A Hmong charter school slides into the St. Paul site of the old St. Bernard's High School

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Seventh graders Leng Lee, center, laughs with Khamsaeng Xiong, left, while learning how to play the "qeej," a wind instrument, as part of an after-school enrichment program at the Community School of Excellence, a Hmong charter school, in St. Paul on Monday October 11, 2010. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall) (Richard Marshall)
St. Bernard's High School was closing, and Rita Albert was devastated.

Albert is a St. Bernard's grad, as are her three children and multiple members of her family, and she had worked at the North End institution for 22 years.

When word came last spring that the school would be shut down, "There were a lot of hurt feelings," she said.

She wasn't going to look for another job, she said, and she certainly wanted nothing to do with the school that was taking St. Bernard's place.

But as she finished up her work over the summer, she met the staff of the new school — Community School of Excellence — as they were moving in. Her feelings started to change.

"It was just a great atmosphere," she said. She started talking with the executive director, Mo Chang, who offered her a job, and she wound up staying.

"It's really hard to come to this building that broke my heart," Albert said, but "I really enjoy my job ... I just feel blessed to be here."

The transition from St. Bernard's — a Catholic mainstay in the community for 119 years that closed its high school last spring and its grade school the year before — to a Hmong-focused charter school is well under way at the corner of Rice Street and Rose Avenue.

"We will miss St. Bernard's as we would miss a good friend that unfortunately has passed," said Bruce Larson, a North End businessman and neighborhood booster. "However, we are positioning for change and new growth.

"It's a real joy — and I emphasize that — to see so many kids on campus. ... It has added new life and vitality to the neighborhood," Larson said.
Focus And Growth / Community School of Excellence, which serves 637 students in grades K-8, signed a seven-year lease with the church in May and opened in its new space in August.

The school is focused on Hmong culture and language, though regular classroom instruction is in English. The student body is almost entirely Hmong and about 85 percent low-income.
Community School is one of at least four St. Paul charters that focus on Hmong language and culture.

The school has more than tripled in size since it opened in 2007, said Chang.

Once people learned it was moving from its former location at St. Columba's school to the larger space in St. Bernard's, about 200 new students signed up over the summer, she said. That's equivalent to the entire student population at St. Bernard's High School in its final year.

The growth is fueled by word of mouth, Chang said, based in part on the school's highly customized program that includes trips to Thailand, Hmong food in the cafeteria and even bilingual bus drivers. "You talk about tailoring to meet the needs of your population," she said.

Community School is applying for certification to offer the International Baccalaureate program and intends to add a high school program as well, Chang said.

Staff and parents worked over the summer to transform the inside of the new space.

Traditional Hmong snail designs have been painted on doorways and classroom walls. Posters of Hmong leader Vang Pao have been put up, and on the third floor, a Hmong cultural center is in the works.

Chang said the school's focus will always be on Hmong language and culture, but "we hope to become a school that's very diverse. ... You have to evolve and change to meet the needs of the community."

Catholic School Losses / Community School taking over St. Bernard's is in itself a reflection of the changing community.

Catholic schools in St. Paul and other U.S. cities have been closing in recent years as families with means move to the suburbs and those taking their place are increasingly unable to afford a private education.

From 2000-06, more than 500 urban Catholic schools closed nationwide, displacing more than 250,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Some have been turned into charters — tuition-free, public institutions that are often small and organized around specific educational methods or content areas.

In St. Paul, the Catholic Church in recent years has shut down not just St. Bernard's but Trinity, Blessed Sacrament, St. Columba's and Holy Childhood.

Catholic enrollment in the city dropped 23 percent from 2002 to 2010, while charter enrollment went up 136 percent.

Upbeat Viewpoints / Rita Albert recalls when she was growing up, all the Catholic kids in the neighborhood went to St. Bernard's. She and her siblings would walk home for lunch, she said.

Roughly 70 percent of Community School's families live in the vicinity of the new school — in the North End, Frogtown or East Side neighborhoods — Chang said, but there are virtually no walkers.

Kevin Barrett, owner of Dar's Double Scoop on Rice Street, said he likes having so many new people down the street from his ice cream shop. He handed out coupons to the teachers and is already scheduling fundraisers for the new school.

"This is a great opportunity for me to get involved with the school and get the families hopefully coming here," he said.

Many of his customers are unaware there's a new school at St. Bernard's, Barrett said. "The people I've talked to are surprised and happy that the building's being used."

Mo Chang is working to raise the school's visibility.

She's joined the local business association, and on a recent day, she took some staff and students and dropped in on several Rice Street stores, handing out invitations to a community luncheon at the school on Oct. 27.

Coming to St. Bernard's is a homecoming of sorts for Chang.

She and her family came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1976 and moved to St. Paul two years later. Growing up, she lived for a time in the North End, and her brother was a student at St. Bernard's.

"I never thought that maybe 25 years later I'd be a principal in this school," Chang said. "It brings back a lot of memories."

Doug Belden can be reached at 651-228-5136.



Yangs get community support

Benefit held for Hmong family without a country

MUNISING -- Last week, we introduced you to the Yangs--an 11-person family in Munising without a country. The Yangs are no ordinary immigrants; they're Hmong people, and their patriarch fought fearlessly with our military in the Vietnam war.

They've been in the U.S. for about 20 years, working and paying taxes, but six of them don't have citizenship. There's a problem with their immigration papers. They state they were deported, even though they never truly were.

They can only work at their Munising restaurant, Golden Heart, where they also live, but the building is falling apart. Now their only mark on U.S. soil is in jeopardy of being lost, but their neighbors, the people of Munising, are lending them a hand.

