-- May Lee Xiong has never forgotten the day she told her third-grade class that she had seven brothers and three sisters.

"My teacher said, 'Oh, my God, that's such a big family,' and I was so ashamed," Xiong recalled. "And I just never wanted to talk about my family again."

Back then, the 9-year-old who had come to St. Paul from a Thailand refugee camp tried hard to fit in with her schoolmates. Asked what her family liked to eat, she wrote down pizza instead of sticky rice with eggs.

Two decades later, Xiong is giving a new wave of young Hmong immigrants a different school experience, teaching in a new one-year program tailored for students who often have arrived from refugee camps with no English and little other schooling.

The Transitional Language Centers, begun last fall and now in four St. Paul elementary schools, draw on the children's past while preparing them for regular classroom learning.

Students practice writing their names in Hmong, Thai and English, and they learn geography by creating three-dimensional maps of their old refugee camp.

"They are benefiting from the lessons the schools learned from our generation," Xiong said.

Xiong arrived in 1979 as the ethnic Hmong minority began migrating to the United States in large numbers, having fled Laos after the Communists seized control in 1975.

She and the two other Hmong students her age often got pulled out of class to learn English, she said, while her older siblings were thrown into regular classrooms though they spoke little English.

St. Paul's Hmong community took root as new arrivals joined the immigrants who were first welcomed to Minnesota by church-based refugee groups, and it continues to grow.

Since last fall, more than 1,000 Hmong students have joined the St. Paul school district in the latest federal resettlement program, and about 26 percent of the students enrolled in St. Paul public schools are Hmong -- the nation's highest concentration, said Valeria Silva, director of the district's English Language Learner programs.

St. Paul schools are trying to keep up. Teachers are given guidance in Hmong culture and are supplied with Hmong picture dictionaries. Among teachers the district hired this school year, 11 percent are Asian, mostly Hmong. Overall, 5 percent of the district's teachers are of Asian descent, up from 1 percent in 1990.

Xiong's school, Phalen Lake Elementary, has 17 Hmong staffers, from teachers to education assistants to nurses.

For the Transitional Learning Center, she and her teaching partner created a curriculum quite apart from anything Xiong learned in college.

Her fifth- and sixth-graders respond to questions in a mix of English and Hmong. Although some had years of schooling in Thailand, others could not tell the difference between a letter, a word and a sentence.

"They are not at fifth-grade level reading, fifth-grade-level writing, not fifth-grade level anything," Xiong said.

But many have determination. Twelve-year-old Mai Vang Xiong, who hopes to be a doctor, has been learning to read and write English since arriving with her family nine months ago.

"Studying English is the future, the job future," the girl said.

May Lee Xiong said her students need only a few years to become fluent, but there are cultural challenges they will always face.

She remembers worrying all through high school about choosing a college and how to pay for it. Her parents did not have any similar experiences to draw on, and this generation of learners will face similar challenges. So she often accompanies her academic lessons with life advice.

"You guys are learning more than your parents, and you are going to be the leaders," she tells them. "And that's okay. You just need to be strong."