Nearly two decades ago, lifelong educator Choua Lee Yang had the ambitious idea to start a new school.
In 2004, Yang and her husband, Cha Ger Yang, founded the Prairie Seeds Academy, a Hmong charter school in Brooklyn Park. Its mission: to educate future generations of inspired global leaders. The school now has more than 800 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.
Yang’s journey was cut tragically short Friday, when the Blaine resident died following a monthlong battle with COVID-19 — one of 2,144 Minnesotans to succumb to the virus. She was 53.
“She was so truly loved,” said her daughter, Crystal Yang, of Albertville. “Teaching was her true passion.”
Yang’s own experience as a Hmong refugee — arriving in America when she was 12 years old — may have informed her future path. Her daughter says she understood what it meant to balance a new world with the old, and the importance of extending a kind hand to others.
“There were thousands and thousands of people she helped,” said Brody Derks, a teacher at Prairie Seeds Academy. “She treated everyone as family.”
Yang was at least the second high-profile Hmong educator in Minnesota to die from COVID-19. In June, Marny Xiong, chairwoman of the St. Paul school board and a rising star in education, became the first elected official in the state to die of the coronavirus.
Of the 113,439 known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota, about 5% have occurred among the state’s Asian population, according to data compiled by the state Health Department.
However, the state doesn’t track detailed ethnic data on the virus, so it’s difficult to know how pervasive the outbreak has been in the Hmong community.
Born on Oct. 30, 1966, in Laos, Yang came to the United States in 1978, settling in Syracuse, N.Y., and then in Pennsylvania, after marrying in 1985.
The family later moved to Menomonie, Wis., while Yang pursued an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Yang moved to Minnesota in 1995.
Yang also earned advanced degrees from Saint Mary’s University, the University of St. Thomas and Hamline University.
She began teaching in 1996 as a bilingual Social Studies and Hmong Literacy teacher at Folwell Middle School in Minneapolis, before becoming a Project Coordinator at Jenny Lind Elementary School. She was named principal of the St. Paul Family Learning Center in 2006.
Yang returned to Minneapolis Public Schools as the assistant principal at North High School and then as the English Language Learner director at the school’s central office, overseeing more than 90 sites throughout the city.
Yang moved to the Prairie Seeds Academy in 2008 as its principal and was named chief executive this year.
Social studies teacher Chelsea Roering said Prairie Seeds has a close-knit community of students and staff that stems from Yang’s commitment. “Everyone really looked up to her, she always was leading and teaching from the heart,” she said.
Prairie Seeds resorted to distance learning during the pandemic. Yang experienced mild COVID-19 symptoms in August, before being hospitalized in mid-September.
“Choua loved life,” the school said in a statement. “While life presented challenges and obstacles, she embraced it with a smile and always trusted that everything happened for a reason. Her entire life was dedicated to serving others. She lifted us with her humor and high spirits and was a constant light during troubled times.”
In addition to her husband and daughter, Yang is survived by daughter Amber Yang, of Brooklyn Center; sons Timothy Yang, of Minneapolis, Jonathan Yang, of St. Michael, and Mychael Yang, of Blaine; and 14 grandchildren.
Visitation for the family will be held 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Kozlak-Radulovich Funeral Chapel in Blaine on Oct. 25, followed by public visitation from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Another visitation will be held from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Oct. 26, with interment following at Hillside Cemetery.
The family has started a GoFundMe campaign to help with funeral expenses.