April 27, 2015 - Journey to Thailand

Hello colleagues,

As part of a team, when one member does something, we all do that thing. In that spirit, we participants of the Global Connections trip want all of you to experience our upcoming adventures.

It started this morning when 41 of us left CSE before most of you had arrived. We have with us laptops from the Asian Penguins as well as school supplies to deliver to our sister school in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

As of now, we're chilling at the Los Angeles airport awaiting our flight across the Pacific. Here we were this morning in Minneapolis:

Stay updated by going to the CSE website and checking out our blog for stories and pictures from Thailand. You can also "like" the CSE Facebook page to see updates and follow CSE's Twitter feed @globalCSE. We'll be using the hashtag #GCThailand15

We'd love to have you with us. We know this trip wouldn't be possible without all of you.

-CSE Global Connections participants


Cultural Event Leaders

Last spring, the Minnesota History Center announced its plans for an exhibit called “We are Hmong: Celebrating 40 Years of the Hmong in Minnesota.”

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, the History Center wanted a performance that would embody the culture and beauty of the Hmong.

They asked the CSE Dance Team to perform for the opening ceremony on March 7, 2015.

So colorful is our Dance Team, that the Minnesota Historical Society also asked the dancers to grace the cover of its magazine advertising the We Are Hmong exhibit.

April 24, 2015

CSE is honored to have been involved with this tribute to the Hmong in Minnesota. We were also honored to participate in the Hmong National Development Conference in April 16-19.

The Hmong National Development Conference (HNDC) is a big deal for the Hmong community in America. Over a thousand attendees arrived to the St Paul Crowne Plaza for speakers, discussions, booths, and celebrations for all the areas that affect the Hmong people in America. This includes business, healthcare, politics...and education. Our school had a leading role in this capacity.

First, CSE was a part of the HND school tour. On Thursday, 30-40 education professionals arrived to walk the halls and visit classrooms, hear about how we operate, and then ask questions.

At the conference, CSE had a booth to share about our school and recruitment of staff.

CSE also had a leading role in a couple of seminars Friday morning: one facilitated by Superintendent Mo about Hmong charter schools. It featured a panel of experts from around the country, who offered their wisdom and examples of leadership.

Then, Tou Ger Bennett-Xiong led a panel on civic engagement. Tou Ger was also awarded the 2015 IMPACT award for Innovation, Advocacy, Culture on Saturday!

On Friday afternoon, CSE's COO, Kazoua Kong-Thao was on a session panel speaking about Hmong leadership. Ms. Kong-Thao also demonstrated leadership alongside Tou Ger by being the emcee for the conference plenary speakers.

Friday evening, CSE invited HNDC attendees once again for an educators networking event in the big gym. Many people came out for this, and after a meal and introductory remarks, everyone gathered into groups to share who they were, what they did, and then discuss ways that they can connect to share best practices.

In attendance was Paul Lo, the first Hmong judge in America, who participated in the groups and spoke to the audience.

Finally, Saturday morning at the conference had our computer group, the Asian Penguins, take the stage and lead a panel on their organization. Stu Keroff led the way with teachers Mee Yang and Adama Dinos and students Mara Chai, Mai Chue Thao, Pang Dao Xiong, and Anderson Xiong each sharing a segment about the Penguins activities and goals.

It was an honor to share our services with the exhibit and conference and be part of two events so important to the Hmong community and culture.


The Spirit of CSE

March 23, 2015

Spirit wafts through the halls of a school like a breeze through the forest. The breeze touches every tree it passes, just as the spirit of a school influences every aspect of it: academics, art, sports, volunteer work.

Community School of Excellence has a pronounced school spirit that has been particularly noticeable as of late.

Mr. Ted Arnold’s 6th grade literature class is reading a novel. This isn’t a typical novel that 6th graders in other schools read. His class is reading Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. This is the story of Chiko, a Burmese boy who is forced to join the military against his will, and Tu Reh, a Karenni boy struggling to survive the dangerous political and military influences of modern-day Burma.

“Through this novel our students are examining themes of perspective, tolerance and what it means to be brave,” said Mr. Arnold. This is an IB Middle Years Program unit where students engage in global issues through inquiry, action, and critical reflection.

Introducing students to these aspects of thought is in the spirit of stretching our students to grow and learn. “We have high expectations for our students,” said Mr. Arnold.

Also in the spirit of CSE, they are reading a work of literature that our student body—particularly our Karenni students—can relate to. Then for Mr. Arnold’s Hmong students, this offers the chance to connect with their Karenni peers.

Mr. Arnold’s class demonstrates the spirit of hard work, cultural understanding, and unity among our students.

