While the demographics of 4K-5 students opting to return for in-person instruction in the Madison Metropolitan School District are relatively level, there is a noticeable outlier: Asian students.
Just 37% of students in grades 4K-5 who identified as Asian planned to return for in-person instruction when the district reopened earlier this month, compared to around 60% or more for most demographic groups, though Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students were also at just 44%.
It’s part of a nationwide trend that Peng Her, the Hmong Institute’s CEO and an outreach specialist at the UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, was not surprised to see play out in Madison. Her cited three factors he believes contribute to the lower percentage returning: multigenerational households, an increase in hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans and the “model minority myth” that leads many to believe Asian families and students are doing well.
“Those three factors really, as a parent, make you think about, as schools are reopening, how safe is your child going to be physically going to school?” said Her, who has two children in middle school. “Secondly, how safe are they with coronavirus and potentially bringing it back to their family?”
The Washington Post reported that in New York City, Asian American children make up under 12% of students back in classrooms, though they are 18% of the overall student body, with similar disparities in other districts around the country. Federal data released Wednesday showed that as of January, 68% of Asian fourth-graders were learning fully virtually — above any other demographic, and more than double the 27% of white fourth-graders.
Asian students make up 8.4% of MMSD's overall enrollment, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Her, state Rep. Francesca Hong and Lake View Elementary School principal Nkaujnou Vang-Vue all noted in interviews that the “Asian” demographic includes a variety of cultures that differ from each other.
“I think people tend to lump Asian Americans in together,” Her said. “You have some high-achieving Asian Americans who have been in this country for generations, then you have the recent refugees.”
A lack of nuance can make it harder to identify the challenges people in the community face.
Vang-Vue said she works closely with her school’s Hmong families, as she speaks Hmong and has built up a familiarity with them over the years. For the families she’s worked with, she said there is still fear about the virus as the pandemic continues.
“I don’t even think I got two words into the conversation and they’re like, ‘Nope, we’re not sending them,’” Vang-Vue said. “The fear is real.”
She suggested that fear, mixed with “a lot lost in the translation” from English to Hmong when sharing safety precautions, contribute to the lower return rate.
Hong kept her son in virtual learning for the initial return partly to protect her and her partner’s parents until they get vaccinated. She said the district will have to connect to the variety of populations it serves to help students and families recover from the pandemic.
“I know the administration is trying to get more resources for mental health resources for kids and I applaud them for that,” she said. “I would hope they would also look at … liaisons to specific communities.”
The “model minority myth” perpetuates the idea that all Asians and Asian Americans are high-achieving.
Hong, whose parents immigrated to Madison from South Korea in 1987, called the myth “incredibly divisive,” and said it minimizes the conversations about how to help specific communities within the overall demographic. She said it can also hurt other minority groups as people use the myth as a justification to cut aid programs.
“It perpetuates a scarcity mindset for minority communities, especially Asian communities,” Hong said.
Her said it took nearly a decade to get MMSD to disaggregate Hmong data from broader Asian data. Once they did, it was clear Hmong students were struggling to keep up reading and math at grade level, Her said.
Knowledge of how various groups of students are struggling can be key to understanding “how we can help each community, because each community has different needs and challenges,” Her said.
At Lake View, Vang-Vue said, staffers on her social services team are assigned to connect with specific communities. They reach out through emails, phone calls, text messages and “any way that we can to connect with them to help them troubleshoot and problem solve around any challenges.”
She noted that they have delivered food to families and worked to help overcome other barriers throughout the last year, and said they're working to make learning — virtual or in-person — the best it can be for all of their students.
“When we think about equity and access... (we make) sure that how we communicate home is done in a way that is culturally responsive to the families and... accurate and true and consistent,” Vang-Vue said. “I truly believe that no matter what language you speak or what culture you’re from, you need to have all of the information so you can make an informed decision.”
Her said the district needs to do a better job for its Asian families going forward.
“Hmong parents, Asian American parents, we’re here long enough, we’re standing on our own two feet now,” Her said. “We’re going to say pretty soon, ‘This school system is not working for our kids.’
“What I see is these parents are going to say, ‘Either you’ve got to make changes or we’re going to make changes for you.’”
Outspokenness grows following Atlanta shooting
The Cap Times spoke with Her, Hong and Vang-Vue before the shooting last week in Atlanta in which a 21-year-old white man killed eight people; six of the victims were Asian women.
Prior to the incident that made national headlines, Her noted a lack of support from community leaders and public bodies over the past year as Asians faced discrimination, with remarks like former President Donald Trump calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” contributing to racist incidents.
“These hate crimes will take place and elected officials and other folks aren’t really taking it severe enough that (it) warrants some type of resolution or action,” Her said.
Hong said racism against Asians “continues to manifest in a lot of communities.” Though it became “less blatant” in her life as she grew up into high school, she said it’s important for families to continue anti-discrimination conversations and schools need to "prioritize anti-racist curriculum."
“It’s incredibly important that community leaders, elected officials take a strong stance against anti-Asian hate,” Hong said.
In the week since the Atlanta shooting, a variety of local groups have offered resolutions or statements of support for the Asian American community.
That includes school officials, with superintendent Carlton Jenkins writing in a statement that “Anti-Asian rhetoric, discrimination, harassment and xenophobia has been a troubling issue our society has yet to truly confront.
“The rise in physical violence against Asian Americans is alarming, and compounds the issues of inequity felt among Asian American communities before, and during, the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jenkins wrote. “The Madison Metropolitan School District urges all members of our community to stand with us in solidarity to condemn these, and all, acts of hate.”
The East High School Black Student Union issued its own statement of solidarity, as well, writing that “racism, bigotry, and discrimination have no place within our school, community, or in the 21st century, for that matter.”
“As a Black affinity group, we have encountered many acts of racism and hatred and have received a great deal of support and encouragement from our Asian peers and classmates; we are here to reciprocate that energy,” the statement says. “We hereby commit ourselves to working with our local counterparts, specifically the United Asian Club at East, in efforts to raise awareness about these heinous acts, and provide social and emotional support.”
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