Appleton school board approves charter for new Hmong immersion school. The next step? Funding.

This story has been updated.

APPLETON - During a special meeting Wednesday morning, the Appleton Area School Board unanimously approved a charter for a new school focused on Hmong language and culture — if the school can secure a grant from the state Department of Public Instruction.

The district won't be able to open the school without the money "up front," said superintendent Greg Hartjes. Typically, the DPI grant applications open in October and provide between $1 million and $1.5 million over five years. While the district is "very hopeful" the Hmong immersion school will receive the grant, he said, the district won't know whether the school can open until later this spring.

Hmong American Immersion School would teach core subjects alongside Hmong language and culture

If the grant is secured, the school, called Hmong American Immersion School, has a planned opening for fall 2025. The abbreviation for the school, HAIS, has a double meaning: the word, pronounced similar to "hi," means "to speak" in the Hmong language and represents "using our voices to positively impact change in our community," according to the charter.

The school would start by offering grades 4K to three, eventually expanding to fourth and fifth grades. While HAIS would teach core subjects like math, science and reading in English, the school also plans to teach Hmong language classes and integrate Hmong history and culture in music, physical education and art. The school would also focus on community engagement, social-emotional learning and social justice.

According to the charter, the school hopes to increase its students' reading and math achievements, English language proficiency and knowledge of Hmong language, history and culture. Beyond academic achievements, HAIS's charter also stated goals of increasing its students' sense of belonging in their school and improving student-teacher relationships.

A member of the charter school's planning team, Johnston Elementary School principal MaiKou Heu, said the school could also help close one important achievement gap Hmong students face. While she said Hmong high school students had one of the highest graduation rates, they had the lowest rates in post-secondary enrollment.

Heu is confident the school could succeed if given the chance. She said a survey of Hmong families showed a high level of interest in a Hmong-focused charter school, and she described the governing board as "very strong group of individuals ... with a wide variety of experiences and lenses."

Hmong immersion school would be the 15th AASD charter school to open

HAIS would be the 15th charter school in the Appleton Area School District after The Ọmọladé Academy opens this fall. As a charter school, HAIS is a public school and must be open to all students.

However, charter schools are more flexible and autonomous in how they operate. They operate under a charter, or contract, between the school's operator and the public school board. Often, they're hosted in an existing public school building.

"Not every educational system is set up for everyone to be successful," Heu said, but the school district's authorization of the charter shows the community is "willing to look outside the traditional school setting" to help underserved students and English-language learners.

But until they hear word on whether they receive the grant, Heu said the governing board is "anxiously waiting for the news so that we can move forward."

More: Here's what charter schools are and how they work in Wisconsin

HAIS's charter didn't name a host school, but a Feb. 12 presentation to the board anticipated serving about 150 students from 4K to third grade in the 2025-26 school year, growing to about 250 4K to fifth-grade students by the 2027-28 school year.

The executive team for HAIS includes Pa Lee Moua, executive director of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Schreiber Institute for Women's Leadership, former AASD administrator Bill Curtis, and current AASD school parent Sam Lee.

Rebecca Loroff is an education reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. Contact her with story tips and feedback at 920-907-7801 or Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @RebeccaLoroff.

This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Appleton school board approves charter for Hmong immersion school