Hmong Teen Tutors

What if Hmong immigrant teens got their first jobs teaching Hmong immigrant children to read?

Photo of Angela Vang
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Hmong families came to Minnesota escaping oppression – and continued to come seeking better lives for themselves and their children. Many settled in St. Paul’s North End. Here, almost twenty years ago, my colleague Hlee Thao founded the Hmong Youth and Family Program to gather the community and support new refugees. Four nights a week, Hmong cooking sessions, a garden, traditional crafts, and a youth Hmong dance troupe built community and pride in identity. One day about four years ago, Hlee and I were chatting with parents while in the kitchen cooking traditional foods together. One mother said, “What we really need is help for the children with school.” Others agreed strongly: “We can’t help them because we don’t know English well enough.” They knew, though, that success in school is the key to success in America. That conversation inspired us to act! And brainstorming with our colleagues at Keystone Community Services gave us the answer. Keystone’s other afterschool program told us a structured literacy curriculum would give the best results – but where would we find bilingual, English-literate skilled tutors? Keystone’s youth social entrepreneurship staff said, high school students are your answer – and we can empower them with their first job experience at the same time. We all knew it was perfect. The combination of our ideas and experience was the spark for the Hmong Teen Tutor program.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)
  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)
  • Middle Eastern or North African (for example: Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Algerian)
  • Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Minnesota

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

St. Paul

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Minnesota

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

St. Paul

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The Hmong Teen Tutor project addresses the need for Hmong children to achieve strong literacy and school success. Many people do not realize that children only spend about 20% of their waking hours in school. Support at home, then, is really the main determinant of school success. Most Hmong parents in our neighborhood aren’t literate in English and can’t do this like white middle class parents routinely do. Unless we break this cycle, the Hmong community can never catch up. So we empower the “high flyers” -- Hmong teen tutors with an inspirational record of school success – to assist not only their own younger brothers and sisters but the whole neighborhood’s children. We pay them for their valuable time, help them recognize what an asset their bilingual fluency truly is, and provide evidence-based training to help teens be really effective in teaching younger children to read well.

The Hmong Teen Tutor program uses the intelligence, caring and energy of successful Hmong teens to tutor the next generation of Hmong children living in public housing in St. Paul’s North End. Hmong children were already finding purpose, community and identity within the Hmong Youth and Family Program, gathering across generations to cook, garden, and build skills in traditional Hmong dance and craft.  Parents knew that their kids needed more: to get help to succeed in school, the key to success in American life.  Their request for tutoring, plus the ingenuity of Keystone staff working together, built the Hmong Teen Tutor program. It’s been going strong three years now, enrolls 40 children in grades K-5, and is posting excellent results in literacy and school grades for Hmong children. 

Reading instructors for Hmong children should really be fluent in both Hmong and English. Local Hmong teens who have grown up in the Hmong Youth and Family Program understand the cultural norms and home life of participants which enables them to serve as both academic tutors and culturally responsive mentors. They also bring personal experience of the specific challenges that Hmong children from immigrant/refugee families encounter when learning to read in English. We choose teens who are proficient in both English and their home language and have maintained at least a B average during the past school year. The teen tutor program takes advantage of a major asset possessed by teens - bilingual fluency and cultural competency – and leverages it into a meaningful, empowering and highly productive first job.

Our Teen Tutor model values the bilingual fluency and school success of local teens and reinforces their competency and capability. Each tutor is paid ($9.00/hour) and engages in a 200+ hour tutoring "apprenticeship" experience consisting of employment readiness training and certification in the evidence-based Winsor Learning Sonday System literacy curriculum for bilingual leaners and the Second Step social-emotional learning curriculum. Teen Tutors work one-on-one or with small groups of children to teach literacy and social-emotional skills, assist with homework, and conduct progress assessments. Hmong teens build high-level work skills and credentials, earn much-needed money to support their families and their future educational and career aspirations, and use their cultural competency to teach and mentor the next generation of Hmong children toward educational success. The Hmong Teen Tutor program is giving Hmong children in grades K-5 a strong sense of purpose and motivation to succeed in school, while taking pride in their Hmong identity and the capacity of their own community to help them succeed.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Bee was five years old when her family immigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota. As she grew up, Bee spent her after-school hours attending Keystone’s Hmong Youth & Family Program. “It helped me make new friends and learn new skills,” said Bee, who has five younger siblings and hopes to become a pediatrician. “The program is a safe environment and I grew up feeling more connected to my community.” Today, Bee is a Central High School junior and a tutor in Keystone’s Teen Tutoring Program, which offers teenage youth a paid job experience working with children in grades K-5 in need of additional academic support. “It makes me feel good when I help them read better,” Bee says.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Despite being behind at the beginning of the year, at the end of the 2014-15 school year, 86% of the 40 children in the Hmong teen Tutor program tested at grade level or above in reading assessments and 100% of those participating in summer programming maintained or improved their literacy skills during the summer months. In oral surveys, 80% of parents shared that their child’s attitude about school had improved and 91% reported their child having improved grades as a result of their participation in the program. These children will be the “high flyers” of the future. Their school success is critical to their long-term well-being and their own Hmong community is helping them achieve that goal. Children are eager to participate and love working with their teen tutors.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The Hmong Youth and Family Program started at the grassroots and then merged with Keystone Community Services to promote financial stability and sustainability. We rely on United Way and generous local philanthropic support. We tap City of St. Paul youth employment funding to help pay for the teen tutor positions. Keystone’s youth social enterprise, a bike shop in St. Paul, also generates excess revenue that helps support tutoring positions.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

