Korean charter school – a new idea for language immersion education


Can Korean compete as an “immersion” language at a charter school in the Twin Cities, along with more commonly learned languages like Spanish, French, and more recently, Chinese?

One group of parents, some of whom are education professionals, is confident that it will. For more than two years, the group has been accomplishing the preliminary steps to start a charter school, named Sejong Korean Academy of Minnesota. The application will be submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education in July. In August, they will have their decision on whether the charter school will be funded.

If accepted, the group, now a board of directors of the proposed public charter school, will receive a grant to set up the school, which could open its doors to students in kindergarten through second grade as early as 2010. As with most language-immersion schools, the Sejong Academy would add one grade per year, up to either grade six or grade eight. Right now, the Sejong Academy exists only as an idea and as a website. (www.sejongacademy.org)

Most of the group members met because their children attend Korean Institute of Minnesota, a weekly Saturday school targeted to younger adopted Korean children. Two of the board members, Douglas Cran and Julie Chi, have a background in education and have been attending sessions offered by the Department of Education to learn the basics of founding a charter school.

Another board member, Namhyee Kim, has had experience in administration of a Saturday Korean language school through a program of the Hope Presbyterian Church in Mendota Heights, as well as in administering various Korean cultural programs. The church’s language school closed after three years because,she said, the teachers were repeating the same material and the students did not seem to make progress.

Kim said she was an informal guide and resource person over about 10 days for a Korean documentary filmmaker who was interested in the barriers to Korean language education in this culture. After that experience, she concluded that immersion education is really the answer to many of the barriers, she said. When Julie Chi asked her to join the group, she was enthusiastic. Kim said she is working as a liaison with the Korean community locally, and is inquiring about Korean government support as well.

Board member Mark Willcox is an IT professional and is working on the website and other web-based communications for the school, and Jody Ruis is handling the school’s publicity and outreach to the larger community. There are also a wider group of parent volunteers who are helping with various kinds of professional expertise.

Making a charter school in Minnesota

To be a charter school, the applicants must show the Minnesota Department of Education that they have the organizational ability and people to do the job. They have to prove they will offer a curriculum that meets the school’s objective, in this case, a bilingual education in Korean and English, and that it meets state curriculum standards required of all schools, according to Cran. They also have to show that when they open their doors, students will show up.

“They are approving your application for a grant and that kind of becomes your road map of what your philosophy is and how your school will be run,” Cran explained. “Once you receive a grant, the Commissioner of Education approves the grant. That is synonymous with your charter giving you permission to open the school. It is a federal grant of money.” The Department of Education continues to provide funding after the application is approved, so that the board and other key people can receive training in how to set up the school.

In order to prove a certain number of students will enroll, Sejong group has been collecting surveys from interested parents for about two years. They found their survey subjects at Korean Institute of Minnesota, and other Korean cultural programs such as Korean Culture Camp, held annually at Minnehaha Academy. The survey results so far show that approximately 83 children of survey respondents would be the age to enter kindergarten, first, or second grade by 2010. The survey is still available on the Sejong Academy website.

How many of those 83 prospective students would actually attend Sejong Academy will depend on several factors, including the school’s location. There are many closed school buildings to choose from in the Twin Cities area; the preference of the Academy’s board would be to collaborate on services by using an unused wing of an operating school, and for it to be located in Minneapolis or St. Paul, as opposed to the suburbs. The building is a second step; it is not necessary to have a physical location for the school before applying for the charter.

Similarly, it is not required that the committee have staff lined up to start the school, but they need to show in the application that they know how to assemble all the essentials of a school, including staff, according to Cran.

A charter school also needs a sponsor, which is a designated organization, recognized by the Department of Education to do the work of financial oversight and general supervision to ensure the school is being run according to state standards.

On March 11, the Academy group met with one prospective sponsor, the Friends of Education, which currently sponsors 18 charter schools, including Yinghua Academy, a Chinese (Mandarin) immersion elementary school located in St. Paul. There are numerous parallels between what the Yinghua Academy is doing and what the Sejong group wishes to do with its school. Because of those parallels and the general success of schools under the sponsorship of the Friends of Education, the Sejong board is hoping for an offer of sponsorship from this organization. They will have a decision from this prospective sponsor in April, according to Kim.

Further, Yinghua Academy is doing well, and has just completed its third year, according to Sejong board member Jody Ruis. “It has grown in its three years of existence such that it is now growing out of its first building,” according to Ruis.

Since an overwhelming majority of Chinese adoptees are girls, Yinghua began with mostly adopted Chinese girls in its student body. Now, Ruis said, this charter school can measure its success in reaching out to the greater community in part by the percentage of boys, as well as non-Chinese students, enrolled at Yinghua. As of this year, the percent of boys has grown to nearly 50 percent, Ruis said.

What is immersion?

Tara Fortune, of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), works specifically with Minnesota’s charter immersion schools. She is also chair of the Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network (MAIN), an organization of Minnesota language immersion schools. CARLA is one of 15 such centers in the country, she said.

Immersion schools fall into two general types, Fortune said, the so-called “one-way” immersion, where all the students know one language, and a new “target” language is introduced; and “two-way,” where students are fluent or near-fluent in the “target” language, and need to learn English without losing their original language.

According to her records, Fortune said, there are currently five Korean immersion programs in the country; four in California and one in New York. All are “two-way” programs, designed for children of recent immigrants. “I am not aware of any one-way Korean immersion programs. If one opened here, that would be something new,” she said.

In Minnesota, there are presently 49 immersion schools, including several “two-way” programs, such as a Hmong-English immersion elementary school in St. Paul.

