Koreatown Schools at Forefront of Education Reform

Koreatown Schools at Forefront of Education Reform

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“Good night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,” intones a pint-sized, pink-cheeked Kelly Park, reciting a soliloquy from the leading role in Romeo and Juliet. Park, 11, who was born in Incheon, Korea, diligently delivers her lines on the stage of the Coconut Grove Auditorium, the same spot where Vivian Leigh once stood to accept a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Seven decades later, the stage is filled with mostly Korean, Latino and Filipino students performing an earnest rendition of Shakespeare’s classic.

The auditorium is now part of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a 544,000-square-foot complex in the heart of Koreatown in Los Angeles. Formerly the Ambassador Hotel (where RFK was assassinated in 1968), the building re-opened to house six separate pilot schools in September 2010.

A relatively recent phenomenon, pilot schools like RFK were established as part of a national education reform movement, one that places a high value on cutting edge approaches to learning, community involvement – RFK has numerous partnerships with local non-profits -- and small school environments.

And at RFK, the Korean American community—educators, students, parents and neighborhood organizations—are at the forefront of the movement.

Reflecting the face of community

The Ambassador School for Global Education (ASGE), a K-5 elementary school, is one of the six campuses at RFK and the first Los Angeles Unified School District elementary school with an international focus. Its students—65 percent Latino, 15 percent Korean, 20 percent “other” (Filipinos, Thai, Chinese, African-American, Caucasian)—reflect the demographics of Koreatown. The other five RFK schools have similar demographic breakdowns.

The faculty at ASGE also reflects the community: Five out of 15 teachers at the school are Korean American—Principal Jina Kim-Qvale is also—and several of them are trilingual.

The makeup of students and teachers at RFK represent a departure from what one usually sees at public schools across the country. In fact, while Asian Pacific Islander (API) Americans are 3.9 percent of the enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools nationally, according to a White House study, they make up only 1.5 percent of the teachers. In California, that gap is even greater, with 11.3 percent of API students to 4.9 percent API teachers.

“I was inspired to become a teacher in the community where I grew up,” says Grace Yoon Kim, who teaches English and Korean Language Arts at ASGE. Yoon was born in South Korea and moved at age seven to the United States, where she attended public school in Koreatown.

“My background helps me to feel a special connection to my students and the families,” says Yoon Kim. “It also helps me as I reflect on my own teaching practice to meet their educational and emotional needs.”

Yoon Kim’s classroom roster (printed in English and Hangul) is taped to the wall next to crayon-colored Korean alphabet worksheets. Her class is 50 percent Korean, with the other 50 percent comprised of Filipinos, Latinos, Africans, Indonesians, Chinese and one student from the UK.

Four of the six RFK schools offer Korean language classes, and all of them jointly espouse a social justice mission, in honor of the school’s namesake, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

“There [is] a real emphasis on not tracking the kids,” says school parent Daniel Kim, when asked how he saw the mission being concretely applied in the classroom. Homework at the schools is even specially designed to help students complete it on their own in cases when their parents don’t have the resources or time to help.

Multi-age learning “dens” mean students can move freely up or down according to their comfort level. “No kid is left behind,” Kim says of the school’s Personalized Learning Plan, in what sounds like an obvious slap to the much-decried No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. “Every child can learn and the teachers work individually with kids who need extra help on either end.”

Fostering parent involvement

The curriculum at UCLA Community School, one of the six RFK’s schools, does not use “skill-based” instruction, meaning the emphasis is no longer on repetitive drills, but on teaching how math can enhance creative thinking.

Understandably, some Korean parents had a hard time accepting the school’s approach at first, because it differed from their own educations, which were built on traditional notions of homework, memorization and skill mastery. But then, they started to see results.

“Parents saw that this was one of the great things about America. They were the early adopters [of] a new way of doing things,” says Kim. The informal Korean parent’s association even created a reading list on these non-traditional pedagogies, to help each other understand the pilot school’s philosophy.

