Vang Pao Elementary School

General Vang Pao’s passing on January 6, 2011 marked an end to a chapter for the Hmong, but this loss brings with it an opportunity for growth, and new possibilities are created for future generations. On August 20, 2012 the first school in the United States to be named after a key leader in the history of the Hmong people, General Vang Pao Elementary, opened its doors in Fresno, California. The school is equipped with the latest technologies to best help teachers effectively teach and engage students.

The dedication ceremony, held on the school’s campus on September 8, 2012, showcased the life, impact, and vision of Vang Pao. Over 700 members from the community were in attendance, including students, parents, staff, and school and city officials. Vang Pao Elementary School’s principal, Teresa Calderon, opened the ceremony with a warm welcome speech. Among those invited to speak was Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson, who expressed his pleasure to be able to “honor a man who was a genuine hero”.

Vang Pao Elementary School

The faculty, students, and members of Vang Pao’s family in attendance wore shirts printed by the General Vang Pao Project bearing the words, “Education is the key to success.” Retired Fresno Unified School board member, Dr. Tony Vang thanked General Vang Pao for having instilled in him the appreciation of education that has led to his own successes and achievements.

“I would not be standing here today if it wasn’t for the general’s foresight. He {General Vang Pao} recognized that education would pull his people from poverty.”

Susan Vang, a sixth grader at Vang Pao Elementary talks excitedly about her new school with fellow classmates. When asked if she knew who VangPao was, she replies, “He’s the one that helped us come here,” smiling, as she continues on handing out pamphlets to attendees of the dedication ceremony. This short response encapsulates with it the origins of the Hmong American experience. As demonstrated by Susan’s response, having the school named after Vang Pao not only commemorates a great individual, it acknowledges all the lives lost during the United States’ Secret War in Laos, as well as the Hmong refugee and diaspora experiences. It also serves as an heirloom our generation leaves for the generations to follow.

Having the name “Vang Pao” attached to a school represents more than just the recognition and honoring of an individual. The name, itself, has come to take on a life and meaning of its own that is separate from the individual himself. It had come to represent: the life line for those whose lives were displaced during the civil war in Laos during the early 50s, lasting until the mid 70s; the glimmering light of hope for families to immigrate to a new country for a better future; the pathway for parents to give their children an education that they can only dreamed of; the identity youths have come to question, asking “Who is General Vang Pao and why was he revered as such a great leader to so many people”; and an end to a chapter where a new one beings. The steps that were taken to get a school named after General Vang Pao exemplifies the strength of the Hmong community and its progress in bridging the generational gap lies, not just within the Hmong community, but within all immigrant communities.

Fellow Ching Yang, a volunteer for the ceremony stated that, “It is a plus for the community and definitely brings us a step forward”. Individuals, supporters and family members of General Vang Pao had gathered over 10,000 signatures in support of the naming of the school after the late general. It was the first time Fresno Unified School District had signatures of support in the naming of a school campus.

As the governing board continued to reduce the names to the top ten appropriate community figures, at last General Vang Pao’s name made it, but it was on the very bottom of that list.

On February 8, 2011 a Fresno Unified School District board meeting was underway. Emotions were high that night as the board members were voting on the final name to be chosen for the new elementary school in Southeast Fresno. Numerous community individuals arrived in support of the naming.

When the Fresno Unified School Board opened to the community the suggestions of names to name a newly built elementary school in southeast Fresno, there were 116 names nominated; One of them being Vang Pao. When the list was cut down to the top ten names, Vang Pao was on the very bottom of the list. On the day which the school board would be deciding which one of the ten names would be used to name the newly built school, hundreds of people went to the school board meeting in support for naming the school after General Vang Pao. There were a total of 19 community members, ranging from business owners, community organizers, and elected offices who spoke in front of the board expressing their support for the naming of the school after General Vang Pao.

One in particular was a male Hmong high school student who expressed to the school board that even though he did not personally know who General Vang Pao was or what he have accomplished, he is able to feel the impact that Vang Pao have had on the Hmong community. After all the community members addressed their support, the Fresno Unified School Board unanimously voted in favor to name the newly built school in Southeast Elementary School as Vang Pao Elementary School.

Fresno Unified School District’s Superintendent Michael Hanson stated that he was honored to have elective officials; businesses and community present the district with over 10,000 names in support of naming the Southeast School after the late General Vang Pao and stated, “This pending action tonight should be viewed as a sign of the district’s recognition of the Hmong community of decade’s long march towards full and complete respect and admiration by our larger community.”

The naming of Vang Pao Elementary after a Hmong person represents a historical accomplishment for Hmong Americans.

It represents the efforts of so many people from within the Hmong community and Fresno community as well. It is a historic accomplishment that belongs to the whole community. With the beginning of a new chapter, that has yet to be written, for Hmong Americans, what accomplishments and stories do we want to tell and leave behind for future generations to listen, inspire, and learn from as we continue our journey forward?