An East High School graduate is on her way to college at University of Alaska Anchorage. That transition is noteworthy because the student is a refugee, has two kids and barely spoke English when she started High School. Pang Thao attributes her success to a specialized counselor who recently lost her job because of school district budget cuts.
The stories in this series were produced through a fellowship from the Institute for Justice & Journalism.
Pang Thao’s husband is driving her from the trailer court, where they share a home with with their in-laws, around the corner to one of her last days at East High School.
Thao’s high school years were not easy. While many of her peers were attending homecoming football games and texting on smart phones, Thao was balancing adult responsibilities with being a full-time student. She was married at 15 and had her first baby in 10th grade. Dropping out didn’t cross her mind though, even after her second child was born, just before her senior year. She wants to be a nurse.
“One step at a time, like my English Teacher she told me,” Thao said. “I know it’s kinda hard cause I’m bilingual, so I think that it’s gonna be tough for me when I go to UAA.”
“I think that I need to work more harder and I need to study more because I know that education will succeed in the future for my family and also I want to be a role model for my two kids.”
The petite brunette wears her long dark hair tied back in a bun. She’s the first person is her family to graduate from high school and enroll in college. And getting to that graduation took determination. I followed Thao through the crowded halls of East on her way to her first class of the day.
“Right now we’re going to the integrated math class,” she said. “Yeah, sometimes I miss a lotta homework in that class, but I try my best to catch up on my homework.”
Hmong is Thao’s first language. The youngest of seven children, she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her parents fled from Laos after her father fought for America during the Vietnam War. He passed away in 2000 and her mother eventually returned to Laos, but not before sending 10-year-old Thao to the U.S. with her older brother. They moved to Anchorage in 2008. Her road to graduation has been full of twists and turns that led her to Vonnie Gaither’s office.
“I help kids with life after high school, post-secondary education, jobs – just about everything and and anything,” Gaither said.
Gaither was the Career Resource Adviser at East, the largest and most diverse school in the district. Three quarters of the 2,200 or so students are minorities. About 20 percent officially get help with English, and around half speak another language at home. Gaither says, as a Hmong woman, Thao faces unique gender challenges.
“Hmong girls – they usually don’t go on to post secondary education. They’re main responsibility is to take care of the family. She’s exceptional because she’s fighting her traditional cultural ways. She’s in high school, married, two babies, but yet she’s really involved in school and outside of school. She takes advantage of every opportunity that would benefit her,” Gaither said.
Thao says regular meetings with Gaither helped her stay on track for graduation. She earned a scholarship from UAA for being in the top 10 percent of her class. Thao was one of the last students that Gaither served – her job was cut at the end of the school year.
Paige Petr is an English Language Learner Counselor at East who is keeping her job. She’s says she’s seeing more and more students like Thao, who are navigating the school system alone.
“Even if their parents are there for support, a lotta times, the parents don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture, maybe the parents don’t have the level of education, even that that the children do,” Petr said. “And so the children grow up very quickly and they’re making adult-type decisions.”
Petr’s department will be lose one counselor next year as well, due to cuts. A graduation support coach was also let go. Thao made it to graduation, she says, due in large part to the nurturing she got from specialized counselors, like the ones that were cut – especially Gaither.
“Like when every time when you need her she be there for you.”
Thao says she’s excited and nervous to start college. I visited her at her trailer home on a sunny afternoon earlier this summer. She was cooking lunch for about a dozen kids, including her 2-year-old, Carissa and her 1-year-old, Mark.
“I’m making fried rice,” Thao said.
She says she started summer school at UAA in May, hoping to get one math class out of the way. But she confesses she ended up dropping the class because family obligations took over.
“During the summer, my husband – like they have a lot of plan to go like fishing, hunting and camping – so I thought that it would be best for me to withdraw my math class until the fall,” she said.
Thao adds her husband recently told her he wants more sons, and that makes her nervous, but Thao says, she’s determined to graduate from college.