Henerry Cho, a slight, 12-year-old Karen boy, walked up to the board in his Washington Technology Magnet Middle School classroom in St. Paul and attempted to draw the letter "r." He knew it looked like a slanted "v" but wasn't sure of its size.

Henerry, who fled with his family from Myanmar more than two years ago, struggles in spelling, writing and reading, but describes himself as a math whiz.

"That's beautiful," his teacher Joyce Pham told him after his first attempt to draw the letter in front of the class.

Henerry is among a growing number of Karen students in St. Paul public schools who bring new cultural, linguistic and academic challenges and also have to translate their native alphabet to the English language. In just three years, enrollment has zoomed from 100 to more than 1,100. At least 4,600 Karen immigrants have received refugee status in St. Paul -- a number that is expected to climb with Sunday's election violence between Myanmar troops and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army in the border town of Myawaddy. Thousands of Karen families are reported to have fled to Thailand refugee camps, but it's too early to say how many of those children might come to Minnesota schools.

"We have to do a lot of nurturing and holding their hands," Pham said of the Karen students. "It's been quite an adventure."

The district is now scrambling to hire translators, organize parents and make room in the first learning level for immigrant student courses where, in some schools, Karen now outnumber Hmong students. The district currently has 13 native Karen speakers on staff with an opening for another.

Many Karen (pronounced Koren), a minority ethnic group from eastern Myanmar, were brought to St. Paul by Catholic Charity and Lutheran Social Services to benefit from government services that are familiar with their unique challenges, said Saw Morrison, the program manager at the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Nationally known

Indeed, the St. Paul school district is known nationally for its ability to close the achievement gap between its estimated 13,000 English Language Learners (ELL) and American-born students.

Washington Technology Magnet School is seen as the testing ground for the district, and there, Moon Soe serves as the school's only translator for its 109 Karen students. Karen pre-teens clustered around Moon Soe, 23, as he walked the halls recently. He joked with them and encouraged them to study.

"Many of these kids don't have good background schooling," he said between classes.

In Myanmar and Thailand, many Karen children are educated in small refugee camp school houses, or charity-backed makeshift classes in the country's thick jungles where teachers lecture for hours, Moon Soe said. Karen students are often caught off guard with America's student-centered classrooms, where they're asked to raise their hands, write on the board and tell teachers what they think, he said.

New to classroom behavior

Pham recently spent a day teaching students classroom behavior, such as no talking during tests, following the class agenda and writing in their journals.

Some Karen parents worry that the students will join gangs and learn bad American habits such as drug and alcohol abuse.

"We tend to see the younger students being the bridge culture where they're straddling the old and new," said St. Paul's ELL director, Heidi Bernal. "They have one foot firmly in the past and one in the present, and they're trying to bridge that cultural divide," she said.

Bernal said the community's heavy parental involvement, and organizations like the Karen Organization of Minnesota, which recently received its non-profit status, will be beneficial. Last week, the district hosted a family night for Karen parents, hoping that it will lead to a parent-teacher organization.

"They were really quick at organizing," Bernal said.

Many of the students have also come to share their customs with teachers and their peers. Pham attended a wrist-tying ceremony last year where elders tie threads around community members' wrists to ward off illnesses. She plans to attend their new year celebrations next month, too, decked out in one of the many outfits her students have given her.

For Henerry Cho, school is a challenge he's learned to enjoy. Next year, he hopes to advance to the next level of class work where he can learn more math.

"I'm starting to get a hang of it," he said.

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695