If you find yourself in Jenny Yang’s third-grade classroom at Vang Pao Elementary in southeast Fresno, you’ll hear students recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the mornings in the Hmong language.
When Yang grabs her acoustic and slips the guitar strap over her shoulders, you’ll hear the students sing “This Land Is Your Land,” alternating between the English lyrics and a Hmong translation—all before a receptive audience of Hmong dolls in traditional clothing smiling down from the shelves.
Her classroom is one that’s home to Fresno Unified School District’s Hmong Dual Language Immersion program.
It’s one of only a handful of similar learning opportunities in public school districts nationwide. The program uses the dual immersion method, meaning students receive instruction for part of each day in English and part in Hmong.
“They embrace their American culture, and they see the importance of the Hmong culture as well,” Yang said of her students. “Versus me when I was growing up … there weren’t a lot of teachers that looked like me, that really embraced my culture.”
After launching in 2018 in response to demands from Fresno’s Hmong community—the second-largest in the country, behind the Hmong population in Minnesota’s Twin Cities—the program is already showing social-emotional and academic benefits.
“Even though 50% of the time you’re learning Hmong, you’re not missing out on any of the English at all,” Vang Pao Principal Yua Lee told The Bee’s Education Lab. “As a matter of fact, it’s been enhancing the achievement of our students in English.”
This is no exception to what many researchers have concluded about dual immersion programs: that participating students outperform their peers on standardized assessments in English Language Arts.
What distinguishes Fresno Unified’s program, however, is its placement in neighborhood schools—unlike some DLI programs that are choice schools and can become difficult to access, including for the families who asked for them in the first place.
How did we get here?
A Hmong dual immersion program like Fresno Unified’s wasn’t always possible.
About 25 years ago, California voters passed Proposition 227, restricting bilingual education in public K-12 settings, especially for English learners.
Then in 2016, voters passed another measure, Proposition 58, which largely overturned Prop 227’s restrictions on bilingual education and paved the way for the expansion of dual immersion at schools across the state.
In Fresno Unified, the push for more robust Hmong language instruction came from the district’s Hmong families, the program’s manager Doua Vu told the Ed Lab.
These conversations date back to 2015 when the district was revising its “Master Plan for English Learner Success” and seeking feedback from parents on how language instruction was going.
“In some of those community meetings,” Vu said, “parents actually in the Hmong community expressed that they saw that their students are losing the (Hmong) language and not being able to communicate with the elders anymore.”
This is a crisis the Hmong American community faces beyond Fresno. The language only developed a written form in the Roman alphabet 70 years ago and hasn’t commonly been taught in American schools.
Fresno Unified piloted Hmong dual immersion courses in summer school and after-school programs in 2017. Then, the first cohort of 55 students hit the ground running in the 2018-19 school year.
The program more than quadrupled in size to 257 students last year. There are cohorts in preschool through fifth grade at Vang Pao. The district also expanded the program to Balderas Elementary in Fresno Unified’s Sunnyside region in 2020.
Some dual immersion programs—often for more commonly spoken languages—strive to enroll half native English speakers and half native speakers of the other target language. That ratio differs for Fresno Unified’s Hmong program, where about 90% of students learn Hmong as a second language while 10% are native Hmong speakers.
This helps students like Michael Her maintain the language of his family.
“If there wasn’t a Hmong dual immersion program,” the 10-year-old fifth-grader in the program said, “I wouldn’t be learning any Hmong.”
Opportunities for students to study and refine the language continue into high school through Heritage Speaker courses available at all seven of the district’s comprehensive high schools and two middle schools, Gaston and Terronez.
A day in the life of dual immersion students
Students in the program at Vang Pao and Balderas start the day with science and social studies classes in Hmong. Then, for the second half of the day, they study language arts and math using English.
The daily switch between languages can be especially challenging going from Hmong to English, said fifth grade teacher Kristina Yang. The Hmong language has fewer words than English. It also has more words with multiple meanings.
Kristina Yang enforces the strict divide between “Hmong time” and “English time” using the “class cash” she distributes at the beginning of the year. Students pay a fine if they use English during Hmong time or vice versa. At the end of the school year, they can use however much class cash they’ve held onto during a class auction.
Still, Kristina Yang’s students have also found ways to bend the rules—as any fifth-grader dutifully would.
“They’ve convinced me that if somebody says an English word, if they translate it into Hmong, that there should be no fine,” she said. “So they’ve been keeping each other accountable. And they’ve been trying to help each other translate so that their friends don’t have to give up the class cash.”
In addition to teaching literacy in the Hmong language, the curriculum weaves in lessons about Hmong culture and history.
When kindergartners in the program learn about the plant life cycle and harvest, for example, teachers will also talk about the rice harvest in Laos, Vu said.
And when fifth-graders make crafts, they stitch their own “flower cloth,” called a paj ntaub—a traditional form of textile art.
District leaders said they’ve watched the program foster a greater sense of pride in Hmong culture through these parallel efforts of language instruction and lessons in Hmong history.
“Before, typically you wait until the cultural holidays for kids to wear their Hmong attire,” Vu said, “but when the program first launched, kids were wearing their Hmong outfit to school on a regular school day.”
