Bethel Partner Hmong College Prep Academy Revitalizes St. Paul Community

The Bethel-authorized K–12 charter school has transformed an industrial corner of St. Paul into a community-enhancing space.

By Whitney Bak ’15

August 07, 2018 | 2:30 p.m.

Bethel Partner Hmong College Prep Academy Revitalizes St. Paul Community

Founder and Superintendent Christianna Hang GS’11 poses on Hmong College Prep Academy’s new multi-use turf athletic field. (Photo provided by Christianna Hang)

“Did I say ‘dedicated and passionate’?” Of all the things that could be said of Hmong College Prep Academy (HCPA) in St. Paul, Minnesota, those two words repeatedly rise to the top of the list for Bethel Partnerships Coordinator Heather Ross. Since being hired by Bethel’s education department to help support and facilitate Bethel’s community partnerships, Ross has had frequent interactions with the charter school—one of three Bethel authorizes. This has included extensive communication with HCPA’s founder and superintendent, Christianna Mai-Choua Hang GS’11, whom, unsurprisingly, Ross also describes as “dedicated and passionate.”

It’s not a mystery why. After opening the school’s doors in 2004, Hang grew HCPA from a small high school to a K–12 district in which 1,850 students are now enrolled. And she’s not stopping there. In 2016, the school launched a $48 million expansion project that is just wrapping up in time for fall 2018. The project included purchasing the space across the street from the school’s primary building to make room for a sports zone and more elementary classrooms. Upon its completion, Hang projects the school’s enrollment will rise to just above 2,200 students—their new maximum capacity.

As the authorizer to HCPA, Bethel—and Ross in particular—has had the privilege of overseeing the process. “It’s a beautiful story,” Ross says. “In any new construction, you need to bring everything up to current code. So anything that was in the ground that shouldn’t have been there, Hmong college needed to clean it up—like oil, asbestos, any contaminants. So basically they rejuvenated this whole corner of St. Paul right kitty-corner from the fairgrounds from being industrial to being a school, a play area.”

But this level of community reviving isn’t a special accomplishment for Hang and HCPA. Making a difference is at the core of what the school does, every day. In fact, it’s the driving force behind Hang’s involvement in the field of education. After 10 years of working in a corporate setting, Hang made a career shift to Minneapolis Public Schools. “I decided that I really wanted to help young people and do something that would make a difference in the community,” she says.

“Being in the K-12 classroom I really saw a lot of the minority kids, particularly Hmong students, were very disengaged. And it wasn’t because they were not smart, it was just because the place was not relevant to their learning center…they really didn’t understand the education system.”

— Christianna Mai-Choua Hang GS’11, Hmong College Prep Academy founder and superintendent

There, Hang gained experience as an educator, administrator, and special education and English language learning (ELL) expert. Soon, her experience, observations, and passions inspired her to open her own school. “Being in the K-12 classroom I really saw a lot of the minority kids, particularly Hmong students, were very disengaged,” she says. “And it wasn’t because they were not smart, it was just because the place was not relevant to their learning center…they really didn’t understand the education system.”

Today, HCPA is composed of 30% ELL students, 80% Hmong students, and 85% students eligible for free and reduced lunch—and boasts an 85–90% college admittance rate. Faculty and staff go above and beyond, and “do not allow students to fall through the cracks,” according to Hang. This includes facilitating home visits for new students, and offering monthly information meetings for parents to ensure they are aware of their children’s educational opportunities.

These offerings particularly serve students who are new to the country or first-generation—a demographic Hang, herself an immigrant, is particularly passionate about supporting. After spending most of her childhood living in refugee camps, she remembers arriving in Minnesota behind the educational curve. “I had to learn ABC and 123 in fifth grade, and work really hard,” she says. Hang’s dedication and persistence eventually led her to becoming the first female among her family’s 18 clans to earn her doctorate degree. “I wanted them to know that I care about education, and that’s why I feel like it’s important [for me] to have the highest level of education in this country,” she says.

Hang was also the first Hmong woman to graduate from Bethel’s Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in K–12 Administration program, and was the commencement speaker for her graduation. She’s since maintained strong connections with the school and her program. So, when HCPA’s authorizer discontinued their authorizing practice in 2015, Hang describes partnering with Bethel as a “no-brainer.”

Bethel serves as a liaison between HCPA and the Minnesota Department of Education—reviewing and submitting paperwork and financial requests, facilitating learning opportunities, and conducting yearly school visits. Ross says she sees the practice as “an outgrowth of the mission and vision of the university.” In addition to providing a service and supporting the charter school movement—including students’ accessibility to an education that can best prepare them for their future—the “mutually beneficial partnership” also gives students studying in Bethel’s education department exposure to a unique educational environment. 

Bethel students may learn at HCPA during their field placement or student teaching experiences, or on a site visit during their Introduction to Education course. HCPA offers insight into what it means to be a college preparatory school—even at the elementary level. Working with HCPA also gives students a better understanding of the charter school movement, which began in Minnesota over 25 years ago.

In the coming years, Bethel and HCPA will continue to partner together, as the charter school’s continuing demand drives further growth. This fall, Bethel’s undergraduate admissions office will run a shuttle bus between HCPA and Bethel’s campus to allow students from HCPA to attend PSEO classes. The service was made possible through a Bethel University Foundation Strategic Growth Award.

In addition, HCPA is in negotiations for further expansion, including the possibility of introducing early education (or pre-Kindergarten) learning, and—maybe someday—will even choose to replicate itself. “[HCPA is always asking] ‘How can we close the achievement gap faster?’” Ross says. “There’s an understanding that these are the students’ futures that they’re impacting. And they don’t want to waste a moment of their opportunity to educate.”

Community Partnerships at Bethel.

Learn more about HCPA and the other charter schools Bethel partners with as an authorizer.