Courage Under Adversity

Many folks will give up in times of extreme hardship. It doesn’t take much for us to break under pressure, or to let go and sink into a lake of hopelessness when we are burdened with financial instability and responsibilities that stretch beyond our familial obligations. But only the few like Lee Yang and his wife, Bao Moua, have been molded by their own life obstacles into examples of rare endurance and leadership – their story nothing short of triumph and greatness.

Lee Yang is currently director III of Sacramento City Unified School District’s (SCUSD) Multilingual Literacy Department. Bao Moua is principal of Clayton B. Wire Elementary School. The two have come a long way to arrive at where they are now. Lee is from a family of ten children. Bao comes from a family of nine children. Both are the oldest of their siblings, which means there was a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders growing up.

“What doesn’t break you will make you,” the couple says as they reveal to Txhawb their journey from poverty to success. After some twenty years of self-discipline and unbroken determination – especially in the upbringing of their own children and extended family members, as well as in their continuous leadership work for SCUSD – they can now humbly say, “It is how you finish that matters.”

Hard Times
“We had gotten married right after high school,” Lee reveals. “We were living in a one bedroom apartment across from my parents and my nine siblings who all lived in a two-bedroom. Like most poor parents, mine often fought and were on the verge of divorce because there wasn’t enough money. Bao and I, being the oldest children, had to be responsible for my extended family. As students we had to worry financially about our schooling as well as whatever my extended family members needed.”

“We suffered,” says Bao. “All of us lived off of 600 hundred dollars a month.”

“I tell you, there wasn’t much partying for Bao and me,” Lee adds, jokingly. He recalls how the only time they had any meat to eat was when Bao’s parents held traditional feasts and gave them a slab of beef or pork. Most of the time, they lived meagerly on rice with water and cherry tomatoes crushed with chili peppers. “Looking back on it, we actually ate healthy – but of course it wasn’t a choice.”

“We also qualified for WIC then,” says Bao. “So that helped feed our babies.”

Lee drove a one thousand dollar Toyota corolla consisted of parts he and his father-in-law had retrieved from junkyards. Later his father-in-law would give Lee and Bao a station wagon. But the vehicle had a bad carburetor, and on cold days the engine would stall at stoplights. If Bao (who was pregnant at the time) was driving the car, she’d have to get out, open the car’s hood, stick a pencil into the carburetor, go back into the car and turn on the ignition, go back outside and take the pencil out and close the hood, all before driving away. A friend eventually gave Lee his dodge challenger, which had a loose muffler that would fall off every time the car went over a bump. He drove that vehicle until he finished school and began teaching. They didn’t buy their first brand new car until 1998.

But the greatest challenge for Lee and Bao occurred when Lee’s father died. Lee was 29 years old. His mother had decided to remarry and left behind her nine children. Lee and Bao took them into their three – bedroom home where they all lived off of Lee’s teacher’s salary, which was only four thousand dollars a month. Three years after Lee’s father’s death, Bao’s father also passed away, leaving behind eight of her siblings in their care.

“We were now responsible for the well-being of all the children from our two extended families, including our own kids,” says Lee. “I quickly developed high-blood pressure.”

The couple would struggle greatly through the following years. Despite the family deaths and financial challenges that came with raising a large family, Lee and Bao still found the spirit to endure and persist toward their career goals.

“We had become parents for everyone,” Lee says. “In the end, we even paid the bride price for each of my brothers’ wives. Everything fell on our shoulders.”

Education and Teaching
When they were married, Bao held shifts at K-Mart and attended Sacramento City College. Lee, on the other hand, had enrolled at Sacramento State University and worked as a store clerk. Although he was a student, he had spent years as an undeclared major, roaming from class to class without a real plan. “A high school teacher had informed me that if I didn’t know what to do with my life, I should keep staying in school until I figured it out,” says Lee, smiling. “I ended up taking all kinds of classes, including courses in piano and guitar to taekwondo and karate – all the easy classes I could get A’s in. But I had debts to pay. I had a family to feed. It wasn’t until I met a counselor who advised me to finish as a liberal arts major – which was the fastest way for me to get out of school – that I finally had an academic goal to pursue.”

Lee received his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in 1993. In 1994, he completed his credentials and began teaching. After seven years of teaching, Lee returned to school and received his master’s degree in education leadership. By then, he had already left a vice principal position at Pacific Elementary School and had assumed the role of principal at Freeport Elementary School in Sacramento. Within the first decade of the millennium, Lee would climb up the ladder of success by serving as principal for William Land Elementary School; then administrator for the Curriculum & Professional Development Support; then director III for the Multilingual/Multicultural, Equity, Access and Achievement Department; and finally, as director III of the Multilingual Literacy Department.

