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November 3, 2004 - English Classes for Hmong Immigrants in Minnesota - 2004-11-24

November 3, 2004

English language classes are bursting at the seams across Minnesota. The northern state has absorbed English language classes are bursting at the seams across Minnesota. The northern state has absorbed nearly 50,000 immigrants just since the year 2000. As Toni Randolph reports, these new arrivals to the United States have been packing the classes, eager to learn the primary language of their new homeland.

TONI RANDOLPH: At Lao Family English in St. Paul, Minnesota, the beginner class has 39 students -- that's about three times the normal size. It's so big that computer stations were taken out so that more tables and chairs could be put in. And, there's a waiting list with more than 50 names. Jean Hanslin is the instructional coordinator for the English education program.

JEAN HANSLIN: "We knew we'd be getting new learners, especially those who've just arrived from Thailand, but we didn't know how many and we didn't know how soon."

TEXT: About one third of the students in the most basic English class are newly resettled Hmong refugees. Some of them are among the record-setting 1,400 refugees who arrived in Minnesota in September. More than 5,000 new Hmong are expected in the state over the next two months.

Su Xiong moved to St. Paul in June, with the first group to arrive. Speaking through interpreter Plia Vang, he says knowing English is essential.

SU XIONG (IN HMONG) AND PLIA VANG: "I feel that there's a need to learn a little bit of English, writing, reading before getting a good job."

Plus, Mr. Xiong says he wants to be able to have conversations with Americans.

But the overcrowded classrooms are making it hard on the students and teachers. Lao Family English Coordinator Jean Hanslin says one of her teachers was laid off earlier this year because of funding cutbacks.

JEAN HANSLIN: "We have a tremendous staff with experience in just these types of new Americans, but we have less money than we've ever had before. We have fewer staff people than we've had for a long time. And we're dealing with more learners than we have for a long, long time."

Ms. Hanslin does not foresee an immediate improvement in the situation, since funding for these programs is based on the number of learners in the previous year. St. Paul literacy activist Tom Cytron-Hysom says he fears the overcrowded and understaffed classrooms may lead to poorer quality instruction.

TOM CYTRON-HYSOM: "Learning English is a pretty labor intensive task and students need to be able to practice their pronunciation and have a lot of time with the teacher to correct their mistakes and so on. So when you have twice as many students as the optimum level, it really does, over time, effect the quality of instruction the students are receiving."

Mr. Cytron-Hysom has been recruiting volunteers to help but says there aren't enough to meet demand. What's happening in St. Paul is being repeated across Minnesota, according to Barry Shafer, the state director of Adult Basic Education, which includes English as a Second Language. Mr. Shaffer says the only relief would be more resources, but funding for adult basic education has stayed the same for the past few years. He says increasing funding, though, would make economic sense.

BARRY SHAFER: "If we can, as quickly as possible, get our new Minnesotans into the job market through the English language training, they'll be off public assistance, they will not be using other social services, they will be independent and self-sufficient."

Barry Shaffer says for every dollar spent on English language training, the state gets a $5 to $7 payoff.

Back at Lao Family English, Tong Her attends language classes every day. He was in the first group of Hmong to arrive in the St. Paul area from Thailand earlier this year. Speaking through interpreter Plia Vang, Mr. Her says learning the language will help him get a better job than the temporary one he has now, vacuuming an office.

TONY HER (IN HMONG) AND PLIA VANG: "As time goes by and I'm learning more English, it will help me better. I want to get a job that's permanent and full-time."

But Mr. Her's dream may be delayed. The classes at Lao Family English are so full that students who are ready to advance are sometimes kept in lower level classes, because there's no room for them to move up. For Wordmaster, I'm Toni Randolph in St. Paul, Minnesota.