Prof studies Hmong education problems

Zha Blong Xiong spoke to 300 Hmong adults about their children’s education.

Emily Kaiser

The lack of fluent English speakers in her home was a challenge when going to school, said Nancy Lee.

Lee, a sociology sophomore, said her parents are Hmong immigrants and couldn’t speak fluent English with her at home.

“It was hard because I was coming from a family background with no education at all,” she said.

To more closely examine issues such as Lee’s, family and social science professor Zha Blong Xiong released a study in October concluding that many Hmong children are not ready for kindergarten.

Xiong, the first Hmong full-time professor at the University, said that despite Minnesota having the second-largest Hmong population in the United States, there are few studies that look at this population.

Xiong said his study, prepared for the nonprofit organization Ready 4 K, used individual interviews with more than 300 adults about their experiences educating their children in the United States.

More than 90 percent of the participants were foreign-born, and more than 60 percent knew little or no English, according to the report.

Jesse Kao Lee, co-author of the study and Ready 4 K project coordinator, said the study will be a starting point to learn more about Hmong students in the Twin Cities.

“This is a project that helps to elevate the understanding of school readiness and emphasize the value of education in the Hmong community,” he said.

Lee said education is highly valued in the Hmong community, but parents often don’t understand how to get involved, or feel isolated because of their lack of English language skills.

“This study lets us reach out to those people and say there are ways you can nurture children at an early age so they can be fully prepared for school and not struggle with the achievement gap,” he said.

Hmong Minnesota Student Association Vice President Joe Her said his parents always encouraged him to get an education.

“My parents really encouraged it and thought it was important, because in America, education is the best way to get ahead,” he said. “My parents came here for a new change in life and they use their education and community to do better in life.”

The study found many Hmong parents were accustomed to a school environment in Laos, Lee said, where the teacher is the primary educator.

In Laos, children don’t start school until they are 6 or 7, but in the United States, parents are told to start teaching their children when the child is born, Lee said.

“The parents (in Laos) put the children in the school and all responsibility is given to the teacher,” he said. “The teachers can discipline or do whatever they need to.”

The study found parents who spoke more English were more involved in their child’s education, Xiong said.

Xiong said his previous studies about Hmong teenagers and delinquency helped him work on the prekindergarten study because Hmong families have an average of seven children with a wide range of ages.

“Their struggles are very similar,” he said. “The same barriers apply to parents of adolescents and preschool children.”

Despite the findings, Xiong said, the study is not meant to blame parents for their children’s lack of school readiness.

“We did not want to the blame the parents, because they are doing everything they can to make their family work,” he said. “Instead, we are giving responsibility to the family and society, because society has a role in helping the struggling families.”

Xiong said the study is small, but he plans on doing more extensive research on other Southeast Asian communities in the Twin Cities, as well as the Somalian community, because it might be struggling with similar problems.