In 1997, Bao also finished her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies after having transferred to Sacramento State University. She taught for five years at Pacific Elementary School until she took on the assistant principal position for another eight years. “Eventually, I realized that I knew how to run a school by myself,” says Bao. “I carried out all the principal’s duties and responsibilities. It was only a decision away to officially become one.” She recently assumed that position at Clayton B. Wire Elementary in August of this year.

Making Changes as a Leader
In 2002, after having worked for two years as vice principal at Pacific Elementary School, Lee applied for two open principal positions in the district: one at Huber H. Bancroft Elementary School, located in a middle-class area; the other at Freeport Elementary School, located in an area of low socioeconomic status and high poverty. Surprisingly, both those schools had selected Lee as their primary candidate.

“I was called in and had to choose between the two,” Lee recalls. “Two superintendant assistants asked me for my honest answer. I knew that Bancroft Elementary had systems in place already, and that I would just go in and maintain what was already there. Freeport Elementary, on the other hand, had had a multitude of interim principals going in and out because of the extreme challenges each had faced in running the school. Twenty-five percent of the students at Freeport were Hmong. With my experiences and background, I felt that I could relate to Freeport. I told myself that such a school could make or break me. If I could survive in an economically tough environment, I could prove that I was a good principal. In the end, I made my decision to go with Freeport.” Lee started the position without a vice principal. He would be at school from sunrise to sundown. “I worked hard supporting the teachers, implementing afterschool programs since there were none, getting the community to be involved, and within two years our API (Academic Performance Index) was at its highest level ever.” In two years Lee would take on another challenge as principal of William Land Elementary School. “There were only two Hmong students at this school, and I wanted to prove that I was good at running any school in the district.” Within a few years, Lee and the staff at William Land would help its students achieve the highest API scores in all of SCUSD.

Lee’s leadership successes have led him to become director III of the Multilingual Literacy Department, a position overseeing the entire district. He plans, organizes, controls, and directs a variety of programs, projects, and activities related to multilingual education, including federal and state projects related to Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. He also provides effective leadership, technical assistance and training, and compliance monitoring to maximize student achievement, and create a more equitable educational system for all students.

What Lee and Bao find most rewarding about their careers is trying to find answers for the hard daily questions posed by students, parents, and teachers. They enjoy the challenge of getting everyone involved to work in unison toward a positive change. The payoff is knowing that through everyone’s diligent efforts, relationships between staff and parents are strong and student academic performances are in good standing.

What We Can Do
“There is still much we need to do,” says Lee when asked about how the Hmong community can grow within the education system. “In a parent and child relationship, you must be attentive to your child’s education. You need to spend time with them at home on the subjects they need help in. You can do this while you’re cooking dinner, and it might only take ten minutes a day. That’s enough to make a change in your child’s learning and performance at school. A lot of working parents need to divide some time and patience for their children’s educational growth.”

“In regards to our Hmong parents who cannot speak English, the simple gesture of showing interest in your child’s education can make a huge difference,” says Bao. “By attending campus events or conferences, you show your child that you care about their schooling. This motivates children to perform better as students. When parents do not participate in school engagements, children lose interest in their education.”

“There’s the old Hmong saying: Don’t do what I do, but do what I say,” Lee adds, smiling. “This doesn’t work. You have to be what you want your child to be. During meetings, when I ask Hmong parents if they have any concerns or questions, no one really raises their hand. Our Hmong parents need to not be so afraid to share their thoughts and opinions. If you want your child to speak more in school, you have to speak more as a parent – you have to raise your hand too. Be the role model. We as parents also need to be more positive toward our kids. Sometimes we need to step back and, instead of yelling at them or trying to point out what they did wrong, we need to encourage them in what they are doing correctly. We need to nurture them.”

Letting Struggle Shape Us
As educational leaders, Lee Yang and Bao Moua have much on their shoulders. But they handle their work with great passion, diligence, and confidence. “We’ve been through a lot of obstacles,” Bao says. “Our past experiences have prepared us well for the responsibilities we now have in our careers. What we currently do cannot compare to what we had to do in order to survive those harsh years of poverty and raising a large family.”

“My first words in this country were: I don’t know,” says Lee, laughing as he recalls his early days in America. “If I, a person from the mountains of Laos, can become who I am now, what does that say? We can become anyone we want to be in America! What people need to know, especially our younger generation, is that we shouldn’t let our current condition get the best of us. Things happen for a reason – even bad things. Be responsible. Set goals. Seek guidance. Work hard. Most of all, learn to love one another. Despite any suffering, be happy – because you are meant for something special.”