Tuesday night, they held a benefit dinner for the Yangs at the Moose Lodge, and hundreds of people showed up. All proceeds will help pay for a contractor to fix their crumbling home and restaurant.

Between raffles, silent auctions, dollar auctions, and a five dollar dinner, the community was able to raise almost $5,000 for the Yangs.

"I am very proud to be here, seeing all these people being here," said Lee Yang. "Every dollar is helping the family. What really matters is knowing that they really care for the family, and that's giving me hope."

We've had calls and emails from generous viewers who want to help the Yang family.

If you want more information on how to help, contact Margaret Kessell at (906) 387-1617.



Defendants in alleged Laos coup plot enter pleas

Friday, October 15, 2010

ACRAMENTO, Calif.—Ten of the 12 defendants charged with plotting to overthrow the Communist government of Laos pleaded not guilty to amended charges Friday in Sacramento, as a federal judge questioned key allegations in the government's case.

They entered the pleas to an amended grand jury indictment issued in June. Like previous indictments, the revised charges allege the men conspired to send fighters and weapons including machine guns and explosives to Southeast Asia to attack Laos.

All 12 remain free after pleading not guilty to earlier indictments dating to 2007, when they were arrested. Another defendant previously pleaded not guilty, while prosecutors are in the process of dropping charges against the 12th.

One defendant is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and 11 are members of California's Hmong community, many of whom fought for the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Besides the 12, charges were dropped last year against Vang Pao, a national Hmong leader and former Laotian general. Prosecutors said they dropped those charges after reviewing translations of more than 30,000 pages of documents and conversations recorded by an undercover agent.

During Friday's hearing, U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell repeatedly questioned whether the government had presented enough evidence or details to support its charges. For instance, he said the indictment fails to back prosecutors' claims that the machine guns and explosives would have been made or shipped through the United States, a key element of the charges.

"You're on thin ice," the judge told prosecutors. "Where the rubber hits the road, there's no evidence where these weapons were coming from."

Damrell also questioned whether the government can prove the 12 violated the Neutrality Act, which prohibits Americans from interfering with foreign governments, because prosecutors are dropping their case against the two men it originally alleged were the ringleaders. Aside from Vang Pao, the government is deferring its prosecution of a second alleged leader, Youa True Vang, and plans to drop the charges next year.

That in effect leaves the government's own undercover agent as the one orchestrating the plot, Damrell said. The weapons at the center of the allegations never existed, Damrell said, except for samples of weapons and explosives shown by the agent himself.

Some evidence is lacking because federal agents hurried to arrest the men before they could carry out the coup, responded Robert Wallace Jr., an attorney with U.S. Justice Department's National Security Division who is assisting local prosecutors with the sensitive case.

However, he and other prosecutors said they can prove their case.

Damrell did not immediately rule on the defense motions.

Even if the judge throws out some of the charges, lead defense attorney Daniel Broderick said it will not end the government's case. Other charges would remain, and the judge could let prosecutors amend any charges he dismisses.

However, Damrell has also scheduled a hearing next spring on a defense request that the entire case be dismissed because of alleged misconduct and misstatements by the undercover federal agent.



Georgia Hmong New Years 2009 - 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010

November 13 - 14, 2010

My mom sent the flyer to me so I could scan and put online. Here it is.

Click on image to view larger


Diversity Spotlight: Pao Thao

As the Hmong community’s New Year celebration approaches, Pao Thao, executive director of Hmong United Association of Rhode Island, is working hard to make sure that all goes well.

“This is the largest Hmong New Year celebration in New England,” he says. “We have vendors coming from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Florida.”

The event, to be held Saturday and Sunday at the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex in Warwick, will begin with the traditional ball-tossing event and will include a culture show, football games, music, dancing and food. A party will be held both nights at Sackett Street School in Providence.`

The New Year celebration is the biggest of three annual events that Thao must organize for the community.

Hmong United has had a farm program for the last 20 years in which 50 acres of land in Cranston are leased from DEM and divided into plots for families to farm. Thao oversees the program, arranges to have the land plowed and divided in time for the 40 or so families to begin planting.

Some sell their extra produce and “food is donated to families who do not have farm space.”

Every summer there is a picnic at Goddard Park in Warwick. Hmong United provides the food and drink and families organize games and entertainment.

Thao, 49, came to the United States in 1976. He had been living in Long Khai, a refugee camp in Thailand, for six months.

“I was alone there. My mother stayed in Laos. My two younger brothers and my sister had been killed. My older brother was in another camp. The day we left for Rhode Island, the bus my brother was on came to pick me up.”

With help from the International Institute of RI, they resettled in Providence.

In 2006, Thao came to Hmong United to help out in the office. There had been a rapid turnover of young directors. When Thao took the position, he planned to stay. “I’m older, mature,” he says. “I know the community well.”

While he continues programs already in place, he would also like to try something new. He says that he feels it is his mission to bring the elderly and young people together. “The older people are traditional. The kids are Americanized. They have to learn respect. I would like them to embrace their culture.”

So Thao will remain at Hmong United, continuing traditions, trying to introduce new ideas and being there to help.

“There are eight clans in the community,” says Thao . “Everybody knows everybody. If there are problems, they call Hmong United.”

The Hmong New Year celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Mickey Stevens Sports Complex, 975 Sandy Lane, Warwick.

A party will be held both days from 5 to 11 p.m. at Sackett Street School, 159 Sackett St., Providence. Admission is $10.