Heading into the second week of the Hmong language and culture camp at Concordia University in St. Paul, Halayna Yang, 8, says the art projects are his favorite.
Monday morning, he spent time coloring paper dolls adorned in traditional Hmong dress. It’s an art lesson unlike any he’s encountered in the St. Paul Montessori school he attends — and it makes him feel “happy.”
“I like learning things around my culture,” he said.
For Michelle Leepalao and Hayden Yang, two 11-year-old camp participants who hail from the northeast suburbs, this camp has become a summer staple.
Culture Day is the extent of her cross-cultural education at school, says Leepalao. Yang agrees. But at camp they are immersed in Hmong literacy and drama classes.
“We are feeling more confident,” Leepalao said.
These sorts of student experiences serve as affirmation for camp co-directors, Sally Baas and Nao Thao, who launched the camp 16 years ago. It’s an offshoot of the university’s Southeast Asian Teacher (SEAT) program, which began 21 years ago in an effort to move more Hmong education assistants into licensed teaching positions.
Diversifying the teacher corps is widely accepted as a key lever in addressing the state’s wide, persistent achievement gap. It’s considered an effective strategy to boost minority student engagement and create more equitable learning environments.
To increase its footprint, the SEAT program has since expanded its scope — accepting students from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds — and refined its support systems. But its capacity still outpaces its enrollment numbers.
“We have plenty of spots,” Baas, the SEAT program director of the past 18 years, said. “We would love to have more people who are interested in the program. Right now the ethinc group showing the most interest at this moment are the Karen community.”
A culturally sensitive model
When Baas got involved with the SEAT program at Concordia University during its formative years, she says the student cohorts were almost exclusively Hmong. Developed to serve a specific student niche, the program continues to attract a concentration of Hmong students, she says — citing word of mouth referrals from program participants and graduates as a key recruitment tool.
While its student diversity has since expanded, in an effort to recruit more participants, the program does not accept white students. This aspect sets it apart from similar programs at other higher education institutions.
To qualify for the program, applicants must be currently employed in a Minnesota school — as a classroom aid or other nonlicensed staff position supporting students. That means the program is serving a nontraditional student population. Many have families that they need to continue to support as they go back to school for licensure.
It’s a journey that Thao, a program associate for the SEAT program, experienced firsthand. An early graduate of the SEAT program, she first enrolled shortly after having her sixth child.
Growing up in a remote village in Laos during the Vietnam War, she’d never even encountered a book until she came across a building full of books in an abandoned village nearby. A while later, she heard about a female teacher in another village. That was “the second click in my mind,” she said. Years later, in a race to make up for lost time, Thao connected with the SEAT program and completed her teaching degree in three and a half years.
Now she teaches Hmong literacy full time in a local charter school, developing Hmong curriculum materials from scratch.
In an effort to help remove barriers for working adults, the university system had to adapt to better accommodate SEAT students, Baas explained. That meant expanding evening student services hours, so students had access to, for example, tutors and class advisers. Program leaders also help students negotiate time off from class to participate in important cultural events, like Hmong naming ceremonies for newborns and fathers, who take on a piece of their in-laws’ names as a mark of maturity once they’ve begun having children.
Additionally, the program relies on state funding to help remove financial barriers for students — to cover half of each participant’s tuition costs, along with textbook fees, licensure testing fees and more.
Historically, the Legislature has helped fund the SEAT program, along with three other programs designed to boost teacher diversity run out of St. Thomas University, Hamline University and Augsburg University — all part of the Collaborative Urban Educator program. Changes adopted this past legislative session have opened the door to other teacher prep institutions seeking a piece of that state funding to diversify their own teacher candidate pools.
“We were always in the governor’s budget, from the outset,” Baas said. ”Now we have to compete against other institutions that also want to do programs like this.”
Participants choose their licensure specialty and enroll in those classes during the week, along with all other Concordia students seeking teacher licensure. But they all come together every Friday evening for a group dinner and SEAT seminar, where they listen to guest speakers and check in with one another on a more personal level.
This affinity group offers participants an added layer of solidarity and support as they complete the program — a sense of community that often lasts as they transition into their teaching jobs after they’ve graduated.
The program has tracked 172 graduates since it began — and over 90 percent of graduates are either currently teaching or completing their licensure requirements.
Panyia Ly, a SEAT alumna who now teaches first grade at Hmong International Academy in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, says the Friday evening check-ins and guest lectures that are a hallmark of the SEAT program helped her succeed in becoming a teacher.
“I was working full time. I also had a family,” she said, noting is was a challenge to strike a balance. “It really brought the students together. I was able to confer with other students who were adult learners like myself.”
To stay involved, she’s continued to volunteer as a Hmong literacy teacher at the program’s summer camp.
“Just seeing kids come to learn about their history and culture, and seeing their faces light up when they learn something new — and sharing that information with their families — that’s why I come back year after year.”