The word is out in north Minneapolis' Hmong community: Hopkins is the place to go.
Last fall, 39 Hmong students transferred to the Hopkins School District, making it the largest single migration of Hmong students under the state's Choice is Yours program, a voluntary desegregation program for Minneapolis students.
This year, more than 40 students applied to join them. But Hopkins has admitted only 10 students so far. It's a change from last year, when almost every student who applied by the deadline was accepted, said Minneapolis neighborhood organizer Jay Clark. This year most of the students applied on time.
"Other parents have met these kids, and they're amazed at how fast they're learning English," Clark said. At this point, many families are waiting in the hope that more students will be admitted later.
Hopkins is one of several school districts in the Choice is Yours program that are closing some classrooms to nonresidents based on capacity limits. Hopkins High is closed to non-resident enrollment because it's reached 75 percent capacity, but elementary and junior high schools have openings at some grade levels.
Edina and Richfield are also closed to nonresidents at certain grade levels. But the Hopkins situation is unusual because of its impact on the close-knit north Minneapolis Hmong community.
The students' language needs do not figure into the decision, Hopkins Assistant Superintendent Nik Lightfoot said. Non-resident enrollment applications don't ask if students need English language learner (ELL) services.
"Hopkins has a long-standing tradition with the Choice is Yours program and is committed to continuing its participation," Lightfoot said.
Hopkins doesn't have final numbers on how many open-enrollment students it accepted, but Lightfoot said the district took students with siblings at Hopkins schools but placed others on a waiting list. It still might accept more in the near future.
"It's still early. We haven't had a chance yet to balance out our numbers yet," he said.
Based on Choice is Yours guidelines, suburban school districts that participate in the program -- Columbia Heights, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, Robbinsdale, St. Anthony, St. Louis Park, Wayzata and Eden Prairie -- must admit low-income Minneapolis students if they have available space.
Recently, 10 of the Hmong students who attend Hopkins North Junior High met at a coffee house and drank smoothies as they reflected on the past six months.
"I'm getting English," said 14-year-old Chang Yang, and "I'm learning it faster."
Most of the Hmong students' families immigrated to the United States four or five years ago after living in refugee camps in Thailand.
The students said their first days in Hopkins were intimidating because they only knew each other. But that's gotten easier, said 13-year-old Yue Vang. His sister, Kaoxue Vang, 15, said she's spent time at one new classmate's home. Other students play intramural badminton after school.
Clark and Gaohnou Vang, another neighborhood activist, said the students chose Hopkins because there they're allowed to take more mainstream classes than at their previous schools. The students said it's part of their attraction to Hopkins, but it's also a challenge.
"Based on what we hear from the students and their parents through interpreters, everything is going well," said Scott Endo, Hopkins' secondary ELL coordinator.
Somali- and Spanish-speaking students make up about 60 percent of the more than 380 Hopkins students who receive ELL services, Endo said. Since adding the Hmong students, Hopkins has adjusted its mainstream and ELL programs, but the district doesn't have a Hmong-speaking staff member, Endo said. Hopkins does plan to hire an interpreter to assist Hmong families.
According to the state Department of Education, more than 2,000 Minneapolis students use the Choice is Yours program in nine suburban school districts. Recently, Minneapolis school officials pointed to lower test scores for Choice is Yours students to question whether they fare any better than their Minneapolis counterparts. But the Hmong students are confident they've made the right choice.
Their verdict on Hopkins so far: "It's a good school; they're very organized," Cha Yang, 15, said. "If you care about your education, it won't be that hard for you" to succeed there.
Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395