But not all the RFK schools had Korean parents who were as involved. Last spring, despite phone messages left in Korean, Spanish and English, only 15 Korean parents showed up to RFK Parent Involvement Night. So this year, Principal Kim-Qvale and her staff at ASGE took action.

Kim-Qvale knew from experience that Korean parents in the neighborhood had the ability to organize and be involved. Despite language barriers and long work hours, the apparent apathy of Korean parents didn’t make sense, given the high level of participation by Latino parents who faced the same obstacles.

She came to believe that the high Korean parent involvement at her previous school, Charles H. Kim, was due to a very active parent liaison who bridged the communication divide between Korean parents and the school administration. So she hired a bilingual teacher’s aide at ASGE to work specifically with Korean students and parents, and began planning workshops to address their needs.

At UCLA Community School, the challenge of reaching Korean parents was due largely to language barriers. Because of budget woes, LAUSD translating programs had been ostensibly gutted. So on the recommendation of Korean parents, the school purchased its own translating equipment for parent meetings.

Community egagement

The RFK Community Schools operate as separate entities but all share the nearly 24-acre, $578 million campus, which is the most expensive in the nation. Admission is based on proximity; students must live within an 8-block radius of the school. Keeping things local—many students walk to school—has appeal for a community that has been bussing its kids to school in other neighborhoods for decades.

When the RFK pilot schools opened last fall, high school students were entering with a reading level between the 3rd and 4th Grade. Home to mostly recent immigrants, Koreatown offers just one example of the national crisis of education inequality. It is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and among the poorest.

Because of the social inequities that plague the neighborhood’s families, RFK has partnered with a number of local service organizations. The Korean Health Education Information and Research Center (KHEIR), for example, became the RFK-designated family health clinic.

Last month, KHEIR held their second annual health fair on campus, where families were given check-ups—blood pressure screenings, eye exams and mammograms—all at no-cost.

ASGE Principal Kim-Qvale says the schools at RFK examine community issues, and then try to address them. “We have problems with obesity and access to fresh vegetables,” she said. Because of efforts led by the school, however, a farmers market will soon be opened. Other organizations like the Central American Resource Center plan to hold workshops this year to teach the school’s parents how to take advantage of local community resources for help with tax preparation and workplace rights issues. And even more workshops are planned to address issues ranging from community green space to gang violence reduction.

Measuring success

But how are the students faring? Pilot schools have autonomy over assessment, and each school has different measures for capturing student learning and progress.

Because RFK is just one year old, it has been a challenge even to get baseline data. Like other LAUSD schools, UCLA Community School focused on measures such as graduation, attendance and attrition rates, grades and test scores, but they also had the added benefit of partnering with UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, whose assessment experts work with the teachers to develop and implement evaluations. The first round of assessments is currently being scored.

“It is my sincere hope,” says Karen Hunter Quartz, Director of Research at UCLA Community School, “that the pilot school movement will grow and encourage within-district reform. Pilots are a promising new school development strategy that engages the community, district, and union in ways that few charter schools have managed to do.”

A 2009 Boston Foundation report found that elementary students in charters and pilots fared better than their counterparts at Boston’s traditional public schools; middle school pilots underperformed, while charters far outperformed traditional schools; and in high school, both charters and pilots far outperformed the traditional schools. But even the report’s authors cite the findings for pilots as “ambiguous” and in need of “further study.” They emphasize that they do not look at why or how, but rather whether pilots change test scores.

The success of non-traditional pilot schools like those at RFK is difficult to measure using traditional education metrics. How do you measure the impact of teachers knowing all their students by name? The impact of community advocates working with student volunteers? Of educators who are from the community and personally invested in the school’s success?

“My entrance into the teaching field was influenced by my father,” Principal Kim-Qvale says. “He always believed that the only way out of poverty was through education.”

“What drove me to be a part of the pilot reform is seeing the uninspired and struggling students in some of the schools, and also seeing what is possible in others.”


Katherine Kim reports as an Education Fellow for New America Media.