Using Summer to Spring Ahead for the Fall


Timothy Yu shuffled his feet, looking a little embarrassed by the question.

So how did the 11-year-old fifth-grader do in school this past year?

“Not too well,” he answered, shaking his head and squinting his gentle eyes. “Four A’s, two Bs.”


In the pursuit of academic success--or perfection in Timothy’s case--there is little time to while away, even during summer vacation.

So while some parents are taking their children to an amusement park or dropping them off at summer camp, Timothy’s are delivering him to the Fullerton Tutors, a hagwon in Orange County.

Hagwons, tutorial schools that offer summer and after-school programs, are an age-old tradition in Korea, where most children attend some sort of extracurricular academic program. In a culture deeply rooted in Confucian reverence for scholastic achievement, hagwons provide the edge many parents believe their children need to move ahead.

The institution has become common in Korean American communities as well. Korean business directories list more than 100 academic hagwons in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Those schools’ monthly charges range from $300 for after-school programs to $700 for full-day summer classes and recreation.

Some hagwons offer golf lessons and others SAT preparation. But academic hagwons that specialize in languages, math and sciences are by far the most popular in the United States and South Korea.


Parents, said Kathleen Rhee, who founded Fullerton Tutors 15 years ago, “want their children to be prepared and be confident in the next level.”

Unlike students at other summer schools who are, for the most part, studying to catch up, Timothy and his classmates are looking to be ahead of their peers come fall.

During a recent English class at Tutors, three boys and six girls, ages 11 to 13, were learning compound words and dissecting a summary biography of Helen Keller.

“Who would guess that the charming, erudite woman,” the biography read, “could neither see nor hear.”

The lesson is designed for seventh-graders, said Carol Brem, the English instructor. Most of her pupils have just completed sixth grade; Timothy, who is among them, is yet to start sixth grade.

“They are quite remarkable,” said Brem, 55, who teaches at San Dimas High School during the school year. “Their parents want them to be challenged. The expectation is there and they understand.”

Brem added: “They are typical kids in terms of not wanting homework and complaining about lessons being hard. Still, if I told my own children at that age that this is what they would be doing during summer, they’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

The school, a spartan two-story building inside a Fullerton business complex, is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during summer.

Inside Brem’s classroom, there was little to distract the students from the task at hand. They sat on folding chairs around a table, a single skylight giving hint of the hot summer day outside.

Inside, students wrestled with words like “resolute,” “inordinate,” “inconsolable” and “industrious.”

“What is ‘industrious?’ ” one student wanted to know.

“It means hard-working,” Brem answered. “Like you guys. You are all hard-working.”

Smiles broke around the room.

But there was nothing funny about homework. When Brem told her students to mark two pages in their grammar book, Timothy wanted to know: “Is that homework?”

“No,” Brem said, the lessons would be tackled in class the next day

“Yeeees,” the relieved boys said, pumping their fists low.

Fullerton Tutors parents pay $600 to $700 a month during summer and $350 to $400 a month for after-school programs during the school year, Rhee said. She employs 10 part-time instructors and has 50 to 70 students.

The students, primary graders mostly, study for three hours in the mornings in small groups. After lunch, about half opt to stay for field trips and other nonacademic activities like tennis and skating lessons.

During the summer, Rhee tries to infuse some fun into her students’ lives. Recently, the school went to watch a Disney movie at the historic El Capitan theater in Hollywood.

“With many of our students, both parents work,” Rhee said. “And we offer full-time care. Something for the body and something for the mind.”

Hagwons increasingly are adding recreation to pure academics to adapt to American expectations, said Kyeyoung Park, a UCLA professor of anthropology and Asian American studies who was born in Korea and follows education trends there and in the United States.

The Korean education culture, with its heavy emphasis on academic success, “has led to productive students,” Park said, “but in terms of creativity and critical thinking, they’ve lagged behind.”

Korean parents on both sides of the Pacific are beginning to wonder whether they are driving their children too hard, she said.

But it is difficult for parents to measure just how much is too much motivation.

“What I tell them is that if they try their best, I’ll be happy,” said Mariann Yu, 41, Timothy’s mother. Her daughter Rachel, 13, also attends Fullerton Tutors. Still, she said, when she sees other parents filling every free hour of their children’s time, “I get scared that I am not doing enough.”

Timothy and his sister don’t attend hagwon during the school year, Yu said. And early last school year, Yu made a deal with her son that “if he made two honor rolls, he didn’t have to go to summer school.”

Timothy made three, Yu said. But ultimately Yu and her husband decided that a hagwon would be more productive than something that was “just fun” like summer camp.

“We had to convince him at first, but he’s actually enjoying himself,” said Yu. Rachel and Timothy “like everything, except the homework.”

For his part, Timothy said he doesn’t much mind the hagwon. Yes, he could live without the homework, but he likes the field trips to parks and libraries.

“I like going to different places,” he said, “seeing different worlds.”