class is to be able to keep offering it to current students who want to take it beyond the first year,” she said. “I would love to offer it to year-two students and beyond. In the future, I would enjoy seeing this class offered to non-Hmong students as a foreign language course.”
SPASH joins other schools like Madison, Sun Prairie and Eau Claire that already offer this class. The La Crosse School District, like SPASH, is offering the class for the first time this school year. Their two high schools have over 100 students signed up.
Schools in Wausau, Onalaska and Appleton are also looking to start a similar program, according to the school board documents.
“Our initial response was really strong,” Vollendorf said. “We hope to not only keep it, but to keep it thriving.”
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Contact USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Jennifer Poyer at email@example.com.