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Surge in Asian Enrollment Alters Schools December 20, 2006

Posted by peterong in Asian American, Asian American Youth.

an interesting article that my friend Ashley pointed out…there are some perpetual stereotypes here…but is it?

by Winnie Hu

WHEN Cresskill School District officials proposed a $31.1 million renovation of their three public schools in 2004, they worried that residents in this affluent borough of 7,700 in Bergen County would not go along. The last school project was rejected twice before narrowly passing in 1998. And that was for only $3.9 million.

While the Cresskill schools clearly needed fixing up — boiler repairs at the high school alone were costing $25,000 a year — many parents told school officials that it was simply too much to spend, said Charles V. Khoury, the superintendent, who met with nearly a dozen parent and community groups.

So Mr. Khoury was all the more surprised after making his pitch to the Korean Parents Association, known as the K.P.A., which co-exists alongside the more traditional parent organizations at the Cresskill schools. The association, which was founded in 1982 for Korean families who spoke little English, now represents more than 100 families.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you ask for $40 million?’ ” Dr. Khoury recalled, with a grin of disbelief. “It was a wonderful feeling because I realized I didn’t have to sell them on it. They recognized the value of education and the value of the schools.”

The Korean parents quickly went to work, lobbying people at churches and cultural events to support the renovations, which included building an athletic complex and updating seven science labs at the high school. On the day of the referendum, in January 2005, a half-dozen Korean parents gathered at the high school to place last-minute calls to Korean voters. And by the end of the night, the most expensive school project in Cresskill’s history was approved by two-thirds of the voters.

Even as the Asian population hovers at 4 percent nationwide, an influx of Asian families in towns across the New York region in the past decade has helped refashion suburban school systems that were once predominantly white. Asian students are the fastest-growing minority in the region, and have even become the majority in the Herricks Union Free School District on the North Shore of Long Island, where more than half of the 4,200 students are Indian, Korean and Chinese. In New Jersey, 46 percent of the 13,682 students in the Edison Township School District were Asian last year, up from 36 percent five years ago.

South Brunswick, Woodbridge and the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey have also seen big increases in the last five years, as have Syosset and Jericho Districts on Long Island.

Of course, New York City continues to be a magnet for many Asian immigrants, who have historically spent time in its ethnic enclaves — Chinatown, Flushing and Sunset Park — before moving to the suburbs, a migration pattern set by earlier generations of European immigrants. In the last five years, the city’s Asian population has increased by more than 100,000, or roughly 13 percent, according to the planning department.

But in recent years, many educated, successful Asians have carved out their own route, bypassing the city to move directly to the suburbs. The families are often drawn by word-of mouth about the schools, rather than by low taxes or social services, and tap into thriving networks of Asians already living there. In some cases, Korean and Japanese mothers have been known to take their children to the United States for the school year while the fathers stay behind at high-paying corporate jobs in their own countries.

“Koreans are very aware of the schools, and their rankings; that’s the first thing they ask other parents when they move,” said Maria Shim, 40, whose two daughters, Esther, 12, and Nicole, 10, attend the Cresskill schools.

School officials, teachers and parents say the expanding Asian population has strengthened their schools, not only by raising test scores but also by promoting diversity and tolerance. At Edison High School, in New Jersey, Indian students have formed the Peacock Society, an after-school club that organizes cultural festivals. Similarly, on Long Island, one of the most popular events at Great Neck South High School is Asian Night, where Chinese students and others put on a two-hour extravaganza of Asian art, theater and dance. “It’s noisy, it’s fun and everybody loves it,” said Ronald L. Friedman, the superintendent.

Across the region, the enrollment of Asian students is up 28 percent since the 2000-1 school year. Almost every school district has felt some impact from Asian immigration, but the growth has been most remarkable in districts in Somerset, Middlesex, Mercer and Morris Counties in New Jersey and Nassau County in New York, which now have large Asian student populations.

WESTCHESTER and Connecticut have lower Asian enrollments, but populations there are growing as well. Stamford has seen a 45 percent jump in Asian enrollment in five years, but Asians still number just 6 percent of the total. In the Valhalla Union Free School District in Westchester, enrollment has doubled since 2000-1.

Perhaps nowhere is this diversity more evident than in the Herricks school district on Long Island, where administrators say a majority of students this year are Asian. Last year, the district reported to the state an enrollment that was 45 percent Asian. As the schools have gained a reputation for rigorous academics, more Asian families have moved in, fueling a rapid rise in the Asian student population, from 26 percent in 1991. School officials have even received inquiries from parents in China and India who are relocating to New York.

Jack Bierwirth, the Herricks superintendent, said the impact can be seen in everyday classroom discussions that have grown deeper, richer and more personal as students from other countries share their experiences. “Whether it’s a piece of artwork or a piece of literature,” he said, “you all gain something from seeing it from different perspectives.”

To that end, school officials have started taking part in educational exchanges to South Korea, China and Japan.

Since 2004, 62 Connecticut schools have been partners with Chinese schools in Shandong Province. After Michael Graner, the superintendent of the Ledyard Public Schools, where 5 percent of the 3,000 students are Asian, returned from the Qingdao Arts School last year, he told his own students about how the Chinese students went to class six days a week and had to compete for admission to the high schools.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Mr. Graner, whose district recently was host to a Chinese teacher from Qingdao. “A lot of times, for American students, the world is what they see.”

