By Olivia Herken

When Sheng Lee was only 6 years old, her family moved to Wisconsin as refugees from Laos. Now she’s helping Hmong families and students stay connected in the Madison School District. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

In 1991, when she was just 6 years old, Sheng Lee and her family moved to the United States as refugees from Laos after the Vietnam War.

They settled in Wisconsin in the Fox Valley area, and eventually Lee moved to Madison to study Southeast Asian studies and languages and cultures of Asia at UW-Madison.

Now 37, Lee is a bilingual resource specialist, or a translator, helping Hmong families and students stay connected in the Madison School District.

She has worked with the district for 11 years. In her early days, she worked at specific elementary schools, but she is now a district translator. Her duties range from translating documents for parents or interpreting at school events or meetings, to translating curriculum for the Hmong Bilingual Program at Lakeview Elementary School, which is the only such program in the state.

“I provide students with academic, linguistic and cultural supports in the classroom through collaboration with teaching staff,” Lee said.

The program is currently offered in kindergarten through fifth grade, but it will be growing as the first cohort of students move on to middle school.

How big of a Hmong community is there in the Madison School District and what are some of the challenges members face?

Hmong is the second-largest foreign language spoken in the school district after Spanish.

I see that many of our Hmong students are not coming to school as English learners, but as Hmong learners. Sometimes our Hmong students’ social language is not of academic language, so what and how will the district support this shift and make sure that our Hmong students are thriving and on track ready for college, career and the community? How is the district ensuring that our Hmong students are getting equitable access in all the various programs that are offered?

In a lot of the district events that I attend as an interpreter, there are very few Hmong families present. There are a lot of various factors, but I know Hmong families value education and want the best for their children, therefore, what other ways can the district engage with Hmong families to ensure their children’s educational needs are being met? How is the district being transparent with Hmong families?

What is your favorite part of the job?

One favorite part of my job is planning for Hmong American Week during the week of May 14. In 2016, I started Hmong American Day Read Aloud to highlight and uplift Hmong language, literacy, culture and history. It’s a way to share and teach about the Hmong people in our school community and to empower Hmong students in positively developing their sense of identities within their school.

When I was at Kennedy, I invited parents and community members to read or share a story with our students about the Hmong. One of my best memories is one of my fourth-grade students who decided to write about his father’s involvement in the war and how his father came to the United States. I thought it was empowering not only for his classmates to learn but for him as well through his interview with his father.

So why May 14? On May 14, 1975, the Americans withdrew from Laos, and Hmong soldiers along with their families were airlifted for safety. Many who were left behind started their journey to Thailand. May 14 is a day to honor our veterans, history, culture and contributions to the United States. May 14 has been designated as Hmong American Day in the city of Madison and is also in alignment with other cities and states nationwide with their Hmong American Day as well.

Sheng Lee, Hmong translator and interpreter for the Madison School District, shows her book on the Hmong New Year, which includes a photo of her daughter, Pachuablai Vang, at age 8. “I see that many of our Hmong students are not coming to school as English learners, but as Hmong learners,” Lee said. AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

Can you recall a time when your role as a translator was critical for a student or family?

Translating is written. Interpreting is oral. While translating is just as important as interpreting, some of our families do not read and write in Hmong.

Interpreting is critical, and a time that my role was important for a family was during an IEP meeting over Zoom. This parent asked for a meeting with a district leader about their child’s issues at school. This parent brought the issue that even though they cannot express everything in English they know enough English to know what is being said or not. They are not stupid. This hits home and it is incredibly important that as an interpreter, it is our responsibility to convey as much as we can of the original message, and yes, some things may be lost in transition, but we still need to make sure the content is interpreted with fidelity.

When COVID-19 struck, how did that change your job?

Everything shifted virtually. It was difficult to support the students I work with.

Sometimes, they came on to Zoom, and other times, it was just difficult with internet connection or whatever that was happening in their environment. Once we went back to in-person, I could no longer work with multiple students at once. It was one-on-one, and we kept our distance with our masks. For some of our students who are learning to pronounce words, a face mask doesn’t help since they rely on the movement of our mouths.

Since students couldn’t be mixed with other classrooms at recess for contact tracing and to limit contact other than their pod, I had to help with lunch recess. It was a very different phase, and once the school year ended, I shifted to (the) Doyle (Administration Building) and worked remotely. As a district translator, I am still working remotely most days out of the week and going to the office once a week.

Outside of your role with the school district, how do you stay connected with your Hmong heritage and the community?

I am involved with the Hmong New Year planning team. I started planning on the fashion show committee for the Hmong New Year three years ago before COVID came. When COVID came, we halted everything and then the term for the last planning team ended. Once it ended, I was going to focus on just enjoying the new year celebrations with my daughters, but over the summer, I was approached by the new year planning chairman and decided to join, as it is a team of young professionals who wanted to make a change to the new year, to make it bigger than previous years and for the youth.

So with this new New Year’s team, I coordinated the talent show. I have never done a competition before so I was excited to take on this role. The talent show competition blew me away! We have so many talents in the community, and the audience loved it. We had over 9,000 attendees for both days on Nov. 5 and 6 for the Madison Hmong New Year. It was an amazing celebration for everyone in the community, after two years of being absent due to COVID.

I am also part of the parent planning team for the Hmong Affinity group at Lakeview Elementary. We plan monthly meetings with topics related to the Hmong bilingual program and resources that help all the Hmong students and families at Lakeview. We started this group during the pandemic and met via Zoom, but once restrictions slowly lifted, we gathered in person at Northport Community Center and this academic year, we’re meeting in person at Lakeview. It’s a great opportunity for parents to meet, connect, be of resource and support one another in their children’s education.

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