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Korean kids ‘driven’ to build future in Montgomery schools

September 22, 2018

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — First-grader Jessica Seo glanced at the colorful card in front of her and looked down to the letters underneath.

“Pond,” she whispered.

Teacher Stacey Powell raised an eyebrow. “Are you reading the words?” Jessica nodded. “You don’t have to read the words. Just look at the pictures,” Powell said.

Jessica arrived from Korea last year and started learning English in kindergarten. Now, she’s a month into classes at James W. Wilson Jr. Elementary School in east Montgomery, part of a public school system operating in the red while under state intervention.

The system has about one English-as-a-second-language teacher for every 100 ESL students. Powell teaches about 50 ESL students at Wilson while splitting her time with Halcyon Elementary nearby.

East Montgomery is an area with one of the state’s highest percentages of Korean-speaking residents. Those numbers have exploded since Hyundai arrived in 2002, opening its first North American assembly plant and bringing along a vast network of Korean suppliers, contractors and support businesses. The plant has a nearly $5 billion annual impact on the state’s economy, according to a 2014 study.

Dozens of families move to Montgomery on a rotation every year to do that work and place their children in Montgomery schools, where they’re expected to learn English while maintaining or even surpassing grade-level expectations. Powell said even the youngest children are focused on specific goals, like getting into a certain school.

“They’re very driven,” she said. “If they don’t get it right, they get very upset with themselves. Education is very important to them.”

8,000 miles from home: ‘When you’re a third-, or fourth-, or fifth-grader, that’s really tough’

One of the first people Korean families meet when they come to Montgomery is Jeanne Charbonneau. She’s been working with them since 2002 as the city’s Korean Family Support Coordinator, helping them find homes, talk school zoning, get health records and make sure their kids get placed in the right grade as fast as possible.

That last part is sometimes the hardest because Korea’s school year starts in March, meaning a child may have only had a few months of grade-level classes before moving to Montgomery. Charbonneau said their parents often want to push them up a grade in fall so they stay ahead of their Korean classmates, since most plan to return to Korea in a few years.

That would mean asking the child to jump ahead in school while they’re also learning English.

“You may have a student who’s a whiz at science,” Charbonneau said. “They know what an amoeba is, but they don’t know the word ‘amoeba.’ They know the Korean word for that.

“When you’re a third-, or fourth-, or fifth-grader, that’s really tough. And it’s really emotional. They’re 8,000 miles from home.”

Montgomery Public Schools ESL teachers are trained to assess them and put them in the situation that works best for the child, and the staff has grown. The system had just a handful of ESL teachers when Charbonneau started 17 years ago. Now, they’ve got 18 full-time and five part-time teachers, and have a better idea of what to expect from new families. “We were learning, too,” she said.

Still, those 23 teachers must serve about 2,400 students, with different native languages, cultures and needs.

A hard sell: ‘Sometimes your back’s up against the wall and you do what you can’

There’s no money on the way to hire more ESL teachers, or for much of anything else. The system gets the minimum amount of property tax dollars allowed under state law. It just approved a deficit budget.

“Sometimes your back’s up against the wall and you do what you can,” MPS ESL director Lizzette Farsinejad said about the need for more teachers.

For comparison, public school systems in Birmingham City Schools get $3,760 per student in ad valorum (property tax) dollars. Montgomery gets $939 per student.

The situation is dire enough that Air University Commander Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton said last month most airmen chose to come to Air War College in Montgomery without their families, mainly because of schools.

That makes it a “hard sell” to convince companies to move or expand here, Hyundai or otherwise, Charbonneau said.

“People flee to Auburn because of their public school system,” she said. “Look at what their millage rates are compared to Montgomery’s. We train good teachers at all of our schools. Georgia says, ‘We can give you $20,000 more.’ Sign me up! Who wouldn’t do that?

“We have to address those things. We have to do it for our kids, but also for the economic development of our community. Without the school piece, expansion or new recruitment remains an uphill battle.”

Language of progress: Learning Korean should be a priority, official says

Chuck Ledbetter doesn’t bat an eye when asked about ESL resources.

“We need to be learning Korean,” he said. “It’s that important.”

It’s important enough to Ledbetter, the superintendent of Pike Road Schools, that he came to encourage kids at a Korean language and culture summer camp at Troy University Montgomery. At his side was Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

About 48 local kids without Korean heritage spent part of July and August with a dozen local kids with ties to Korea, learning everything from basic phrases, to dance routines, to food traditions. The nonprofit Alabama-Korea Education and Economic Partnership organized the camp with a grant from an unusual source, the National Security Agency, to encourage the study of “critical languages.”

Mackey said the state needs to expand the use of Korean nationals classrooms, and to get more native Alabama students learning Korean. A few weeks later, Mackey requested a state-level increase in funding for English language learners, from $140 to $400 per student.

″(Korean) not a language that’s readily taught,” Mackey said. “When we talk about foreign languages, the ones that come to mind are Spanish, French and German, and they always have been. Korean . you really have to understand the culture and background of it. But I think that’s what AKEEP is doing, trying to build that bridge.

“We have to have strong education to bring really good jobs here, and we have to have really good jobs and financially strong companies to pour money back into the education system. And our economy in Alabama is becoming, really, an international economy.”

At Wilson Elementary, Jessica finishes her exercise and goes back to join the other kids.

Powell said Jessica’s progress may be impressive, but she’s seen it before. Her other native Korean students, including the ones she tutors outside of school, seem to push themselves to learn quickly. Their parents are very involved and want the best for them, Powell and others said.

Farsinejad said Korean transplants run a Saturday school at Halcyon Elementary for Korean studies, using Korean teachers and family members as crossing guards.

“Education is the answer,” Charbonneau said. “It’s how they have come so far, so fast in the 70 years since the Korean War.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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