Academy enhances Korean and Mandarin skills

Students at Yi Hwang Academy of Language Excellence are immersed in Korean and Mandarin learning across the curriculum.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Students at Yi Hwang Academy of Language Excellence are immersed in Korean and Mandarin learning across the curriculum.

Je Yeong Yu, 52, still has vivid memories of moving to the U.S. with her Korean parents and being tossed into a first-grade classroom of where everyone, except she, spoke English.

“There were no ESL programs then,” said Yu, referring to English as a Second Language classes. “I want there to be a smoother transition for students to learn their heritage language as well as English.”

Yu is working to that goal as principal of the Yi Hwang Academy of Language Excellence in Duluth. The veteran educator learned about the school through a friend who was part of the parent group that launched the academy in a church basement with 120 students in September 2020. In January 2021, Yu took the helm.

But the focus isn’t just on teaching English; it’s also dedicated to strengthening the families’ native tongues.

“We’re the only school I’ve come across with a large population of heritage speakers – students whose parents and grandparents came from Korea or China, and they speak Korean or Mandarin at home,” said Yu. “But parents have said they have pretty much lost their language because they were educated here in the States. They barely communicate with their parents. What are their children going to do?”

At the academy, students are immersed in Korean or Mandarin, and parents now report their children are better equipped to communicate with older relatives.

“We have children who have superseded their parents in language acquisition,” said Yu. “That’s important because language carries culture. For families to be able to pass down that heritage is a blessing.”

Attorney Liza Park, an academy founding parent and board member of Korean descent, grew up in Alabama. When she relocated to the metro area, she couldn’t find a Korean dual-immersion school, so she researched how to start one.

“I talked to people in North Fulton, Atlanta and Gwinnett, and I knew there was an interest,” she said. “The genesis of this school is home-grown; it’s parents who wanted it.”

Launching in the first year of a pandemic forced classes to be online or partially in person, but at the end of the debut year the enrollment grew steadily. Today, the academy has about 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with an average class size of 16.

Early last year, the school moved into a new facility on River Green Parkway to accommodate the growing student body. And Yu expects to have about 420 enrolled next year.

“Because of the influx of Asians in this area, we’re attracting people who have come directly from Korea and China,” she said. “Some kids who have come here didn’t know a word of English, and now they are bilingual and biliterate. Here, students can have a softer landing than I had.”

Information about Yi Hwang Academy is online at

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