St. Paul Public Schools offers school-day programs for Hmong children and these are helpful. However, the main reason that an achievement gap exists between white and Hmong students in St. Paul is their starkly different opportunities during out-of-school-time hours. White middle class families are accelerating their children’s school success daily through reading and homework help, but Hmong parents cannot do this due to language and literacy barriers and their many hours spent working. We’re tapping an underused resource by training and paying Hmong teens to fill this opportunity gap.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The field seems to be realizing the value of empowering cultural communities to find their own solutions. Immigrants come to the U.S. fully expecting their journey to success will be a family journey. They always put the children’s future first. They have both intelligence and wisdom about what their children need. More established Americans also have great ideas about what’s worked to help their children succeed. By listening and planning together as we did for the Hmong Teen Tutor project, we can have breakthrough ideas that create multi-generational paths upward for immigrant communities.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

RWJF listserv

Program Design Clarity

Four nights a week for three hours, the Hmong Youth and Family Program gathers at a local community center. About 40 children in grades K-5 participate in culturally responsive literacy tutoring with trained and paid Hmong teen tutors who are often in their first jobs. Many children and teens go down to the gym and participate in the Hmong Peace Dancers dance troupe, which performs regularly in the community. Others learn traditional cooking or gardening from elders. Each year, over 100 children and teens develop pride in their Hmong identity and in their community’s capacity for self-help.

Community Leadership

Our program has been operating for 17 years and is entirely led and shaped by Hmong immigrants. My boss, Hlee Thao, founded the program and is highly respected in the local community. We’re in constant contact with families through intergenerational activities and family advocacy. Our Hmong Teen Tutors initiative was the direct request of parents to increase support for school success. We hold formal parent meetings twice a year in Hmong.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We feel that the Hmong Teen Tutor model can be replicated in any neighborhood where immigrants groups are concentrated. For example, our own neighborhood is seeing an influx of Karen immigrants. As Karen teens begin to move into high school, they could have a Karen Teen Tutor program combined with traditional activities with elders as we have done. Needs include visionary founders (and funds for them to live on) and free program space.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Our work does so much to help Hmong children thrive. Hmong children learn to read from their own community: Hmong teens who’ve already learned successfully. Hmong teens find purpose in helping the next generation instead of wasting their skills at a McDonalds. Their job helps them get into and pay for college. Both children and teens are surrounded by elders who pass down cultural traditions and take pride in young people’s accomplishments.

Leadership Story

Being that I was the first generation of Hmong being born in the United States, I understood the struggles of non-english reading/writing parents and the cultural clashes of having to be an immigrant to the U.S. Our program, from the teen tutors to all the facilitators, have helped improve the academic success of our participants, and this collective strength is really what drives me. Having teens/young adults strengthen their abilities; having children be more successful in their academics; build more social leadership skills; giving back to the community. Success. A chance to be great.

Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Evaluation results

4 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 25%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 50%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 25%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 50%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 0%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 25%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 25%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 75%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 25%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 25%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 25%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 25%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 25%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 0%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 0%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 50%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 100%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 50%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Fred Cardenas

Quite impressed with this program. Within the recent political insults to culture and language, this is a diamond of a program, integrating culture, youth, school success, improving literacy, engaging youth in meaningful employment that also increases tutors own literacy and self-worth. And it can be extended to other communities, languages and cultures, with some tweaking to ensure cultural appropriateness.

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