From literature to art, perhaps nothing captures spirit like visual art, music, and dance.

Every CSE student from Kindergarten through 8th grade are artists. As students grow, their art class assignments become more involved and more personal.

The spirit of music is also strong at CSE. In February, students in Ms. Hollar’s music class listened to Ms. Hollar’s daughter play the cello.

Perhaps CSE is most known for bringing together the audio and the visual: its performing art. Recently, the CSE Nkauj Hmoob and Tub Ntxhais dance teams completed their tryouts.

“This year we have total of 36 dancers and for the first time we accepted five Karenni in the dance program,” said dance teams manager, Pou Chou Khang.

Our ever-inclusive dance teams will now perform throughout the rest of 2015, demonstrating the hard work, athleticism, and respect and homage for Hmong dance.

Finally, CSE also acknowledges and practices the importance of athletics. The CSE boys and girls basketball teams just wrapped up their seasons. Now CSE spring sports—flag football and badminton—are starting in April.

Academics, athletics, and art exercise the mind, body, and soul—and all contribute to the spirit of CSE.


For the week of February 9-13, CSE celebrated Spirit Week. This is an annual recognition of the school as a community of learning, expression, and enjoyment.

Throughout the week, students and staff dressed in different costumes. At the end of the week, CSE held a dance and crowned the royalty for the school.

The week highlighted the Spirit of Community School of Excellence, an institution that brings together many aspects to create a unique and vibrant setting for students to grow and a community to come together.


CSE Karenni Program: A Perfect Fit

February 19, 2015

Five years ago, Mr. Sunny Pleh, Mr. Soe Reh, and Ms. Poe Meh arrived to the United States. Ten years ago, the three Karenni adults (now 28, 26, and 26, respectively) had met as teenagers at a refugee camp in Thailand.

Though they had lived at the same camp, they weren’t close. A large complex of 20,000 people, Mr. Sunny Pleh, Mr. Soe Reh, and Ms. Poe Meh only knew one another as acquaintances. Today, they know one another as colleagues operating the largest Karenni language/cultural program in the state of Minnesota.

Community School of Excellence (CSE) is known as a Hmong language and culture-focused IB World school. But a significant number of Karenni families have also made the school their home, and CSE has responded by creating an environment that nurtures the culture and supports the needs of the students.

It all started in 2009 when CSE moved into their new building, the former St. Bernard’s Catholic School on Rice Street and Maryland Avenue in north St. Paul. Around that same time, the first Karenni refugees came to Minnesota, including Mr. Sunny Pleh, Mr. Soe Reh, and Ms. Poe Meh.

The Karenni have had a long relationship with the Catholic Church stretching back to the 1850s. When they arrived to Minnesota, they looked for a place to worship. They found one.

“St. Bernard’s is the home church for many of the [Karenni] St. Paul community,” said Father Mike, priest at St. Bernard’s.

When CSE moved into their new building, Father Mike approached CSE Superintendent Mo Chang about the educational needs of the Karenni youth. Ms. Chang opened her arms, said Father Mike.

Today, CSE has about 100 Karenni students—not a huge number, but this figure makes up 10% of CSE’s entire student body.

Most elementary classrooms have a few Karenni students. Mr. Soe Reh and Ms. Poe Meh work to help these young ones assimilate within the class. Most of the Karenni families are new to the U.S., so these children have little English exposure at home.

Mr. Soe Reh helps the youngest students understand instruction and with math, reading, and other school work. “He’s been very helpful,” said Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Seeling. Ms. Seeling has four Karenni students in her class.

In addition, when the Hmong students go to Hmong language class, Mr. Soe Reh and Ms. Poe Meh work with the Karenni children with English and Karenni languages.

On the Middle School side, Mr. Sunny Pleh teaches Karenni language and culture classes to the 6th-8th grade students. Mr. Sunny Pleh guides students through speaking, listening, reading, and writing (and typing). As the only staff member at CSE who knows how to type in the Karenni script, he is also responsible for translating writing communications sent home.

Not surprisingly, all three interact closely with the Karenni parents. “We give out our phone numbers,” said Ms. Poe Meh. Karenni parents make the call.

“Whenever I have concern about my children, it is easy for me to communicate with CSE,” said Chit Win, Karenni mother of a CSE student. “I can’t even speak English,” she said through interpreter, Mr. Sunny Pleh.

Communicating means more than phone calls. With a history celebrating the Hmong culture and emphasizing community inclusion, CSE has used this same philosophy with the Karenni. Every October, CSE invites and helps transport Karenni families to prepare traditional food for the school in recognition of the Karenni Dee Ku festival.

