For more than five years, the Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program has been bridging the academic achievement gap and shaping the next generation of leaders by developing strong cultural identities and creating a safe and supportive learning environment for students to enhance their academic skills.

“There is a tremendous need for this program,” Peng Her, co-director of the progam, tells Madison365. “A lot of our Hmong students are still not performing at the levels we all want them to. Having a program like this will continually help us to close that gap.”

Her and his wife, Mai Zong Vue, developed the Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program (HLCEP) a six-week intensive cultural relevant teaching summer program that prepares young Hmong elementary and middle school students from throughout Madison for college and their careers through learning about their native language and culture.

Mai Zong Vue and Peng Her

“The kids on day one are nervous because they don’t know a lot of the other kids. But by the end of the six weeks, they are best friends. Their self-confidence and self-pride have gone up quite a bit,” Her says.

Back in 2012, there were many Hmong parents and community members who felt that there was a huge need to support their Hmong students. At the time, they just weren’t getting it.

“These parents recognized that their kids weren’t doing as well in school. There were so many anecdotal stories,” Her remembers. “I was able to convince Superintendent Jen Cheatham to segregate the Hmong data from the Asian-American data, because for as long as I can remember, all of that was just kind of lumped together which threw things off. Chinese-American and Japanese-Americans and other Asians in the school district skew the results.

“In 2012, the school district pulled the data apart and they found that 92 percent of Hmong students read below grade level and 86 percent performed math below grade level,” Her adds. “So, basically, more than 9 out of 10 couldn’t read proficiently and almost the same amount couldn’t do math proficiently. Combining this data with anecdotal stories, parents were really concerned and were asking what they could do. There wasn’t anything in the district or the city that was supporting Hmong kids.”

In response to these alarming academic statistics about how our Hmong students were academically performing, the Hmong Language and Cultural Enrichment Program was created. Her and Vue stepped in with their idea and they shared former UW Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings’ culturally relevant teaching model with the parents. “Kids need to know who they are and they need to know their language and their culture,” Her says. “I knew that there was this model out there and if we based our program on that, it would really help our Hmong kids.”

Now, the HLCEP is in its 6th year and Her says that it has been a total grassroots effort by the community.

“Each week, we focus on a theme. Week one, might be Hmong history. Week two, could be Hmong culture. Week three, could be Hmong arts and crafts. Week four, maybe kinship – how we’re related to each other,” Her says. “In the morning, the students get instruction on Hmong history. In the afternoon, it’s more hands on. So they might do an activity where they interview their parents about how they came to America. For many of them, it’s the first time they hear about the struggles their parents have had living as refugees.”

Retired Army Col. Yee Hang comes in to talk to students of the Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program.

The program, which takes place at Badger Rock Middle School, also has career exploration events with impressive guest speakers. “Hmong professionals – whether they be doctors, lawyers, police officers, a singer – they come and talk about their career,” Her says. “Every week we have a guest speaker. The kids see these great community members and they say, ‘This is something I can become. I have a role model now.’

“We wanted to make sure that we provided this program free of charge to anybody in Madison who wanted to be in it,” Her adds. “In order to do that, we started the Annual Hmong Gala to really support the program.”

The 5th Annual Hmong Gala will take place Saturday, April 28, 5:30-8 p.m. at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, 501 E. Badger Road. The Gala is a fun and exciting event that helps community members to learn more about the HLCEP and to raise funds for the program. Students will perform traditional Hmong dances with traditional Hmong instruments at the Gala. Guests will also enjoy a traditional Hmong home-cooked meal.

“It’s really an opportunity to come and learn about the program itself and meet some of the students and to support the program itself,” Her says. “At the Gala, parents will be providing testimony about how on day one their student didn’t speak a word of Hmong and then by the end of the six weeks, they are volunteering to emcee the program – in Hmong!

“The kids are also now able to communicate with the grandparents who do not speak English,” Her continues. “In the past, it was challenging for the grandson or granddaughter to talk to the grandparents, and now having gone through the 6-week program, they are able to communicate with each other and hear stories from their grandparents about life back in Laos.”

Her says that there have been many great unintended consequences of the HLCEP.

“The intent of this program was really the belief that if a child was grounded in their home language and culture, they will do much better in academics,” Her says. “But we also saw that students started developing leadership skills. In our program, students are volunteering to lead activities, volunteering to emcee events and to perform in front of the parents. We’ve had six graduates of the program who are high school students who have come back to volunteer and lead activities.”

Students and parents of the Hmong Language and Culture Enrichment Program eat lunch together.

Hmong education students at UW-Madison are hired over the summer to work with the HLCEP and get workforce experience.

“We also partner with the UW School of Education where students majoring in secondary education come in the summer program to work as tutors,” Her says. “These are non-Hmong-speaking students who want to learn how to work with ESL students and use this culturally relevant teaching model, so when they go on and start teaching they have a great experience under their belt.”

The HLCEP also engages in family strengthening activities – bowling, basketball games, trips to Wisconsin Dells. “The HLCEP is providing opportunities to do things that they ordinarily wouldn’t get to do,” Her says. “The added bonus is that parents volunteer and become a part of it.”

HLCEP’s ultimate goal is to create a safe and supportive learning environment for students to enhance their academic skills, prepare them for college and their careers through learning about their native language and culture. Her is excited about the success of the program so far, but knows that money is needed to keep it going and growing. That’s why the Annual Hmong Gala is so important.

“The Gala is for everybody. There’s a silent auction. It’s a fun time. All of the money raised goes to support the Hmong Summer Program,” Her says. “We always have great speakers and great guests. [Superintendent of Public Instruction] Tony Evers, [MMSD Superintendent] Jen Cheatham have been there in the past. Mayor [Paul] Soglin and County Executive Joe Parisi. It’s great to have that support of elective officials. This event is for everybody – Hmong parents and non-Hmong parents who recognize that there is a need to support Hmong students in Madison because of the educational gap.”