Students From S. Korea Dropping Out

Students From S. Korea Dropping Out

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The high school dropout rate is on the rise among Korean students in the U.S., driven in part by a growing number of students sent here by their parents in South Korea. Many say that without the traditional family support network, the challenge of adjusting to life in the U.S., and to the education system here, is often more than they can handle.

According to Kyung Hee Ji, a high school teacher in the Los Angeles public school system for the past 12 years, drop out rates tend to be higher for such students. “Studying abroad is a great experience,” says Ji, whose book “Story of American Education” (in Korean) offers Korean parents a glimpse into what that system is like. “But these parents have to realize that just sending a child to the U.S. will not guarantee that they keep up with their studies.”

At a recent test for the General Equivalency Diploma (GED), students gathered outside the high school classroom where the exam would be administered, a significant number of Korean students among them.

Jung Min Yoo, 19, came to La Crescenta four years. He says he’s spent the past year preparing for the GED, adding that he decided to drop out of school when he realized that he “couldn’t adjust to the new school environment.” Yoo also pointed out that a large number of Korean students like himself are enrolled in GED prep classes.

Students like Yoo tend to live either alone or with host families, with their parents covering related school and living expenses from South Korea. There is often little to no adult supervision, with the expectation being that such students will meet the demands placed on them by their parents.

Another student, surnamed Kim, says her parents decided to send her to Pasadena when she was in the 7th grade so that she would learn English and “get a better education.” Kim came with her mother, while her father stayed behind to provide financial support.

“Living in the U.S. was much tougher than I anticipated,” says Kim, who had been one of the top performing students in her middle school in South Korea. “I became a more passive student here in the U.S. I lost confidence in myself.”

Kim says she recalls being in a science class one day and not understanding anything the teacher was saying. “I became very self conscious, concerned about my inability to speak the language. I grew depressed.”

With her grades falling, Kim says she began to spend more time hanging out with other Korean friends that she met while enrolled in a local ESL class. “I began to skip out on classes,” she admits, adding that while such friends were a source of comfort for her, there was no one that she could really confide in.

As for the school counselor, Kim says the language barrier prevented her from being able to get the kind of help she needed. With her mother unable to communicate with Kim’s teachers, her sense of isolation deepened.

“I tried to speak with my advisor several times, but because of my English she eventually requested that another Korean student interpret for me. After that, rumors began to spread among other students that I had some kind of problem.”

Her mother also proved unsympathetic to Kim’s complaints, pushing her to work harder and focus more on lifting her grades, Kim says.

Eventually things got so bad that Kim tried on several occasions to commit suicide by ingesting large amounts of aspirin. By the 12th grade Kim decided she’d had enough and dropped out.

“That’s when I found Sunshine Foundation,” says Kim. A non-profit that specializes in counseling for Korean youth, Sunshine offered Kim a part-time position while she prepared for the GED.

“I’d like to enter college next year, and major in pedagogy so I can be in a position to help students coping with some of the issues I had to face.”