“Beyond accommodation, we’ve integrated,” said Ms. Kong-Thao.

Transportation is also provided for PTO meetings (and a special Karenni PTO session) as well as for parent/teacher conferences. Parents have been appreciative of the accommodations—as well as the academics. “At first, I needed to help my two daughters with their homework,” said Marcel Khon Phau, CSE Karenni father. “But now they can do their own every night.”

Within the school, Karenni inclusion means students are represented on the student council. 7th grade student and student council member July Oo said that CSE is “doing a good job...because they include the Karenni people.”

Father Mike echoed this sentiment. “CSE serves the Karenni population more than any other school,” he said.

For Mr. Sunny Pleh, Mr. Soe Reh, and Ms. Poe Meh, knowing English and being educated has helped the three live up to their ambitions.

“Some of my dreams are fulfilled by working here,” said Ms. Poe Meh. “I feel like I am learning and working at the same time.”

“I want to help my community,” added Mr. Soe Reh.

“We don’t want our traditional culture to disappear,” said Mr. Sunny Pleh.

The CSE Karenni program is making sure that that doesn’t happen.

Having experienced a similar situation in recent decades—coming from the same region of the world under similar circumstances and settling in the same state in the US—CSE and the Hmong community are in a unique position to understand and support the Karenni community.

It is a perfect fit.


CSE Celebrates the Hmong New Year

You could feel the energy building all week. Support staff spent their free time helping with event decorations. Announcements were made about scheduling and costumes. And in the classrooms, students from Kindergarten to 8th grade put the finishing touches on their grade’s performances. Outside the classrooms, hallways were decorated with snowmen and stockings over a fireplace.

It was the holiday season, and the season was punctuated by CSE’s biggest event of the year: the Hmong New Year Celebration on Friday, December 19.

Students and staff arrived the morning of the 19th dressed in traditional Hmong outfits. The excitement of this day being out of the ordinary, of preparing for the evening’s performance, and of being dressed in cool outfits, the students and staff all had a bounce to their step.

The entire school fit into the bleachers off to the sides and in the folding chairs on the floor—a thousand people waiting for their turn to take the stage for dress rehearsal.

When it was their turn, each grade walked up on stage and performed what they had been working on for weeks.

“We started preparing two weeks ahead of time and multiple times throughout the day,” said 5th grade teacher Ms. Koshoshek.

This is all part of the “conscious effort” that CSE employs, said Ms. Kong-Thao, CSE’s Chief Operating Officer. “If you’re not about to communicate in the ways that meet [the Karenni’s] needs, you’re not providing service to them.”

January 10, 2014

Right away, teachers led a parade of their Hmong-outfitted students down the stairwells and through the hallways to the gymnasium. It would not be used for sports today

“They were enthusiastic,” said Ms. Koshoshek. “They would ask, ‘Were we loud enough?’ ‘Did we move to the beat?’”Her class sang “Kwv Tij Hmoob,” a traditional Hmong song with piano accompaniment. Younger grades also sang with simple but meaningful choreography, and older students included other musical instruments and even a fashion show. Students put their hearts into their performance.

Once, Ms. Koshoshek said, her class all started singing their performance song out loud while doing their school work.

After rehearsal and lunch, students went back to their classes for an abbreviated afternoon. After school, most stayed in the building to meet their parents who started arriving at 5:00 for CSE’s Hmong New Year Celebration 2014.


Families and community members filled the CSE gymnasium. Soon, the celebration began—but not with the Kindergarten class or the 1st graders. The 25-minute opening ceremony was a series of performances by the Nkauj Hmoob and Tub Ntxhais CSE Dance Groups choreographed by Gui Mei Vue and the Japanese Dance Group choreographed by Linda Hashimoto.

These award-winning CSE dance teams in bright outfits doing colorful movements kicked off the celebration with style, athleticism, spirit, and excitement.

Following the opening act, each CSE grade then took the stage to perform their routine in front of a packed house of eager community members.

Meanwhile, families were invited to go downstairs to the cafeteria to enjoy the meal that CSE’s cooks worked so hard to prepare. The evening would be a festival of Hmong foods as well.

Then at around 8:00, the final class—the 8th grade—ended the night with their performance: a fashion show. It was a fitting way to end the celebration, a walk representing not just the fashion of the Hmong culture but of the pride embodied in the community in St. Paul.

Nyob Zoo Xyoo Tshiab!


Building Community through Technology

December 22, 2014

A school with families in need of computers; a student body with comparably less wealth and computer knowhow than others. Some would see this as a Catch-22, keeping the students at the Community School of Excellence (CSE) behind other middle schoolers in the state. But for CSE Social Studies teacher, Mr. Stuart Keroff, he saw an opportunity—and then a solution.

