School & District Management

In L.A.’s Koreatown, A Relentless Focus on Schooling

By Robert C. Johnston — March 22, 2000 8 min read

The sidewalks in Koreatown are teeming with students leaving school on a Tuesday afternoon. Rather than heading home, though, many of the children are hauling their backpacks to private after-school programs for several more hours of schooling.

Those programs, run out of homes, storefronts, and churches, are so popular in the Korean-American community here that the Korean-language phone book lists about 300 of them. Many others are said to operate on a less formal basis.

J. Grace Yoon, the principal of Wilton Place Elementary School, estimates that 80 percent of the Korean-American children in her school attend after-school programs or have tutors. “Most parents want their children to get an education,” said Ms. Yoon, who was born in South Korea and immigrated here in the 1974. “But it’s not enough to get it in the school.”

People here say the practice is imported from Korea, where students rely on tutors and other supplemental education to win highly competitive spots in college. In the United States, the programs meet parental demands for a flexible, academically centered day care. “It’s part of the cultural identity of this town,” said Lloyd J. Houske, the principal of Cahuenga Elementary School in this tightly knit community near the center of the city. “There’s shopping and tutoring.”

While the population of this four-square-mile neighborhood is about 50 percent Hispanic, there is no comparable educational network run by and for Hispanics. And with Korean children typically outperforming their Hispanic classmates here, some say the after-school model—and the relentless focus on education that pervades the Korean-American community—offer strong lessons for those seeking to raise the academic performance of other minority groups.

“It’s like an ambience of learning that says education is important,” said Eugene H. Cota-Robles, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a co-chairman of the College Board’s National Task Force on Minority High Achievement, which sponsored a research project on the after-school programs. “The Latino community could learn a lot about that ambience.”

‘The Only Variable’

People of Korean ancestry make up about 10 percent of California’s roughly 4-million-strong Asian community, which in turn accounts for some 11 percent of the state’s population.

Koreatown has been the largest Korean community in the United States since its distinct ethnic flavor began taking hold in the early 1900s. Today, following a four-decade influx of Korean immigrants that began with changes in federal immigration laws in 1965, Koreatown covers several city blocks and is home to thousands of Korean-Americans. Many more come here daily to work, shop, and socialize.

The 1990 U.S. Census found that among Koreans age 25 or older, 55 percent had some college education, slightly ahead of the Asian-American and the U.S. populations as a whole, and most had held white-collar jobs in Korea before emigrating.

Such backgrounds would seem to preordain their children to academic success. On the other hand, Korean immigrants struggle with language differences and rarely hold the same white-collar jobs here. Still, Korean parents here maintain their deep reverence for education. In addition to being a cornerstone of centuries-old Confucian values, strong schooling historically has helped Koreans rise from the lower classes in their native country by preparing them for the exams needed to qualify for respected government jobs.

“Education is the only variable for success,” Ms. Yoon said. “If you are not educated, you are nobody.”

Kyeyoung Park, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed. She noted that that many Korean-American parents are especially fond of Ivy League schools. “I’ve even had a student named Princeton Kim,” she said.

‘Strong Trees’

Ms. Yoon says the popular after-school programs almost certainly contribute to the differences in performance between her Asian students, most of whom are Korean-American, and her Hispanic students.

For example, 22 percent of the school’s Hispanic students scored above the national mean in 1998-99 on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, while 73 percent of Asians scored above the mean.

Though Ms. Yoon is often asked by Korean parents to recommend the best after-school programs, she refuses to do so in order to avoid conflicts of interest. There are plenty of candidates, however.

For example, less than a mile away is the Morning Star Nursery & Preschool, which was started 15 years ago by Yong Cha Ra, a former teacher’s aide at Wilton Place Elementary, on the bottom floor of her two-story house.

Her enrollment has quintupled, from 10 students the first year to 50 this year. She provides transportation for elementary school students who come after their regular day. The students can stay till 6:30 p.m., receiving help on their homework, in English, as well as the chance to practice on the two pianos and 10 computers. The cost ranges from $250 to $350 a month.

“Parents think there’s not enough in the public school—that’s why they send them to me,” Ms. Ra said.

A few blocks away, Jung Hwa Ree, who teaches child development at Los Angeles City College, operates the Wilshire Smiling Tree School, which has about 150 preschool and elementary pupils. The curious name is a metaphor for children, she says: “When tree roots are good, they will grow up to be strong trees.”

