|The Hmong in Minnesota|
St. Paul, Minn. — At Lao Family English in St. Paul, the beginner class has 39 students -- 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. Jean Hanslin, the instructional coordinator for the English education program, says the program has a waiting list with more than 50 names.
"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," she said.
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 last month.
Su Xiong moved to St. Paul in June among the first group that arrived. More than 5,000 new Hmong are expected in the state this year. Speaking through interpreter Plia Vang, Xiong says knowing English is essential.
"I feel that there's a need to learn a little bit of English, writing, reading before getting a good job," he said.
Xiong says he also wants to be able to have conversations with Americans.
But the learning and teaching has been difficult, especially at Lao Family English, where one of the teachers was laid off earlier this year because of a funding crunch.
"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," said Jean Hanslin. "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."
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.
The funding for these programs is based on the number of learners in the previous year.
Tom Cytron-Hysom with the St. Paul Community Literacy Consortium, an umbrella organization for the English language classes in St. Paul, says he fears the overcrowded and understaffed classrooms may lead to poorer quality instruction.
"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," said Cytron-Hysom. "So when you have twice as many students as the optimum level, it really does, over time, affect the quality of instruction the students are receiving."
Cytron-Hysom has been recruiting volunteers to help, but there aren't enough to meet demand.
What's happening in St. Paul is being repeated across the state. Barry Shafer, the state director of Adult Basic Education, which includes English as a Second Language, says the only relief would be more resources. But adult basic education has been level-funded for the past few years. Shaffer says increasing funding, though, would make economic sense.
"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," Shaffer said.
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 also in the first group of Hmong to arrive in the Twin Cities from Thailand in June. Speaking through interpreter Plia Vang, Her says learning the language will help him get a better job than the temporary one he has vacuuming an office.
"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," he said.
But Her's dream may be delayed. The classes at Lao Family English are so full that students who advance are sometimes kept in lower level classes, because there's no room for them to move up.