International

District Shifts Strategies To Welcome Refugees

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 14, 2004 4 min read
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School officials in St. Paul, Minn., have taken an unusual step to prepare to receive a new wave of refugees in their schools. A delegation traveled to Thailand this spring to visit an informal camp where thousands of Hmong refugees from Laos are living.

Come fall, those officials—two of whom are Hmong and were refugees themselves in the 1970s—expect that their school system may enroll about 1,000 children from the Thai camp. Thousands more are likely to end up in other U.S. school districts at about the same time.

The Minnesota educators hope their advance work will help with the youngsters’ transition to their adopted homeland and school district.

The U.S. Department of State has announced that this summer it will start resettling in the United States the 15,000 people living in that camp. Many Hmong refugees who live in Thailand have made their home in that country since the end of the Vietnam War. The Hmong, a minority group in Laos, were persecuted in Communist Laos after the war because some of them had fought on the side of the Americans.

Different Experiences

The camp in Thailand sprang up spontaneously in the 1990s on the grounds of a Buddhist temple named Wat Tham Krabok. It isn’t an official refugee camp and hasn’t been recognized by the United Nations, so the people support themselves with odd jobs, such as working in agricultural fields or sewing clothing, according to one of the Minnesota educators who visited there. Many of the children were born there and know little about the world outside the camp.

Mo Chang, the special-projects coordinator and charter school liaison for the superintendent of the St. Paul schools, was a member of the delegation that visited the Wat Tham Krabok camp last month. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly led the delegation, which was paid for by foundations and corporations.

Ms. Chang, who is Hmong, lived in two refugee camps in Thailand as a child. At age 10, she and her family were sponsored by Lutheran churches and resettled in Winston-Salem, N.C. Within a couple of years, her family had joined other Hmong relatives in St. Paul, where Ms. Chang, who is now 37, has lived ever since.

“It was very touching going on this trip because I imagined myself being the people there,” Ms. Chang said last week. “Had my parents made a different decision, I would have been in the camp or my children.”

During her week at Wat Tham Krabok, she took notes of the education opportunities for children there. St. Paul school administrators are now using that information to craft a plan to receive the Hmong newcomers at the start of the coming school year.

About 3,400 of the 6,100 children in the camp ages 14 and younger are attending school, according to Ms. Chang. One school is outside the camp and run by the Thai government. It has certified teachers and resources similar to what might be found in U.S. schools, such as a computer lab and science lab, she said. The other school, she said, is run by Hmong teachers inside the camp and has few such resources.

“All you see is a dirty wall, and tables and chairs and a place to sit,” said Ms. Chang. She said the students don’t have textbooks, only notebooks.

Transitional Centers

Learning that many of the newcomers likely will not have gone to school before, the St. Paul administrators have come up with a plan that deviates from the school system’s usual strategy for teaching immigrant and refugee children.

Maria J. Lamb, the chief education officer for the 44,000-student St. Paul schools, said the district favors an inclusive approach to teaching English-language learners. Usually, she said, such students are placed in mainstream classrooms, in which English-as-a-second- language teachers work alongside regular teachers.

For the Hmong who will be arriving, the district is setting up transitional language centers that will be housed in regular schools but operated separately from the regular classrooms.

In the centers, educators will initially test the skills of the Hmong children and decide if they will be placed in the regular programs for English-language learners or stay in the special centers for a while.

Those who remain in the centers will take separate classes in intensive English and learn the routines and rituals of school, according to Ms. Lamb. They’ll join students outside their group for classes such as art, music, and physical education.

Having transitional centers will enable the district to concentrate its teachers and paraprofessionals who are Hmong, Ms. Lamb said. The St. Paul system doesn’t run traditional bilingual programs, but it will encourage Hmong educators to help students in their native language as needed.

Besides Ms. Chang, Kazoua Kong-Thao, a board member for the St. Paul district who is Hmong and was also a refugee, and Valeria Silva, the director of programs for English-language learners, joined the delegation.

The educators don’t yet know how many refugees from the camp will settle in St. Paul. Because each refugee must be sponsored by a family or clan member, they assume many will settle in places where other Hmong live in the United States. St. Paul now has an estimated 25,000 Hmong.

Said Ms. Kong-Thao of the newcomers: “They are going to have such a more positive experience than many of us. The Hmong community is very good about supporting their own. We have family members who are here. We have businesses. We have education.”

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