Korean dual language immersion program kindergarten teacher Jennifer Kim reads a Korean book to her students during the first day of school at Parsons Elementary School in Suwanee. Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Korean dual language immersion program is the first of this program offered in the state. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gwinnett schools start Korean language immersion program

On the first day of the 2019-2020 school year for the Gwinnett County Public School district, a brand new high school welcomed students for the first time an elementary school launched a program that’s the first of its kind in Georgia.

With cheers and confetti, McClure Health Science High School opened its doors for the first time to an estimated 650 students.

“From Day One we want to create a culture that welcomes everyone,” said Principal Nicole Mosley. Interjecting the school’s motto she added that every day students should have an opportunity to “Awaken the Wonder.”

Further north in Suwanee, much younger students were pioneers of a different sort — the state’s first Korean Dual Language Immersion program at Parsons Elementary, where a kindergarten class spends half the day learning in English and the other half learning in Korean.

“We wanted to start small,” said Jon Valentine, director of the Foreign Language program.

Gwinnett County had a vision for the Dual Language Immersion programs six years ago, when it launched programs in Spanish and French.

Valentine said he looks for the best teachers who just happen to be proficient in another language — not the other way around.

Jennifer Kim is one of them. She teaches the kindergartners in Korean, but spent last year teaching a class in English.

“My degree is in early childhood education,” said Kim, who taught in English when she lived in Korea.

“It’s important that the children learn their core subjects AND the language,” she said. “I was a little nervous that the first day might have some issues, but we’re doing well.”

For many Gwinnett children, this is their first time in an all-day school.

Paying attention, getting used to a new routine and a new adult could take some time. But as Kim went over colors, everyone gradually understood that “galsaeg” means brown and “ppalgan” is red.

“My goal is to get them interested in the language,” said Kim. Many of the Asian children are second or third generation and even if Korean or another Asian language is spoken at home, they understand it but don’t speak it themselves.

A measure of success for all the dual language programs is the number of students who stay with them.

“All of the fifth grade classes are full,” said Valentine. “And now we’re getting our middle school program ready.”

The district’s goal is to have students so proficient that they will eventually get the state’s bi-literacy seal on their diplomas.

“This will certainly give these students an advantage in the job market,” said Valentine. “And it’s an economic driver for the state. We have a lot of Korean companies that do business with Georgia.”

Korean language is displayed inside the kindergarten classroom of the dual language immersion program during the first day of school at Parsons Elementary School in Suwanee. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

According to the state Department of Economic Development, the Republic of Korea is the sixth largest foreign investor in the state in terms of jobs. And after English and Spanish, Korean is spoken in the most Georgia homes.

There is a large Asian population in that part of Gwinnett County and community members lobbied the school board to bring the program to Parsons. But about half of the class is students who don’t have Asian ancestry.

There are very few programs in the United States that teach Korean. Gwinnett officials met with counterparts in Fairfax, Virginia, Los Angeles, California and Glendale, California to study best practices.

“I want to check in with these students in 20 years and see how these dual language programs have changed their lives,” said Valentine. “This is one more component in providing a world class education.”

McClure High opens with state-of-the-art equipment 

Part of the Meadowcreek cluster, the $38 million McClure High School has been designed with state-of-the-art medical equipment, and staff trained to help students learn to use it. Unlike Paul Duke STEM that came online without seniors last year, McClure will have a graduating class this year.

“We’ve had individual conferences with all the seniors prior to the start of school,” said Mosley. “We want to work on long-term goals and establish relationships with the healthcare industry.”

And those plans are in place for all the students.

Mahmoud Gafur said he decided to take a chance on the school because his daughter, Risala, wants to become an obstetrician/gynecologist. He said the school will give Risala experience that other students may only see in post-secondary education.

“She was previously in private school, but this program seems to have great benefits,” Gafur said.

Laurice Lyons agreed that the school will offer a valuable career experience to her freshman daughter Diana, who is also interested in the OB/GYN field.

“I’m really trying to get over the shock that she’s on her way to the career she’s always wanted,” Laurice Lyons said while hugging her daughter.

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