Still, the large numbers of Asians have also stretched resources and posed other challenges for schools that are rushing to expand classes for students speaking little English, hire more bilingual teachers who can be de facto translators and bring together often disparate cultural experiences under one school roof.

SCHOOL officials in Woodbridge, N.J., have been trying to hire a qualified teacher for a bilingual class in Punjabi for four years. They still do not have one, though other classes are offered in Urdu and Gujarati for the district’s Indian students, who speak more than a half-dozen Indian dialects. In New Haven, the Worthington Hooker Elementary School started its first bilingual Chinese class last year. Asian students make up 22 percent of the 398 students at the school, which draws many families of Yale faculty members.

In Cresskill, Koreans have moved next door to Irish, Italian and German families who relocated there from New York City after World War II. Asians make up about 20 percent of the borough’s population, and have an even larger presence in the schools. Nearly one-quarter of the district’s 1,640 students are Asian, and of those, most are Korean.

Benedict Romeo, the Cresskill mayor, said Korean families have become an integral part of not just the schools but also the larger community. For instance, he said, a Korean man donated 100 chairs to the community center in March, and other Korean parents have coached Little League and community soccer leagues. “We’ve accepted them, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “It enriches the population of the town. We have a broader range of cultures and we all seem to be getting along fine.”

The Cresskill schools, though not as well known as those in Ridgewood or Princeton, have increasingly earned recognition for their top-performing students. In September, the Cresskill Junior-Senior High School was ranked 15th in a statewide survey by New Jersey Monthly magazine. Last year, the school placed 93rd in a national survey of high schools published in Newsweek magazine.

Cresskill students have consistently outscored their peers on state assessments. In 2005, 90.8 percent of Cresskill’s 11th graders passed tests in reading and writing, and 89.8 percent in math, compared with state averages of 83.2 percent and 75.5 percent. Cresskill students had average SAT scores of 555 verbal and 597 math compared with state averages of 501 and 519.

All of that has been a selling point for Korean families.

Ms. Shim, who was born in Seoul, recalled that when she graduated from Cresskill High School in 1985, it had only a half-dozen Asian students. Thirteen years later, Ms. Shim settled in Cresskill with her husband, Seo Koo, who owns an import business in Manhattan, so that her children could attend the borough’s schools.

THE Korean Parents Association, which acts as a good-will emissary of sorts for the Korean community, has sought to bridge the different cultures. In 2004, the parents raised $3,500 from membership dues, garage sales and “bake sales” of dumplings to send the high school principal, Peter Eftychiou, to visit schools in Seoul. This year, the parents plan to raise $4,500 to send Dr. Khoury, the superintendent, to Seoul.

Korean parents have also treated their children’s teachers to Korean plays and Carnegie Hall concerts. For the Lunar New Year, they set out a buffet of traditional Korean foods like stir-fried noodles and barbecued beef in the teachers’ lounge. They send Korean food to classrooms for International Day festivities.

“It’s sort of our obligation to show our culture,” said Julie Kim, 42, a piano teacher whose daughter, Leena, 17, and son, Andrew, 13, attend the high school. “We want the teachers to understand where we came from because we are different when we go home.”

Without such efforts, Korean parents said that cultural differences could lead to social problems. For instance, Ms. Shim noted that Korean-born teenagers tend to be less self-conscious about holding hands and patting one another on the arm than Americans. “Sometimes, people raised here, they don’t know how to react,” she said. “They think: Is he being nice to me, or is he bullying me?”

Cresskill’s Korean culture has filtered into the hallways of the high school, where even non-Korean students will shout out Korean words like the one meaning stop, “hahjima!” And while some racial stereotypes persist — for instance, 14 of the 24 students in an honors chemistry class were Asian along with the teacher — others have been dispelled by the large, diverse population. Nearly one-fifth of the Cresskill football team is Asian, and a former star quarterback was half-Korean and half-Chinese.

Even so, many Korean students seem most comfortable hanging out with other Koreans. In classrooms and during lunch periods, Korean students could be seen sitting together, separating themselves from other students. “I get to know the students more when they’re Korean,” said John Han, 16, a junior who moved to Cresskill last year from New Paltz, N.Y., where he said there was only one other Korean in his school.

Min Klein, a Cresskill math teacher who is Korean, said that her Korean students asked her to speak Korean to them in class. She refused. “I do want to see more of a mix,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a problem, but sometimes the other kids say, ‘Why do all the Koreans sit together?’ I don’t have the answer.”

To help address such concerns, the school’s guidance department sponsors a “Mix It Up” day every month, when students are required at lunch to sit outside their usual cliques, whether that means Koreans, jocks or neighborhood youths. “We’re telling them, ‘These are kids in your grade, get to know them,’ ” said Mr. Eftychiou, the principal.

Bob Valli, a guidance counselor and football coach who has worked at the school for three decades, said Korean students have set an example for their peers with their positive attitude and work ethic even as their growing presence has given the faculty new challenges like communicating with students who speak little, if any, English and who may not share common bonds and experiences.

“It’s a small school so we’re able to assimilate everybody,” he said. “If it were a larger school, that may not be the case. We try real hard to keep the kids together.”

Ford Fessenden contributed reporting.



1. JoseonIllin - January 4, 2007

i grew up in the ‘kill. in the mid 90’s social circles in chs was racially very segregated, so i’m glad the school is making some efforts to address that with the ‘mix it up days’ and the hiring of two korean teachers. it’s a small start. hopefully more we’ll be done…

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