Tutoring Centers Also Show Korean Americans the World Outside the Classroom

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 2009

When Aran Park directed a tutoring center in South Korea, her workday ended at 3 a.m. That's when her last class let out. "We have a saying in Korea: If you sleep three hours, you succeed; if you sleep four hours, you fail," she said.

Park opened another tutoring center in the corner of a Centreville office building last year. At the Living Stone Academy, she runs a strict program with daily quizzes and lots of homework, but on a distinctly American schedule that ends by 4 p.m. "It is summer vacation," she said, laughing. "I don't want to take away all the fun they deserve."

Many Koreans who move to the United States are relieved to be rid of the expensive and energy-sapping cram schools where, driven by intense competition to get into top universities, students spend most of their waking hours after the school day ends.

But a new and gentler version of cram school is emerging in the United States. Over the past 15 years, scores of Korean-run academies have opened in strip malls and office buildings in such immigrant enclaves as Ellicott City and Annandale. Names such as Elite Academy and Einstein Academy reflect the educational goals that brought families halfway around the world.

This summer, thousands of Korean American students, along with an increasing number of non-Koreans, will attend them to prepare for next year's math classes, SAT tests or the entrance exam for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The schools are designed to give students a competitive edge, but many offer far more than academic support. They help newcomers adjust to a new culture, new expectations and a dramatically different public school system. For some families, they are a lifeline between the old world and the new.

"It's not all academics in America. You have to get involved in other things," said Matthew Lee, who emigrated from Korea as a teenager and established Best Academy in 1994. It has campuses in Springfield, Sterling and Columbia.

Getting involved can be a difficult concept for students who for years have been pushed to make academics their primary focus. So Lee, a guidance counselor in Fairfax County schools, offers academic classes in the morning and fills the afternoon with extracurricular activities that many public schools offer and American colleges expect to see on applications. He also counsels parents who are unfamiliar with American education traditions.

Best Academy charges $1,100 for an eight-week enrichment program for elementary and middle school students. Many academies' rates are far higher. In the fall, students go once or twice a week after the regular school day.

This summer, they are taking art classes, going on field trips and volunteering on political campaigns. They go to the pool, and they watch movies. The school offers clubs for origami, journalism and mental math.

On a sunny afternoon this week, two dozen third- and fourth-graders in art class concentrated on a blank page. Their task, the teacher said, was to draw a jar and fill it with something large and "outside the ordinary." With colored pencils, they filled the space with a dragon, a candy store, a beach and a man.

Lee tries to introduce newcomers to American public school traditions. "Spirit days," such as Funny Hat Day or Pajama Day, are commonplace in American schools but baffling to students accustomed to regimens and uniforms. He lets them practice the goofy tradition at his academy first, "where they feel more safe," he said.

Mira Chae, a Korean-born parent whose three children have attended the Best Academy, said the school helped her children feel more comfortable and less shy at the private and public schools they attended. It also helped bridge the cultural gap between her and her American-born children. "Report cards are not everything," she said.

Fewer Korean families seek out cram schools in the United States than in Korea, said Kyeyoung Park, associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. But the cram school industry is still booming, with families' needs changing.

More families rely on two incomes here and need a safe place for day care, Park said. Some are hoping to replicate the intensity of Korea's schools, and others are interested in the golf lessons or taekwondo some schools offer.

Einstein Academy, tucked next to a Korean church in a Fairfax City office building, markets to middle and high school students and maintains an academic focus. The school advertises a high pass rate for students on the Thomas Jefferson High School entrance exam and a heavy homework load.

But it tailors its academic courses to American expectations, said Executive Director Don Shim, with creative teaching techniques and different types of classes. This summer, the academy is offering a debate class to bolster students' communication skills. "Many students know the answer, but they don't know how to explain it," Shim said. "They just mumble."

For some parents, the American-style cram schools are not rigorous enough. Several of Shim's students are returning to Korea this summer for more-intense programs, he said.

One of those students is Fred Jin, 16, a rising sophomore at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax City. He will spend four weeks at a kind of academic boot camp near Seoul, where study sessions begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 11:30 p.m.

"Most important thing," said his mother, Youna Jin, with one finger raised in the air. "No computer." That means no cellphone, no Facebook, no MP3s.

She brought her two sons to the United States four years ago, leaving her husband behind, because she thought they would find better schools and have a better chance at getting into a prestigious college. America, she has found, is lonely for her and full of distractions for her sons, particularly online distractions. Given tight competition for Ivy League schools, she is worried her sons are wasting too much time.

Recently, she has taken to putting a mirror behind them when they are doing homework on their laptops so she can monitor their Facebook use. Five thousand dollars for four weeks, plus airfare, seems a fair price to limit that access.

Fred Jin, who prefers tennis to academics, said he expects the boot camp to be "tiring." But when it comes time to take the SAT, he said, he expects he "will get results from it."

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