Principal recruits students for Hmong charter school in Sacramento

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Registration for the first charter school in California to focus on Hmong culture starts today with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Nearly half of the target enrollment has already pre-registered at the Yav Pem Suab Academy, a K-4 elementary school.

"I've personally gone out and enrolled more than half of those students. I made home visits and if they were interested, I registered them on the spot," said principal Vince Xiong. The maximum enrollment will be 300.

In the next month, he'll hire 15 teachers and prepare for the Aug. 2 opening. School officials will be on hand to answer questions about the charter school after the 10 a.m. ceremony.

The idea for the school began five years ago, according to Dennis Mah, the president of the board of directors and former principal at Bowling Green charter school. The academy's charter was approved in March.

"It started with a group of Hmong parents talking about the quality of their children's education," he said. "Everyone assumed that Hmong are doing fine because they are Asian." It was far from the case, he said.

Hmong students in Sacramento, who number roughly 4,000, had the lowest scores of all the district's ethnic groups on the English language arts section of standardized tests last year and the year before.

About 60 percent of the registered students are transferring from Program Improvement schools, which failed to meet federal targets for two years in a row.

Mah expects to draw pupils from Hmong neighborhoods in Meadowview, Oak Park and Del Paso Heights.

School leaders had hoped to locate the school in the Meadowview neighborhood, he said, where many Hmong children live. But the shuttered Lisbon Elementary School, a red brick building next to a park on South Land Park Drive, was the only available spot.

Mah said the school's location in a neighborhood with very few Hmong will reinforce its objective of attracting a diverse student body not limited by ethnicity. He projects that 50 non-Hmong students will attend the school.

So far, five of the 145 registered students are non-Hmong and include African Americans and Afghans.

Robert Woodfork-Bey said his 9-year-old daughter got excited about the school during a home visit by Xiong.

"It was her choice to enroll. She was interested in learning another language and in the creative aspects of the program," he said.

Core academic classes will run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Music, art, dance, drama, sports, and Hmong language classes will run from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Students will have Fridays off and take a shorter summer break – one month – to limit the learning drop-off associated with a longer vacation.

Kary Thao, mother of 6-year-old Andrew Fang, said she switched her son from another school to the Yav Pem Suab Academy so he wouldn't lose his language and culture.

"I think that it's going to be more opportunity for my son," she said. "(The children) live in the United States, but they need to know who they are."

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