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Bounthavy Kiatoukaysy loved hearing her late father speak Hmong, describing it as "music to the ears," and for years it's driven her dedication to teach the language to others.

She has written books in what she describes as her "mother tongue" and shared her expertise with colleagues at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet on St. Paul's East Side.

Last week, Kiatoukaysy was recognized by St. Paul Public Schools leaders after being named teacher of the year by the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Cultures. Keeping the language alive is a major motivation for her.

"Bounthavy understands the profound loss that a community experiences when a language dies, and she has worked tirelessly to preserve the Hmong language at all levels for well over three decades," said Phalen Lake Principal May Lee Xiong.

Kiatoukaysy was among the first Hmong language teachers at Phalen Lake, which is noted for its work in creating a positive school culture and has proved to be a bright spot for the state's second-largest district on the enrollment front.

This fall, the school succeeded in drawing 82% of students from a shuttered Hmong dual language program at Jackson Elementary in Frogtown and saw total enrollment rise to 662 students — 68 more than projected last spring.

Xiong said in nearly 50 years of life in the U.S., the Hmong community has witnessed a significant language loss in the second and third generations. District parents successfully lobbied for programs that would reconnect kids with their words and culture, and Kiatoukaysy came up with creative ways to spark interest, she added.

"To hear Bounthavy tell a story is to see it come to life," Xiong said, citing her ability to merge traditionally rich verbal practices with modern teaching strategies.

Kiatoukaysy told district leaders that as a little girl she would listen to her father, Lao Vachong Kiatoukaysy, and she noticed the care he took with his speech, likening his words to a bucket of water from which she did not want to lose a drop.

"I want to use the wisdom and legacy of my father to give the Hmong language to future generations," she said.

The lessons have hit home.

As a mother of seven children, Kiatoukaysy said, she saw her middle children lose touch with the Hmong language. But her youngest child, she said, was able to learn and speak it after the district added the dual language program.

"I love listening to her speak Hmong," she said. "I love her way of looking at things and thinking in two different ways."

Even so, Kiatoukaysy is diligent in making sure her daughter continues to use it and works hard at it, for even though she has that dual language ability now, "she can easily lose it," she said.