Planting the Seeds of Success

Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood Summer Learning Programs

Na Yang, a Saint Paul elementary school teacher, prepared to teach a summer learning program by planting Hmong vegetables at Jackson Elementary School.
Through Hmong Karen(ni) Youth Pride (HKYP), Na and other teachers provided more than 90 students in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood with lessons in reading, math, and Hmong and Karen culture. HKYP is a partnership between Hmong American Partnership, Jackson Elementary School and the Promise Neighborhood. The six-week program was taught almost exclusively in Hmong and Karen, with the goal of helping students grow academically with a curriculum steeped in their own cultures.

Na was particularly excited about HKYP because she remembered wanting a stronger connection to her Hmong language and culture when she was a student in Laos. She later taught herself to read Hmong, along with other skills. Although Na’s role in HKYP required her to provide academic instruction only in the morning, she often stayed to take part in cultural activities each afternoon.

“I am loving this,” she says of HKYP. “There was never a chance to do it anywhere else.”

Connecting Culture to Education

HKYP is one of five culturally responsive summer learning programs offered to students in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, a transformative initiative housed within Wilder that puts children on the pathway to college and career success. The Promise Neighborhood focuses on lifting up families with students in four elementary schools and 16 early learning centers in the Frogtown, Rondo and Summit-University neighborhoods of Saint Paul.

“Cultural engagement is a key piece in our students’ education,” says Muneer Karcher-Ramos, director of the Promise Neighborhood. “Supporting families’ cultural identity is increasingly linked to academic success, and we see how children become motivated to learn when they form a strong cultural identity and understand their community’s cultural heritage. This engagement is at the center of all our work.”

In fact, countless studies draw connections between cultural knowledge and academic success. Beyond the classroom, cultural knowledge builds esteem, resilience and coping skills — all traits that support lifelong success.

A 2016 evaluation of HKYP found that the culturally relevant curriculum was successful in increasing Hmong students’ cultural pride and in engaging Hmong parents in their child’s literacy and cultural education. The culturally rooted curriculum and activities also helped many students make strong literacy gains. In its pilot year, HKYP took less time than expected to help students make reading level gains. The literacy assessment suggests that reading level changes typically happen after eight or nine weeks — HKYP students showed one to two reading level gains after just six weeks. 

‘Hmong Is Beautiful’

See Lee, whose daughter and nephew both attended HKYP, said the kids came home each day talking about the books they had read at HKYP. They told their grandparents and great-grandparents about the traditional games they learned during cultural enrichment activities, and they began speaking Hmong more often when talking with elders at home.
“HKYP is important because it teaches children to be proud of their cultural identity,” See says. “Children do not have to feel shameful of who they are and what culture they are from. It is important that children learn that their culture, language, and different identity from the American culture is an asset to them.”

That cultural pride was on display when parents, family members and friends crowded into the gym at Jackson Elementary for a celebration at the end of the summer 2017 program. Tables lining the sides of the gym held Hmong and Karen crafts and projects completed by the students. With smartphones raised to capture pictures and videos, family members looked on as students performed songs, dances and skits in Hmong and Karen. Many students wore traditional outfits or shirts labeled HKYP, and on at least one student, “Hmong is beautiful.”

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 Reading and Achieving


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Students and families in the Promise Neighborhood have multiple opportunities to engage in academic and cultural programs. Here is a snapshot of reading program results:

Summer Learning Loss Prevention

100% of HKYP students prevented summer learning loss in 2017.

94% of children prevented summer learning loss over the last five years (multiple reports).

Third Grade Reading

96% of children who completed the Sankofa reading program improved one to seven reading levels in nine weeks (University of Minnesota, 2016). Sankofa is a culturally responsive reading program for kindergarten to third graders offered by the Network for the Development of Children of African Descent.