In March 2012, Mr. Keroff decided to get some computers for his middle school classroom. Through a program called Free Geek Twin Cities, he received four computers for his room. And they weren’t just any computers; these were Linux machines. This means they didn’t use Windows or Macintosh, but a third operating system, Linux, and it just happened to be the one that Mr. Mr. Keroff enjoyed using himself.

It didn’t take long, and the students became fans as well. “The kids liked them,” Mr. Keroff said. In fact, some started to come in after school, so he started to teach them about the hardware (the computer parts) and the software (the computer programs).

The following year, the club grew. This was welcome, but it also caused Mr. Keroff to recognize the limitations holding the group back. “I asked, ’What’s preventing us from doing more?’” he said. “The kids don’t have technology at home.”

So he had an idea: While putting his students to work on the computers to raise their computer IQ, they could then offer the fruit of their efforts to the families of CSE. Both sides of this initiative would help to close the digital divide separating his students and area families from the rest of the state.

Mr. Keroff found some more used computers and then worked with the CSE community liaison to find families that were in need of a computer at home. After his students refurbished a computer with a new Linux operating system, the group now calling themselves The Asian Penguins (the mascot for Linux is the penguin) conducted their first Mission. This was one year later, March 2013.

“It was to a Karenni family of eight in a two bedroom apartment,” Mr. Keroff recalled.

Himself and few of the Penguins went to the Kerenni home, installed the computer, and taught the family how to use it. The Asian Penguins Missions were born. And since then, they’ve delivered 18 more computers to Hmong and Karenni families in the east Metro. On November 21, 2014, they delivered number 19…

On that cool Friday morning, four middle school students of this 35-member club hopped into a CSE van with Mr. Keroff driving.

They rode out to an east St. Paul apartment building.

Inside smelled of ethnic food as the Penguins walked the dim, narrow carpeted halls looking for the correct apartment number.

Upon finding it, Mr. Keroff knocked, and a high school-aged young man opened the door.

"Hello, we're with the Asian Penguins." said Mr. Keroff. The young man welcomed the crew inside. After handshakes and hellos, Mr. Keroff then asked, "Where would you like the computer?" The young man pointed to the floor near the living room wall.

Living here were Bu Meh and her four children, including two enrolled at CSE and 17-year-old, Baw Reh, who opened the door. He was home as his high school had the day off. This made it the perfect day to deliver the computer.

The Asian Penguins went to work plugging in all the cords and setting up the monitor and keyboard.

When it was all ready, the students turned on the machine and showed Baw Reh how to use it. “We try to teach at least a few of the basics,” Mr. Keroff

Mr. Keroff also handed the mother and son a flier for inexpensive Internet options. After 15 minutes of set-up and basic instruction, it was time for photos and goodbyes.

The Karenni mother and son thanked the CSE students and Mr. Keroff. Then the Penguins exited the apartment and headed back to school. Mission #1 in 2014 accomplished.

Back in the car, Mr. Keroff quizzed his team members.

"Now how many did I say I wanted us to give out this year?"

"Twelve," said one of the students.

"That's right. We have eleven more to go."

About half the families helped are Hmong and about half are Karenni. This year alone, the Asian Penguins already have 23 families hoping to get a computer. But with only the budget and manpower to distribute 12 computers, the Asian Penguins are in need of some help themselves. “We need funds and hardware,” said Mr. Keroff.

The demand for their service is nice. They know they’ve found a great way to impact area families and provide CSE students a terrific computer education and lesson in charity. But Mr. Keroff also recognizes the difficulty keeping up and treading new ground. “There is no template for us to follow,” he said.

Improvising at the helm of a new endeavor is exciting, but it’s also lonesome. “I would love to see a Linux group pop up somewhere else,” said Mr. Keroff.

To help make that happen, as well as spread awareness of their program, four 7th grade members of the Asian Penguins along with Mr. Keroff and two other advisors attended CSE’s first Minnesota Education Technology Conference. They didn’t attend just as participants, but as presenters.The Asian Penguins, led by the four 7th grade studen

ts, Yalee Thao, Mai Chue Thao, Anderson Xiong, and Mara Chai, presented a workshop on how they are helping close the digital divide in St. Paul by providing used computers to needy families.


By learning about computers, by helping area families, and by reaching out to other schools, Mr. Keroff says the work of CSE’s Asian Penguins is about “building community through technology.”

If you are interested in offering a donation of money or good used computers, or to just thank them for the work they are doing, please contact Stu Keroff at or call him at 651-917-0073 ext. 140.