Typically, Korean “two-way” immersion programs start out teaching 90 percent in Korean, and 10 percent in English. By grade four, the goal is to teach at 50-50, Fortune said. A one-way program might start out with 90 percent English, 10 percent Korean, and add more Korean as the students get older. The goal would be to present 50 percent of the academic material in the target language up to grade 12.

When a school begins with kindergarten, first, and second grade, she said, the kindergarten students receive the true immersion education, while the first and second graders would receive lessons in the target language and culture as an enrichment topic, and more subjects in the target language would be added to their curriculum in succeeding grades. This is the model that has been followed by Yinghua Academy, she said, which plans to be a kindergarten through eighth grade program.

Minnesota is one of the country’s centers for language immersion education, Fortune said. The first language immersion charter school, which taught in Spanish and English, was established in Minneapolis in the mid-‘70s using federal funding targeted to desegregation efforts. Recent and future founders of immersion charter schools have plenty of expertise at their disposal, with the relatively long history of immersion schools and the close proximity of academic centers like CARLA


Experts agree, being a charter school founder is not for the faint of heart.

There are many challenges in setting up a charter school and, in particular, adapting it to serve students’ needs as they get older and their curriculum becomes more sophisticated.

The difficulty of immersion programs occurs when the students get in secondary school (seventh through 12th grade), Fortune said. Immersion education becomes more difficult to do well as students get older, but there are also more benefits to the students of the immersion model. “I would encourage a K through eight approach, because from what we know about immersion education, there are challenges in having your students join other non-immersion students at the middle school age. You can do more if you have your students for a longer period of time.”

Patricia Murasaki Thornton, director of summer youth programs for Concordia Language Villages, said “it is relatively easy to do immersion K to sixth, or K to eighth, but there’s a big question about what happens at the high school level. Because the subject matter so intense, so finding someone who can teach, for example, chemistry or U.S. history, or economics, all in Korean, it’s a whole different kind of thing.”

Thornton said she was once a teacher of Japanese in a language immersion school, and remembers making many of her own curriculum materials–not something teachers usually do. In any grade, she said, the language of instruction should be the target language when possible, and the curriculum should be the same as, or very similar to, the local public school curriculum. This sets up compliance issues for schools which may not be able to find appropriate target-language curriculum.

Fortune said that finding native speakers of the target language who are capable of teaching more complex subjects is also “a huge issue.” She said that Yinghua Academy has hired a person who develops curriculum and helps the staff with professional development, which she thinks is a necessary step.

How to keep the spoken and written English of immersion students strong is another pressing issue. This is a challenge in any school, but in an immersion school, there are fewer hours in the day spent reading and writing in English, and the English skills of the faculty may not be top notch. “Learning to write in any language is not automatic,” Thornton said. “They need to develop those skills in English, and how are they going to do that?” she said. “You can’t be a mediocre speaker – or writer – of English in this culture. You have to be excellent.”

Figuring out ways to provide for the development of both languages, particularly in the recruitment and retention of bilingual faculty, is extremely important for immersion schools, Thornton said.

Ideally, Thornton said, the operating principles on school policies, student discipline, and just about everything else should be the same as other local schools. Staff development is crucial in immersion schools, particularly when faculty come from countries with educational philosophies which are very different from those in this culture, she said.

Passion counts

The fact that other Korean immersion programs exist, even if they are “two-way” programs, makes establishment of a new one a bit easier, Fortune said. “It’s not like you would be doing Urdu or something that would be first immersion program for that language in the entire world. It is important to keep in mind that if we can do programs in Dakota, Ojibwe, and Hmong, which we are doing — if you wrap your head around that reality – then, you can understand that Korean has a much longer written tradition than many languages. And that other languages present a much higher level of challenge.”

Ruis said she is confident that the Sejong Academy will have appeal to parents who want their children to learn a world language. It will be her job to “outreach to people who have some passion for Korean culture,” she said. Taekwondo schools and Korean culture camps and activities are on her list of groups to make aware of the new school. As a public school, Sejong Academy will admit children irrespective of ethnicity or language background, she pointed out.

Kim said she has been talking up the program in the local Korean community and has lobbied the Korean consulate in Chicago for assistance. “They have said that if we pay the postage, they can get us a lot of books for our library,” she said. The consulate also wants the school to be a site for the Korean SAT testing. They are hoping to have support for different kinds of community cultural programs that can take place at the school.

Fortune said funding may be available to help with various types of Korean language education, since Korean is viewed as one of the “critical languages” by the U.S. government. “It may not be on people’s radar screens the way Mandarin is right now,” she remarked, “but I think Korean without question is recognized as a world language and as a player on the world scene.”

Although the language itself should be important to the learner, it’s not necessary for language learning to have a completely utilitarian focus, Fortune said. “Everyone does not need to be learning Spanish because it is the most commonly spoken second language in this country.” According to Fortune, there are “cognitive benefits” that come from fluency in any second language, because learning a language helps with problem solving skills of all kinds, not just those related to language, she said. “The additional facility comes regardless of the language.”

“I agree there are some steep hurdles that have got to be jumped across to implement an immersion program of high quality,” Fortune observed. “But having said that, you may be surprised at the ingenuity of people who are really committed to doing something unique, and at the passion and fervor that comes with the challenges of creating an immersion program.”

The board is looking for volunteers to help with outreach and awareness efforts, which will be needed after the charter application is accepted, and the clock starts ticking for a September 2010 opening. Visit the website at: www.sejongacademy.org for more information or to answer the interest survey.

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