For the first time this coming September, Karen (or Karenic) language education will be introduced to four district high schools in St Paul, Minnesota.
It is believed to be an all-time first for Karen language instruction in the United States.
For the Myanmar refugee and migrant communities of the United States, these classes represent significant progress. In Myanmar – formerly known as Burma, the opportunity to learn the Karen language in schools has been forbidden since a military coup in 1962.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, Karen is the fifth most spoken household language after English among Minnesota’s public school K-12 students; with Spanish, Somali and Hmong also widely spoken. Across the state, approximately 4,700 students in public school districts and charter schools come from households that primarily speak Karen. More than half of those students – an estimated 2,5000, attend St. Paul Public Schools.
Saw Sunshine Timothy, a culture specialist with St. Paul Public Schools, said “Parents have been asking for this for many, many years,” he said. “It’s become reality now.” and the move has been described as a “milestone”.
Hsakushee Zan, a bilingual education lead for St. Paul Public Schools said the request for Karen language classes in St Paul was strongly voiced by the Karen community. “Karen language is very important for our community,” she said “In our country, we have been prohibited to learn our language.”
Calls for Karen language classes were first put forward in 2016, predominantly by parent groups. However the school board noted that licensed, proficient teachers would need to be recruited and the process was halted. In 2021, parents once again began campaigning and it was revealed that since 2016, several Karen-speaking teachers had since been employed – proficient enough to teach the language. Parents also liaised with the Hmong community to observe existing language learning models.
Working with Megan Budke – the district’s immersion, Indigenous, and world languages coordinator, Hsakushee Zan and a group of Karen-speaking education staff developed a full curriculum. Due to the rarity of Karen language curriculums, the group had to start from scratch. Templates were made from existing language courses and staff were able to attend a specialized Karen-language teacher training at St. Paul’s Karen Baptist Church.
Community members provided suggestions on cultural topics they wanted to incorporate, and the curriculum was completed with modules on Karen clothing, history and immigration to the United States. Two different courses will be offered to high school students: an introductory, beginners course for students who do have any knowledge of the language, and a course for students who have some spoken proficiency from home environments but do not know how to read or write in Karen.
Fleeing violence and persecution from the government in Myanmar, Karen refugees began to migrate to the United States in the mid-2000s, and Minnesota is home to the largest Karen community in the country. According to the Karen Organization of Minnesota, the state has approximately 20,000 Karen residents.
The school district is hoping the language courses will boost enrollment at public schools. [We hope it will] “attract some students who go to charter schools to come back to St. Paul Public Schools,” Sunshine expressed.
Karen language courses will be offered at: Como Park Senior High School, Harding Senior High School, Humboldt High School and Washington Technology Magnet School starting in the fall of 2023. Classes will also be offered online for all high school students attending St. Paul Public Schools. Registration will be open through school counselors in February and March.