St. Paul schools to offer Karen language classes

Learning letters
Paw Soe, left, and Mi Meh work on their language lessons at Woodson Kindergarten Center in Austin, Minn. in Sept. 2014. Beginning in fall 2023, St. Paul Public Schools will add Karen to its roster of language courses.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News 2014

When Karen refugees began resettling in Minnesota in the early 2000s, one thing they were able to bring with them was their language. This was no small feat.

The teaching of the Karen language had been banned in schools in their native Myanmar (formerly Burma) since 1962, when a military regime took power in a coup.

That ban is still in place.

Almost 8,000 miles away, the Karen language is being embraced by a Minnesota school district.

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Beginning in fall 2023, St. Paul Public Schools will add Karen to its roster of language courses. Those who created the program believe it is the first of its kind in the United States.

Of the 17,000 Karen people in the state, about half of them live in St. Paul, where Karen will now be offered alongside French, German, Hmong, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

The effort was led by a group of Karen parents in St. Paul who wanted to address a generational gap that was forming with their children who couldn’t speak the language.

The courses will be available at four schools in the district as well as online. One level will be for beginner students; another, for those with some existing knowledge, will focus on culture.

Hsakushee Zan, who works in bilingual education for the district, said this means a lot to the Karen community.

“We are very proud to have this so that our children can learn our language in public school freely and [can] preserve it in the future,” she said.

To learn more and hear the full conversation with Hsakushee Zan, click play on the player above.