The fifth-grade girls slipped past Be Vang on the stairs, balancing snacks and cartons of milk on lunch trays, just a half-hour before a graduation celebration.
"I'll be right down," Vang called to them as she headed to her office as assistant principal at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School on St. Paul's East Side.
Not everyone knows it, but fifth grade was a turning point for Vang as a child, the first step in a path that will take her next fall to a new assignment as principal at Mississippi Creative Arts School.
Be Vang, in many ways, represents the present and future of St. Paul public schools.
On Monday, she closed out a year as assistant principal, the last of three during which she learned the administrative ropes while discussing issues of leadership and race — hot topics in a district committed to erasing achievement disparities through sometimes bold self-examination — with friend and mentor Deborah Shipp, a veteran St. Paul schools administrator who is black.
At Mississippi Creative Arts, Vang said, she brings skills she is proud of as well as a desire to contribute, specifically, "as a Hmong person."
She embraces the role as an inspiration to Hmong-American children in a district with few other high-ranking Hmong-American administrators. This despite the fact Asians constitute the district's largest ethnic group and the district loses hundreds of Hmong-American children annually to two charter schools that district proponents acknowledge have stronger personal connections with local families.
District leaders, however, see Vang as an educator on the rise.
"I think that her track record speaks for itself," Marsha Baisch, assistant superintendent in charge of leadership development, said last fall. "She's someone who's an aspiring — and inspiring — leader."
This year, when the time came to apply for a principal's position, a process in which there are no guarantees where one might land, Andrew Collins, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, told Vang, "You're ready."
She had better be. She's giving away some of the tools of her trade.
Growing up in Banning, Calif., Vang was an English Language Learner (ELL) in classes with Hmong- and Mexican-American students. When fifth grade began, however, she found herself in a class dominated by white children — and just two other Hmong-American students — unaware she'd been deemed to be a strong enough English speaker to be taken out of the ELL class.
Still, she was quiet, until the day her teacher noticed her on the playground.
"You know, Be Vang, you have this thing about you," she remembers him telling her. "You're loud, you're strong, you command these little Hmong boys to do things. That's what I need in the classroom. You are going to speak up. I am going to hear your voice."
Had that not happened, she said, she wonders where she might be today.
There, in Vang's view, was a teacher — whether he was racially conscious or not — who looked past the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl and drew out her confidence.
The central message there for educators is: "Get to know your kids," she says.
In her office, where she often must deal with discipline matters, there are signs, a poster here and placard there, declaring the district's goal of erasing race-based inequities.
When not in the office, Vang is in classrooms, observing or meeting with teachers on professional development matters.
She had been content to stay at Phalen Lake for another year. But she looks forward to being at Mississippi Creative Arts, a smaller North End area school serving preschoolers to fifth-graders in which 52 percent of students are Asian. As a teacher in the district for 11 years, she had helped weave Hmong folk tales into a school's curriculum. She has taught Hmong dance, too.
Gary Kwong, vice chairman of Hmong National Development Inc., a subsidiary of the Hmong American Partnership, said he was encouraged to see a Hmong leader at a school not focused on Hmong culture.
But for Hmong-American students, as they look for role models in their community, he said, he believes the district ought to elevate Hmong educators to principal positions at middle schools and high schools, too. This year, St. Paul had three Hmong principals, all at elementary schools.
"You need a critical mass at each level … [for people] to know the whole system can work for us," Kwong said.
Said Chue Vue, the school board's lone Hmong-American member, "I'm really excited and I believe she'll do a great job. It's a positive step for our Asian community. I will work to [lift numbers] not only at schools, but in higher leadership, too."
In the corner of her office, Vang has boxes of books from her years as a teacher. Atop one stack sat "Teaching with Folk Stories of the Hmong." Three years ago, when she first became an administrative intern, her husband suggested she get rid of them. But, she replied, what if she didn't like administrative work?
Recently, she moved the boxes from home, and made the books available to teachers.
"No going back, right?" she said firmly, and with a smile.