Making their way: Meet Lee, Deonte and Eric
Meet three more city high schoolers whose hopes and dreams for the future rest on good grades, family pride, community connections and believing in themselves.
Lee Pao Yang
Lee Pao Yang and his three siblings live in Kennedy Heights with their parents and grandparents, Hmong refugees from Thailand who escaped “the Secret War” in Laos in the late 1970s. Lee Pao’s a hardworking fourteen-year-old who, for a kid his age, has a deep respect for his mother and father. He says he’s grateful for how hard they work and that they’re the most supportive people in his life. As the first member of the Yang family to get an education, Lee Pao, a freshman at East High, has honored his parents’ commitment to him and his future by concentrating on his schoolwork and maintaining high grades. Last spring he graduated from Black Hawk Middle School with a 4.0 GPA.
According to Peng Her, assistant director at the Center for Resilient Cities, grade performance like Lee Pao’s is the exception among Madison’s Hmong youth. “In all of the Asian American categories, the Hmong are the ones who are not doing so well,” says Her. “They’ve got the lowest median income, college attendance, graduation rates, so in the Asian subcommunity they are struggling.”
While many Asian Americans excel in education, get good jobs and have low arrest, suspension and expulsion rates, Hmong children have a completely different cultural reference than Asian Americans like the Japanese or Chinese immigrants who’ve been assimilating to American culture for generations.
“What people don’t realize is the Hmong are people who were taken out of the jungle and put right into the twenty-first century,” he says. As a result, their barriers to success stem not only from cultural and language differences, but also the community’s lack of understanding of why the Hmong are even in the United States and their struggles.
As refugees in Thailand, the Yangs led transient lives with no schooling. In Thailand, Lee Pao’s father, Xy Yang, was a jewelry maker. Now he does assembly work at Electronic Theatre Controls in Middleton, where he’s paid $14.80 an hour, an increase from $9 when he started, plus he gets health care for his family. It’s a good job, he says, providing security, but it’s hard not being able to help his kids with homework. The despair Yang feels about his lack of education is evident when he talks about how important education is for Lee Pao and his siblings.
“I never had school, moved all of the time, don’t know English well, don’t know reading or writing. It’s my dream he has the chance,” says Yang. “He has to keep going. I pass the university, I see so many people, students downtown, and I feel bad for myself. I want my kids to work hard to go to school.”
At least for now, Lee Pao gets it. “My dad makes sure to remind us almost every day to keep on going to school, at the very least. It makes me feel good that I get a chance,” he says. “I also want to do good in school because they raised me and I want to pay them back somehow.”
The future doctor
The Boys and Girls Club of Dane County on Taft Street is solidly Deonte Seroy’s home base. He sits in the College Club room with education coordinator Allegra Chell-Lewis, one of two people he defines as his touchstones there. Deonte and Chell-Lewis exchange friendly banter, the kind that develops with trust between an adult and a youth. She skillfully guides him through the interview as he lays out the years that led him to that room.
Deonte’s been a member of the Boys and Girls Club since he was seven. He first attended during the summers he visited relatives from his home in Tomah, where he lived until fourth grade. That year he moved to Madison to live with his paternal aunt Gloria, after losing both his maternal aunt, who had raised him, and his mother, whom he lived with for a short time afterward, until she died, too. Both were lost to separate drug-related deaths.
Despite past adversity, Deonte has solid family and community support. Directly across the street from the BGC he can find his paternal grandmother and father, and he frequently does. His aunt Gloria, who parents him alone, keeps him on track. But it is clearly a joint effort—home, the Boys and Girls Club and school, where he lists his science, social studies and language arts teachers as those who helped him achieve a 3.0 GPA as a James C. Wright Middle School grad last fall.
“Deonte is an amazing kid,” says Jody Peters, his College Club tutor, whom he defines as his other touchstone there. “He’s funny, and dedicated to doing well in school, and after everything he’s been through he could have just as easily chosen drugs and alcohol, which is too common among kids that age from his socioeconomic background. Instead he chose College Club and making the very best of his situation.”
Every day after school, Deonte took a bus to BGC, where he ate dinner along with a hundred other kids, ninety percent of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch. Here he participated in activities like track and teen night, where he got to play basketball and use the computers, and received tutoring through the College Club program. Plus he was a junior peer tutor helping kids with science, his strong subject. And there’s no reason to doubt him when he says with an air of confidence that he’s going be a doctor. Despite a tough start, he now has all the right support to make that a reality.
The role model
Eric Armentea is about as poised as a fourteen-year-old boy gets. He shakes hands like a politician and moves through the stacks of the Goodman South Madison Library with confidence. He’s comfortable around books.
His daily life is as organized as his vision for the future. He tutors math, among other things, at Centro Hispano, a nonprofit that supports Latino families in Dane County. And as the son of a steadfast working-class Latino family, he digs in at home, too. While his mom cleaned houses and his dad roofed them, Eric spent every summer day watching his six-year-old sister, Julissa, in the apartment just off Fish Hatchery Road where Eric has lived his whole life. The two share a room and Eric shows no sign of wanting his own space. He says the room is divided equally; half his trophies and medals and soccer regalia, the other, her dolls and “little girl posters.”
His parents, Dario and Isabelle Armentea, both Mexican immigrants, leave the house early, so Eric prepares Julissa’s breakfast, reads her books or helps her with her writing. While he looks forward to having his parents come home, it’s not so he can bolt.
“My mom is usually happy when she gets home,” he says. “She talks to us while she cooks dinner. I get happy when my dad gets home, too, when everyone is home and we eat dinner together.”
Eric’s interest in television is limited to sports, like the World Cup. He’s a competitive Madison FC soccer player and hopes to play for a college team, but not on a free pass unless he’s earned it academically. He’s a solidly committed student, having graduated with a 3.5 GPA from James C. Wright Middle School, where he worked hard and learned study skills through the AVID program. As a freshman at West High School he has a rigorous schedule. He’s one of thirty Madison students selected for the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Information Technology Academy, a program that provides services to kids of color to increase their enrollment, retention and graduation rates at the Madison campus. If he completes this four-year program, he’ll get a free ride there. Eric is determined to get there.
Not having a parent or family member to model the college process could easily be a barrier to Eric’s academic success. But according to Sara Winter, his AVID teacher/coordinator, this isn’t holding him back. “It’s sometimes difficult to engage the class, to get one kid to volunteer, but Eric was always on point. I knew I could depend on a few students to take a leadership role, and Eric was one of them,” says Winters. “He was able to recognize where there were opportunities and always willing to take them.”
Eric’s respect for his parents has nothing to do with diplomas or higher education; it’s about their dedication to him. “When I see my parents do hard work and put a lot of hours into their work, it makes me think I have to do the same for them,” says Eric. “Also, I want a good future for me, my wife and my kids. I don’t want to grow and be nobody. My mom always says I should grow and be somebody in life, so I have that mentality, I should be someone in life. I always keep that in mind.”
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