STEVENS POINT — A new one-year elective class aimed at helping Hmong students connect to their heritage was launched this year at Stevens Point Area Senior High. The course focuses on teaching students to read, write, and improving their Hmong language skills and pronunciation, as well as learning about Hmong culture and history.

“I wish I had something like this when I was in high school,” said teacher Lee Vang.

Vang, a former SPASH graduate, took 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 a teacher of English as an International Language at Roosevelt Elementary School. She also taught a similar summer course on Hmong heritage to fifth and sixth graders for four years.

This year, she will split her time between Roosevelt and SPASH. Although this is her first year of secondary education, there are many familiar faces.

“I have a lot of former students,” Vang said. “I had a few run up and hug me. That’s why I love being a teacher.

Vang, who has lived in the area for 36 years, has strong ties to the Hmong community and the community as a whole. Not only did she grow up in Stevens Point, but she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“We’re lucky to have him, because as we prepared for this course, we wanted someone who knew what he needed,” SPASH principal Jon Vollendorf said.

Her students are the reason Vang signed up to teach the new class. She knows the desire for cultural connection is there.

“I think there is a growing trend – as Hmong students get older they tend to lose their native language and as they continue to use English on a daily basis in the school setting, they increasingly more difficult to communicate with their elders in Hmong,” she says. “The older students get, the more important it is for them to understand their identity and the community they live in. Parents and students are also noticing this trend, and I think the desire to have such a course has become more evident.

Senior Asona Chang moved to the area last year and signed up for the course as soon as she could.

“I was really interested,” Chang said. “I come from Minnesota where there were a lot of Hmong classes in the schools.”

Although she is already fluent in the Hmong language, she hopes to learn more about Hmong history.

“What better than to sign up for your culture,” she said.

Lee Vang will use Hmong folk tales in the Hmong Heritage Language classroom at Stevens Point Area Senior High.  These particular books were written by community members who fled refugee camps to Stevens Point in 2004 and 2005. Students drew the pictures;  their parents or grandparents wrote the stories;  and Vang translated their words.  The books were published in 2007.

The course was proposed by Ann Marchant, a former teacher in the Department of World Languages. It was unanimously approved by the Stevens Point School Board at its October 11, 2021 board meeting.

The course proposal stated that the students requested the course because they wanted to be able to read and write in Hmong; have conversations with family members in the Hmong language; and want their own language to be represented in the world language department.

“Students came to us for help in developing not only heritage skills but also language,” Vollendorf said.

Vollendorf said he strongly believes that improving literacy in a student’s native language improves their English literacy.

Hmong students are the largest demographic of color at SPASH, Vollendorf said. Of the 1,600 high school students, about 6% are Hmong.

Currently, 44 students are enrolled in the class. The overwhelming interest is what kept the class moving forward. Elective classes must have enough students enrolled to be able to be taught.

Some proficiency in the Hmong language is required to take the course, but Vang has high hopes for the future.

“My goal for this class is to be able to continue to offer it to current students who want to continue it beyond freshman year,” she said. “I would love to offer it to second graders and beyond. In the future, I would like to see this course offered to non-Hmong students as a foreign language course.

SPASH joins other schools like Madison, Sun Prairie and Eau Claire who already offer this course. 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 enrolled.

Schools in Wausau, Onalaska and Appleton are also looking to start a similar program, according to school board documents.

“Our initial response was really strong,” Vollendorf said. “We hope not only to keep it, but also to make it thrive.”

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Contact USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Jennifer Poyer at [email protected]