Her school would not be popular as a day-care alternative with the Korean parents if it did not have an academic focus and assignments were not taught in English. “Korean parents want more than play for their kids,” Ms. Ree said. And while she has television sets at the school, the students watch it for just one hour on Friday afternoon as a treat. “Parents like that,” she added. “No TV!”

It wouldn’t be fair, however, to say that her school is all work and no play. Ms. Ree, a mother of two who came to the United States from South Korea in 1973, goes to great lengths to create a lively and engaging atmosphere. The two-story walls around the converted home that houses the school are decorated with colorful murals of astronauts and seascapes.

Classes are small. And she has converted a former fishing boat into a favorite playground toy for the children.

“I don’t like to play all day or push too much, so I’ve tried to figure out what’s best for the kids,” she said. “Scores are important, but play is also important.”

Scoring Points

Scores are more important, though, at the six Elite Educational Inc. sites around Los Angeles. Serving primarily high school students, Elite charges about $300 for four-week test-preparation, academic enrichment, and college-planning courses.

The company’s brochures publish the names and scores of some of its star pupils, several of whom have posted perfect scores of 1600 on the SAT.

“We can make a drastic improvement, and we have the numbers to prove it,” said Kevin K. Sung, the executive director of Elite Educational.

The company’s site in Koreatown operates from the second story of a small office complex on bustling Wilshire Boulevard. The offices and classrooms are clean and neat, but sparsely decorated. Distractions are minimal.

Mr. Sung said that despite the volume of supplemental education programs in the area, he doubts that the market is saturated. Indeed, he would like to see such opportunities expanded to other ethnic neighborhoods.

“The most important thing is that other groups need more information on tests and college. We in the Asian community are tapping into that,” he said. “If average kids are not exposed to these extra things and higher expectations, there would be no difference for them.”

There are also programs for students who cannot afford the fees that the private programs charge. The Korean Youth and Community Center, an independent nonprofit community service agency, provides after- school homework supervision and enrichment programs for several dozen students at its two-story building here, as well as at local schools.

Soojung Young, the program director, said that her tutors, most of whom are local college students, review report cards, test scores, and notes from teachers to tailor one-on-one instruction for each student.

Homework, Please

The youngsters clearly enjoy their college tutors, who gently prod them to fill in worksheets or calculate a multiplication problem. Taking a break from her work with a young boy, Deborah Shin, a Korean-American sophomore at UCLA who is studying political science and history, said, “I can’t imagine not helping the community.”

The after-school programs do more than help students get good grades. Korean parents here use them to build their children’s credentials so that they can qualify for prized spots in the city’s respected magnet school program, or win acceptance to a private school, for those who can afford it.

Asian students make up 4 percent of the Los Angeles school district’s nearly 700,000 students, but represent 12 percent of all students who attend its magnet schools, admission to which can be highly competitive. In contrast, Hispanics make up 70 percent of the district’s total enrollment, but only 37 percent of the magnet school students.

“Most Korean parents want their child in magnet schools,” said Soo Young Nam, the mother of a 1st grader at Wilton Place Elementary. “If they can’t move to another city [for better schools], they look for magnet schools.”

While all this aggressive parenting is generally seen as a good thing, educators here acknowledge that there is a downside.

Ms. Young often feels compelled to tell parents that it is OK if their children don’t want to attend Ivy League schools, and that forcing children to live their parents’ dreams can cause problems.

“Some Korean immigrant parents are not happy if the teachers don’t give their children enough homework,” added Ms. Park of UCLA. “They protest.”

Still, local families invest a great deal of pride in their children’s accomplishments. One of the community’s highlights comes in May, when the local Korean-language newspaper begins publishing student names, their test scores, and the colleges they plan to attend.

Mr. Cota-Robles agrees that any parent can overdo it. On the other hand, he said, many Hispanic and African-American children could benefit from a similar communitywide focus.

“If it gives kids more confidence in their skills, that’s good,” said Mr. Cota-Robles, who hopes to get a national Hispanic advocacy group to open an academic “outpost” in Koreatown. Besides, he added, maybe it’s time to start looking at the time that children spend in groups working on school assignments as simultaneously balancing their academic and social needs. “That can be done,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as In L.A.’s Koreatown, A Relentless Focus on Schooling

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