Schools Focus Attention on Korean Influx

Times Staff Writer

When Lori Kim moved to Los Angeles from her native Korea in 1973, she was a shy 12th-grader bewildered by Hollywood High School and faced with the difficult task of learning the English language.

It did not help, said Kim, who is now a 31-year-old Glendale schoolteacher, that her teachers made little effort to get to know her or her culture. It did not help that there were no Korean teachers to help with her studies. And after a childhood in Korea where educators, she said, spend a good deal of time visiting students’ homes, it did not help that American teachers kept their distance.

Today, with the population of Korean students in Glendale schools rapidly multiplying, Kim has joined with district officials to make sure a new generation of young immigrants do not repeat her experience.

5 1/2-Hour Conference


One outcome of their efforts will take place today, a 5 1/2-hour conference meant to bring together district educators and Korean parents to listen to lectures on Korean culture and to share a little food, dance and song from a culture that dates back more than 5,000 years.

The conference is the first of its kind in California, said Alice Petrossian, director of intercultural education for the district. A cooperative effort of the district and the Los Angeles-based Korean American Educators Assn., it is a prototype of a program the association hopes to repeat at schools throughout Los Angeles County.

“My point is, the Koreans are coming and we better find out about them before we find ourselves in the same situation we did with the Armenians,” Petrossian said. “We were unprepared for the Armenians and look where that got us--chaos. We don’t want that to happen again.”

Coming they are.

While the increase in the number of Korean students in the district does not compare to the sudden influx of Armenian refugees to Glendale schools in the past year, the growth is significant, with new Korean students enrolling steadily.

Five years ago, Koreans were the district’s sixth-largest minority group. Today they are the third, Petrossian said, outnumbered only by Latinos and Armenians. And district records show that since last August, when the district established an orientation center to help immigrant students, more than 13% of the students coming through its doors have been Korean.

At Crescenta Valley High School, the cluster of Korean students in one corner of the schoolyard is nothing new. Neither are the long cafeteria tables filled with Korean faces, Principal Kenneth Bierman said. But the clusters are getting larger and the tables are getting crowded, he said. Last year, the school’s Korean Club had a membership of 20. This year its membership has grown to 60, club faculty adviser June Peterson said.

“I think there are more Koreans coming in right now,” said Jim McLashen, director of testing and evaluation for the district. “There’s certainly been a significant increase over the last eight years. And anytime you have a large number of immigrants, in order to make them feel more comfortable you try to get out there to the community, to make sure the kids get the kind of education their parents want.”

What the parents of the district’s more than 2,000 Korean students want, Kim said, is often significantly different from what the school district can provide.

‘Up to the Professionals’

“In Korea, parents leave education up to the professionals,” Kim said. “The parents think it is their place to just cooperate, not to get involved in the schools the way American parents do. In Korea, even suggesting anything to the school sort of meant that you’re saying the school isn’t doing a good job.”

Kim said the conference is a way to get the parents involved. And many have responded enthusiastically. While the conference is being funded by the district, more than $900 has been donated for the program from Korean parents, Petrossian said. It was also the idea of parents to serve the educators and administrators attending the conference a traditional Korean dinner of dumplings, noodles, barbecue and vegetables.

District officials said they have long known they could be doing more to help Glendale’s Korean students. Since 1981, when the South Korean government began sponsoring educational junkets, 28 Glendale educators have traveled to the country along with teachers from throughout the United States and Canada. And Korean clubs have long been a fixture of many district schools.

But while there are more than 2,100 Korean students in Glendale schools, the district has only two Korean-speaking teachers. And with district educators frantic to help the rapidly growing population of Armenian students, there has been little time for teachers to learn about Korean culture, district officials said.

Recruited by District

Kim, who last taught at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, was recruited three years ago by Glendale district officials in part because of her Korean background, Petrossian said. Since then, the high school chemistry teacher has been something of an informal counselor and Korean community liaison.

“It’s an unwritten requirement of the job,” Kim said. “The Koreans think that we are all family and we are supposed to help one another. They take a big pride that I am a teacher in the American educational system--and they trust me with their kids.”

Kim, a member of the Korean American Educators Assn., proposed the conference to district officials last fall. Since then, she has been working with the intercultural education office to put it together. The program will include lectures by teachers in Los Angeles and Torrance who have long dealt with large Korean student populations, a talk by the Korean government attache on education, Hyung Kee Sun, and a talk on Korean immigration to the United States by Korean American Educators Assn. President Jung Hae Kim.

“People are finally realizing that, OK, there are many Koreans in Glendale,” Kim said. “At the same time, the Koreans are talking about getting more involved. They are beginning to feel they are needed.”