Yi Hwang Academy, a dream charter school for young Korean Americans, is on the way to Gwinnett County, but there are some problems to work through.
By Anna Kim
Yi Hwang Academy of Philosophy, Arts & Science is a charter elementary school where students learn STEAM programs in both Korean and English. The educational mission put on Korean Americans is to think and speak not at a conversational level, but at an executive, board room level---nearly perfect with very little accent problems in either language.
Moreover, research indicates that bilinguals gain additional cognitive, academic, and employment benefits. In the light of this, Yi Hwang Academy makes more sense and its vision is outstanding. However, could Yi Hwang Academy of Philosophy, Arts & Science be a reality? To probe the feasibility of the school establishment with a closer look, Liza Park, the attorney at law who proposed this school, delivers a statement to Georgians.
Q. People in the educational profession say that it is hard to find certified teachers to teach the Korean language in public and private schools. This problem is not just in GA, but in most states. Could you tell me how you will strive to secure and retain certified Korean teachers?
A. The problem with finding certified teachers who are proficient or are a native speaker in another language is exactly the reason why Gwinnett County School officials told us that they have not already started a language immersion program in Korean yet. The key to why it works as a charter school is because charter schools do not have to hire certified teachers. This is also why we decided to put together a meeting in less than a week – because we learned that the Nat’l Assoc. for Korean Schools was having its annual teacher conference on Saturday, and we wanted to immediately get in front of a large number of teachers who were already teaching Korean.
Charter schools in Georgia are allowed flexibility to pursue education with a certain focus. This flexibility comes in the form of waivers of the usual rules and regulations for regular public schools. Allowing charter schools to hire teachers who do not have a Georgia certification makes Yi Hwang Academy, and other such immersion schools, viable. If charter schools had to hire certified teachers, these immersion schools would simply find it very difficult to work. So as a charter school, we can search for the very best language teachers, many of whom may have been wonderful teachers in their own countries, but do not have certification here. Presenting at the teachers conference worked - we were approached by some very interested, highly qualified native Korean speaking teachers with lots of experience teaching in Korea, but do not have a certificate here. These are the teachers that a charter can hire, but a regular public school in Georgia can not.
Q. Has the location and land, where Yi Hawng Academy will be established, been decided yet?
A. The location for Yi Hwang Academy is not set in stone. We have a meeting to discuss with the administrative board of an area church that has a large classroom facilities that go unused during the week. We hope to have a memorandum of understanding with that church soon. That church has been very gracious and supportive of this endeavor so far. This arrangement may only be for the first few years. If the Academy feels comfortable with increasing the number of student enrollment, then the Academy may outgrow this facility later on and would have to make arrangements for a larger location later.
Q. For the 2018 enrollment, you said you will start with grades K-2. How many classes/students do you expect and plan on, respectively? How many teachers should be secured?
A. For 2018, our estimate of students is 100 in kindergarten, 50 in first grade and 50 in second grade. As for teachers, after just yesterday’s strong interest by some really impressive prospective teachers, we could fill all the necessary spots right now! That is so very reassuring for us, as we know that quality teachers make all the difference in the world. We won’t be making hiring decisions right now though – we are still in the process of applying for county and state approval. That has to come first, but now we know that the teachers we need are available and interested in this academy.
Q. I found that a high density area of Korean population is not a good solution for a Korean school establishment. Did you ever think about establishing the school in a low-income area, such as Clayton County? Take Democracy Prep Schools in Harlem, New York, for example. The schools have produced a miracle since it adopted a Korean educational system and Korean teachers.
A. I’d love to find out more about Democracy Prep, but that’s not the need we are trying to address in Georgia. This is a matter of economics for the state of Georgia. Of course Georgia is constantly working to lure companies to locate in this state because this creates jobs for Georgians. Currently, South Korea has the greatest number of companies considering Georgia as a possible U.S. location – more than any other state. Part of the reason why Georgia is attractive to these companies is because there is already an established Korean community here. Many of the companies hope and/or expect to be able to hire upper level management and executives from such a large population of Korean Americans, but they many times find that the pool of candidates here do not possess the proficiency in Korean to be able to thrive in a corporate setting. Yes, their English is very good – but they must be able to effectively communicate with their colleagues in Korea. When these companies negotiate with Georgia to locate here, Georgia generally requires securing agreements that these companies will provide a certain number of jobs to Georgia residents. When these companies have to fill all of the management and executive level positions with recruits from Korea because the Korean Americans with the necessary education credentials do not speak a high level of Korean – it eats into the required number of jobs that they should be providing to Georgians. Quite simply, Georgia needs their residents to be more bilingual and at a higher level to continue to lure companies here. It is too expensive for companies to keep recruiting and relocating people from Korea here especially when these companies had wanted and assumed that they would find quality candidates here. Korean language Saturday schools are really wonderful – but they don’t appear to be producing that level of Korean language proficiency.
Q. What is the biggest obstacle that you see regarding the school establishment?
A. I think one of the biggest obstacles is explaining to Korean parents, who are immigrants and whose children speak little English while they’re in preschool, that English will take over their children’s language abilities and become their dominate language very quickly – and most will not be able to catch back up to an age appropriate level of Korean for the rest of their lives. Many will only be able to speak a kind of conversational Korean on an elementary level. Some will lose their Korean language abilities far more than that. This ends up causing stress in families as parents have a very difficult time communicating with their children. It’s hard enough to communicate with your children as they grow older without a language barrier! The other major obstacle is getting approved by the school district and state. Statistically, few schools are approved the first time they apply. So many factors are taken into consideration. There are no guarantees, and it’s just very difficult.
Q. What if the school is not approved as a regular school by Gwinnett County? What is the next strategy you are thinking about?
A. If schools are not approved by their local district and county school board, then their application can be considered by the state alone. Currently, it’s my understanding that more charter schools are approved (authorized) by either the State Board of Education or the State Charter School Commission than by local districts. However, if a charter school is authorized by the state only, then they receive funds only from the state with no local funds whatsoever. It can make a big difference to a school’s budget – especially if you are starting out small – because your entire budget is on a per pupil basis. The other thing about being only authorized by the state – as a charter school you become your own district – all data reporting to the state is done by you and you alone with no help from a local district. There's no help from your local district for training for your teachers, no help for emergency planning purposes, and no help for special needs students. That’s a major reason why we believe it’s worth trying to be approved by a local school board.
Additionally, we really want to be a part of the Gwinnett County Public Schools. Far too many young families are relocating to North Fulton and Forsythe Counties to be a part of the strong school clusters there. Gwinnett is losing these young families and their tax dollars. For the Korean community, we will have our base of Korean businesses remain in Gwinnett but reside in another county? Politically speaking, this is a huge mistake. Instead of just watching our up and coming young families continue to exodus out of Gwinnett, we as a community should better organized ourselves and that because Korean businesses are largely in Gwinnett, we have a stake here. As our upwardly mobile folks, Korean and otherwise, move out of Gwinnett it’s ultimately going to hurt the entire community. Again, it is economics. If we care about our Korean foundation here – which frankly are the businesses and churches, then we need to dig in and strengthen Gwinnett schools rather than fly off to other counties for their schools. So for us, we plan to re-apply to Gwinnett if we are turned down. It’s a larger more difficult undertaking to run a charter school by the state only – in the words of the attorney for Georgia’s Dept of Ed for Charter Schools – it’s three times as hard.
Liza Park, the attorney at law who proposes Yi Hwang Academy, explains the school to the attendees.
Yi Hwang Academy website.