Dongju Son, the homecoming king and student council president at Gwinnett County’s Peachtree Ridge High School, stood on the auditorium stage last week and started the meeting by asking the audience, in Korean, to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
The audience of more than 200 parents and students, nearly all Korean-Americans, stood and recited the pledge.
And so began the school’s first Korean Parent Night, 90 minutes of discussions about various classes, tests, financial aid and scholarship opportunities, done nearly entirely in Korean.
In recent years, several metro Atlanta schools have conducted such events to better engage the growing number of Korean parents. Two other Gwinnett schools have held nights for Korean families. Parents in some elementary schools in DeKalb and Forsyth counties have held potluck dinners as part of outreach efforts to Korean and other families.
One in 10 of Peachtree Ridge’s 3,200 students are Korean and one-quarter of them are Asian, school officials said. The number of Gwinnett students whose primary home language is Korean has increased since 2007 by about 500 students, from 2,129 to 2,653. Since 1995, Gwinnett’s Asian student population has grown from 6 to 10 percent.
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Many of the parents are first-generation Americans and unfamiliar with some things that may help their children, such as which Advanced Placement courses are best to take.
“Many first-generation Korean-Americans do not understand how the school system works, with language barriers, and they have to rely on information given by their children and hope they would make good choices selecting classes and make decisions about colleges,” said Julia Ahn, who has twin 10th-graders at the school. “Therefore, they miss out a lot on decision-making or guiding their children.”
Principal Jeff Mathews said conducting the meeting mostly in Korean encourages parents to ask more questions. Many parents scribbled notes and took photos with their smartphones during the meeting and breakout sessions that were led by students. Assistant Principal Jennifer Fero, who is Korean and organized the meeting, said she got the idea from a similar event mainly in Spanish first held last year organized by Hispanic Organization Promoting Education for the school’s Hispanic parents.
Jin Lee, a recent transplant from New York, came to the meeting with her two preteen children. She said she learned some useful information about scholarships. Lee said she might not have come to the meeting if it was conducted entirely in English.
“Learning in Korean was the best,” she said through an interpreter.
School officials say there’s another problem they see among many Korean-American students. Their parents are so focused on their children excelling academically that they’re not enjoying the full high school experience.
“I would like to see more of our Korean-American students engaged in a wider range of activities and athletics at our school,” Fero told the audience in English. “I believe this will provide an excellent platform for students to learn to work with people different from them, have confidence when they are outside of their Korean ‘bubble.’ “
The message is a difficult one for many parents to accept, Ahn says. Many of them moved to Gwinnett and other north Atlanta suburbs to enroll their children in good schools that will help them enroll in top colleges. Ahn said the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, which typically tops state rankings in most academic categories, is known by many in South Korea as one of the best schools in the U.S. Ahn moved to Gwinnett from Henry County, in part, because of the schools.
“I agreed with (Fero) because all students are different,” she said.
Forsyth County parent Dick Workman, whose wife is Korean-American, participated in “Fun Fridays” at his daughter’s elementary school several years ago because he noticed some Korean-American families had trouble adjusting to the U.S. educational system. Parents were encouraged to bring dishes specific to their homeland to share. By sharing something of themselves, Workman said, they learned more about school.
“The more they understand about the school, the better they will help their child succeed,” he said.