Kristina Yang has two of her own children enrolled in the program. She said she’s seen them become a “bridge” between their grandparents and other members of her family who have lost the Hmong language.
“They’ve been teaching their older cousins the simple (words),” she said. “’Hello,’ ‘bye,’ or ‘thank you,’ ‘no thank you,’ (and) ‘I’m full.’ It’s really nice to see that. And my daughters just get so proud when they get to be the person who has to translate.”
Would you be my, could you be my neighborhood dual immersion school?
Vicky Xiong-Lor is a Hmong language consultant who has worked with programs like Fresno Unified in California and Minnesota and Wisconsin for almost 20 years.
She told the Ed Lab that the attitude toward bilingual education changed over that period, mostly for the better.
But she’s still worried about who’s able to access dual immersion programs.
Xiong-Lor said it’s often been her white, affluent colleagues who can transfer their children to dual immersion schools.
“However, the Hmong families or other ethnic families, who wanted these programs, were not able to,” she said. Instead, they end up on waiting lists for programs offered at their own neighborhood schools.
The programs Xiong-Lor works with in Minnesota are also mainly at charter schools.
Vu acknowledged that this had historically been a problem with Fresno Unified’s Spanish dual immersion schools, particularly when that program launched almost 20 years ago.
“Before we started adding more Spanish programs, they were all at choice schools, meaning that anybody can come, you know, if someone’s parents provide their own transportation,” she said. “But I think after a while, we realized that some neighborhood kids couldn’t get into the program because the interest was so high that they had to go into a lottery system.”
“Now,” she added, “a lot of our DI (dual immersion) programs are (at) neighborhood schools, meaning that it’s just for those kids.”
That includes the Hmong program at Vang Pao and Balderas. Students who live in the neighborhood surrounding either school have a streamlined path to enrolling in the program.
Meanwhile, students from other parts of the city must submit a transfer request form before entering into a lottery system for any available slots.
Most students enrolled in the program are Hmong, program leaders said.
But there are also a handful of students from different language backgrounds learning Hmong through the program too, such as 10-year-old Alexa Vera.
The fourth-grader at Vang Pao, who also speaks Spanish, told the Ed Lab she’s the only member of her family to speak Hmong. She’s becoming trilingual through the program.
Lee, Vang Pao’s principal, said she hopes to build the program’s capacity in the coming years to reach other parts of Fresno.
“I know there are still many kids and many parents across the district,” she said, “that would love to be able to have this program near where they live.”
Benefits of dual immersion
Studies have suggested a range of advantages of bilingual education programs like dual immersion. That includes anything from improving students’ empathy to fighting off dementia later in life.
One of the most consistent findings demonstrates that dual immersion students score better than others on English language reading assessments.
A 2017 study from the RAND Corporation found that was true of both native English speakers and English learners who participated in dual immersion.
As for whether this is reflected in Fresno Unified’s data, the program at Vang Pao has only four years’ worth so far—with at least two of those years upended by the pandemic and abrupt transition to distance learning. Balderas’ program has even fewer years of data to look at.
But initial results show promise.
Vang Pao students have outperformed the district as a whole on the English Language Arts category of the state’s Smarter Balanced assessments since 2016, before the program launched.
But the margin between Vang Pao’s performance and Fresno Unified has grown every year since the program’s launch.
In the 2017-18 school year, for example, 38.5% of Vang Pao students met or exceeded state ELA standards versus Fresno Unified’s 36.8%—giving the students at Vang Pao an edge of about 1.7%.
Then, in the program’s first year, that edge got bigger: 41.5% of Vang Pao students met or exceeded ELA standards to FUSD’s 38.3%, an over 3% difference.
Even in the wake of the pandemic, that margin has continued to grow.
In 2021-22, 36.1% of Vang Pao’s students met or exceeded the ELA standard while 32.2% of students districtwide, giving Vang Pao students an almost 4% advantage.
Still, even the existing data fails to give a complete picture of how the Hmong Dual Immersion program impacts students.
On the one hand, these are the results for the entire school—not just the students at Vang Pao who are enrolled in the program.
On the other hand, these assessments only measure students’ proficiency in one of the two languages they’re learning.
That’s another problem: There is no accepted standard to measure Hmong literacy.
Fresno Unified developed its own Hmong benchmark assessment to assess students’ progress three times a year, according to district leaders. In the meantime, they hope to work with other districts on a standard.
“We’re partnering up with other Hmong colleagues across the nation that also have DLI programs to see if we can streamline our assessments,” Vu said, “so that way, it’s kind of like a common test that we can all use.”
Xiong-Lor’s also helping lead nationwide efforts on that front.
“Between California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin,” she said, “we’re collaborating to work on these standards so that we can measure students across the board.”
Still, not all the impacts of the programs can be pinned down by metrics. Like the joy of seeing your culture celebrated in school or learning about a new culture, Lee said.
“You can see that in the excitement of the kids wanting to be a part of the Hmong dance or wanting to go to Hmong New Year,” she said. “You can’t measure that.”
Copyright (c) 2023, The Fresno Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.