Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

New High School Marks Growth of Hmong Community

Governor, MPS Superintendent join trailblazing HAPA founder Chris Her-Xiong for ribbon cutting.

By - Oct 22nd, 2021 04:49 pm
HAPA CEO Chris Her-Xiong (right) leads Governor Tony Evers and MPS Superintendent Keith Posley on a tour of HAPA's new high school. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

HAPA CEO Chris Her-Xiong (right) leads Governor Tony Evers and MPS Superintendent Keith Posley on a tour of HAPA’s new high school. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Friday was a big day for Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA) founder and CEO Chris Her-Xiong.

“I have been dreaming about this for 17 years,” she told Governor Tony Evers and Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Keith P. Posley as she gave the officials a tour of HAPA’s new high school.

She’s actually been thinking about education for much longer. “HAPA began as the dream of a 10-year-old girl fleeing Laos,” she told the audience in attendance for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Her family had fought alongside the United States in an anti-communist effort, leading to them and many others fleeing in 1975.

The school became a reality in 2004, and ultimately grew to include kindergarten through 12th grade at three separate campuses. Now, the nonprofit charter school is working to build new facilities to consolidate at one site.

The three-story, 99,000-square-foot high school building is attached to HAPA’s middle school, a former MPS building, at 4601 N. 84th St.

The new high school was built to house 900 students, though it only has 450 today. But those students are coming.

“Our largest enrollment is in the primary grades,” said Her-Xiong.

The new facility has 38 classrooms and a 16,000-square-foot gymnasium with seating for 600. It’s the first time the school has had its own WIAA-approved gymnasium, allowing it to expand the sports it offers alongside its highly-competitive soccer team.

A number of auxiliary spaces are built into the new high school, including a Hmong history museum inside a multi-purpose resource center as well as a dedicated space for teachers. “We decided we needed a dedicated space for our teachers to do professional development,” said Her-Xiong.

A state-of-the-art computer lab allows the school to teach multiple AP computer science courses.

Her-Xiong said the facility enables a “truly 21st century education,” but the school’s goals go far beyond that for its pupils.

That starts with making sure everyone shows up. “Our daily attendance is about 95%,” she said.

The 2021 graduating class had a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate. Students earned a record $2.7 million in scholarships. The school reports that 95% of its students are “economically disadvantaged.”

HAPA is strongly supported by Evers and Posley.

“You truly make all of us MPS proud,” said Posley. The district charters the school as a non-instrumentality, so its teachers are not MPS employees but it is authorized as a public school. Her-Xiong taught for MPS before starting the school.

She met Evers within a year of starting the school as he served as deputy superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction. Alongside other educators, she served as an ambassador through the Fulbright Program for Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. They traveled together to the Mekong River, which Her-Xiong once fled across.

“I still do remember taking that bus ride up to the Mekong River,” said Evers. He praised the Hmong community’s adoption of Wisconsin.

“Not only does this institution exhibit praiseworthy commitment to academic achievement, but as the first of its kind in Wisconsin the school instills a meaningful sense of cultural pride and understanding in its students,” he said.

“For the students, the new school is a concrete reminder that the community is invested in their success,” said Evers. “This is a state-of-the-art school.”

Senior student Susan Thao, fourth in line to be valedictorian despite having a 4.0-grade point average, said the school afforded opportunities for her and her classmates. “This building signifies growth and prosperity,” she said.

Thao said she was inspired when Her-Xiong told her class at their 8th grade graduation that they would be the first to graduate from the new facility.

That revelation drew laughter from board president Jason Handal, a Northwestern Mutual executive. “We approved it long after that,” he said. Construction began in 2020. The approximately $30 million facility relies on bond financing, avoiding the need for a lengthy fundraising process. He praised all involved for pushing ahead during the pandemic, which paid dividends by avoiding supply chain issues and having a building available when students returned to in-person learning after 18 months apart.

“We are not done, but this moment is really a big part of the achievement of our vision,” said Handal. The facility has a deliberate focus on college and career preparation, including a college counseling center.

Outdoor athletic facilities and a handful of other elements remain to be completed as part of the high school project. A final phase would involve the development of an elementary school on the site.

The City of Milwaukee is a partner in the project in a first-of-its-kind arrangement. Travaux, an arm of the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, served as the owner’s representative on the project. The entity provided development expertise and guided the relationship between HAPA, general contractor VJS Construction Services and architecture firm Continuum Architects + Planners.

HAPA acquired the former Morse Middle School property for $2.77 million in 2017 after leasing it for multiple years. It continues to operate a satellite campus out of the former Happy Hill Elementary School, 7171 W. Brown Deer Rd.

Photos

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