Community School of Excellence – Offering Cultural Learning Experiences And Expeditions
By Sara Marie Moore
Eighth graders at Community School of Excellence Charter School (CSE) are offered a unique opportunity to go on a learning expedition to Thailand or Laos for two weeks, where the school has sister schools. Students do community service projects and teach and learn from Hmong students.
This summer, students and staff visited Buagjan Elementary School near Chiang Mai. They taught eight English and Hmong classes. The group also noted a community service water pump project Community School of Excellence assisted with last year is flourishing – the community used to have to get clean water an hour away. Students and staff volunteered labor and donated $500 towards the project.
“The school hopes to expand the global study program in the future to include trips to China and Vietnam,” said Chief Administration Officer Kazoua Kong-Thao. Students apply for the trip; families pay a portion of the cost, but students work together to raise funds for the rest.
The capstone learning experience summarizes well the school’s mission and vision. The school’s goal is to provide a world-class education through a caring and innovative environment that fosters inquiring, knowledgeable and compassionate students who embrace the Hmong culture and celebrate intercultural understanding and respect. The school is committed to collaboration, communication, and supporting a welcoming, cooperative community.
The school achieves that goal through a variety of programs. Community School of Excellence connects students and teachers globally to Hmong in Southeast Asia. Students connect across the globe through in-class work, research, community experiences, international relationships and learning expeditions. Students communicate with their peers in sister schools to exchange information about school, family, culture and life.
CSE offers a 21st Century education focused on five areas of literacy: global, language, cultural, digital and creative.
Global literacy prepares students for a globalized society. Students study current events related to all subject areas. Global connections begin in kindergarten and culminate with a trip for eighth graders.
“Language literacy offers Hmong and English literacy for all students. English Language Learner (ELL) co-teachers work with all classes. Chinese language classes are also offered. Classrooms have weekly media center time and promote the at-home reading of books checked out from the school. We are known for winning first, second and third place at Hmong spelling bees,” Kong-Thao said.
“Cultural literacy integrates Hmong culture into all subjects. The language and culture class will be part of the school’s curriculum every day beginning next fall,” Kong-Thao said. The school has a Hmong Cultural Center. “We infuse it into the school itself,” Kong-Thao said. “We really, truly celebrate our language and culture.” The school also promotes positive interaction with those from other cultures by hosting an annual International Celebration.
Digital literacy focuses on preparing students to work with the latest technology. Community School of Excellence uses SMART boards, mobile laptop stations, computer labs and iPod Touches to teach students. Every student has a Chromebook to use. Internet safety is also taught. Teachers use the online world to collaborate and create global connections
Creative literacy offers students the opportunity to grow in innovation. Students’ curiosity and imagination are encouraged. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences is used in all classes. Students are encouraged to use their creativity to contribute to society and the curriculum includes community service projects.
CSE offers state-mandated core curriculum. At the same time, it offers an individualized education. Individual student mentor programs are available for college and career readiness. The school offers special education, gifted and talented services, and Title I services.
“CSE has unique enrichment activities for students. The after-school program offers all kinds of activities, from baking to bookmaking. Our dance team is recognized locally and statewide,” Kong-Thao said. They have performed at the State Capitol, Twins stadium and State Fair. The team learns Hmong, Thai, Lao and Chinese dance.
The Asian Penguins computer club is the only Linus users club in a Hmong charter school. The club also does community service work. They fix old computers and give them to families or community members that need them – or bring them on the learning expedition to Southeast Asia. The group has fixed and repurposed over 100 computers. “Our goal here is to close the digital divide in our school,” Kong-Thao said.
A variety of team sports are offered, including soccer, flag football and badminton. Middle school students can run for student council and help lead school activities and service projects.
The school’s new location opened last year has expanded space for art and science labs, gyms and music. “In September, we will be building a brand-new beautiful playground,” Kong-Thao said. “The playground is in partnership with the Toro Company, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Hmong American Partnership and the community will join KaBOOM! on Thursday, September 13 to transform an empty site into a kid-designed, state-of-the-art playground in just six hours at the Community School of Excellence. The new playground will help make play the easy choice for kids and families in St. Paul. The school is looking for volunteers to help build it. The playground will be available for community use, as there are no nearby playgrounds,” she added. Please contact the school at www.csemn.org for more information.
A preschool program also launches this fall, with two classes and 40 students. Even the youngest students are immersed in the school’s cultural literacy. “From pre-k to eighth grade, there will be Hmong language and culture almost every day,” Kong-Thao noted.
The public charter school is free for students. Minnesota Guild of Charter Schools (The Guild) is CSE’s new authorizer beginning July 2016.
“We offer all students free meals, breakfast and lunch. Since 84 percent of its student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, we just made it available to all students at no charge. We have Minnesota Department of Education-approved Asian food in its cafeteria, like fried rice and Hmong sausage. It is all freshly prepared and is like home-cooked food,” Kong-Thao said.
“We also offer services to families and the surrounding community. Last year, we partnered with Second Harvest Heartland to pass out food and Toys for Tots to give gifts to all 1,100 students,” Kong-Thao said. Parents are offered English language and employment training classes in partnership with Hmong American Partnership.
The school opened in 2007 by volunteer parents, community members and educators who wanted to create a Hmong school truly operated by the Hmong community. Student enrollment has tripled since that time.
The school’s Chief Executive Officer is Bao Vang, who has been leading the school since 2015. Kong-Thao has worked at the school for five years. She is a previous St. Paul school board member and the director of equity at Minneapolis Schools and a compliance officer for the State of Minnesota.
An open house will be held 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 30. The school is located at 270 Larpenteur Avenue W., St. Paul. For more information call 651-917-0073 or visit www.csemn.org.