Principal Tara Ranzy (left) and Ms. Ai, a kindergarten teacher, go over a lesson in English and Japanese at the International Charter Academy in Peachtree Corners on Monday, March 11, 2019. The school, in its first year of operation, conducts classes in both languages. More than half of the time in class is spent with both the teacher and the students speaking Japanese. EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

School aims to teach students, in Japanese, to be global citizens

With Georgia having an economic and cultural relationship with Japan that dates back to the Carter administration, a public school based on Japanese language and customs may be long overdue. International Charter Academy of Georgia, the state’s first Japanese-English dual language immersion school, opened its doors this fall.

As a statewide charter, students throughout Georgia state are eligible for admission.

“The vision goes beyond just families with a Japanese background,” said Bob Johnson, an attorney with international law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz and the incoming vice chair of the ICA Georgia board. “With the global economy as it is, Japanese has become an important language on the world stage.”

Many educators agree.

“In recent years, given the trend of globalization and international collaboration, supporting children’s early foreign language learning has become an important educational issue in early childhood and elementary education,” said Chenyi Zhang, assistant professor of early childhood and elementary education at Georgia State University. “ICA Georgia will provide an early learning experience that is valuable for preparing future generations of ‘global citizens’.”

With a target enrollment of 300, the school in Peachtree Corners is accepting applications for kindergarten through fifth-grade students for the 2019-2020 school year. It currently has about 160 students.

All core subjects are taught in both languages. ICA Georgia uses a higher ratio of time spent in Japanese in younger grades and shifts to balance more evenly with English as students age.

Although Principal Tara Ranzy doesn’t speak Japanese, she said the rigorous academics and the school’s vision of world peace, diversity and inclusion fit in with her education philosophy.

“I believe in persistence and following through,” she said. “Starting a new school can be messy, but there’s a system of structure and procedures in place that makes things work here.”

She said collaboration is more than just a buzz word; it’s the way things are done among the board, administrators, teachers, parents and students.

For example, English and Japanese teachers use a team-teaching approach to ensure students understand lessons in math, science and social studies. But all students are expected to speak and understand Japanese, so pull-out classes help non-native speakers and those who need extra assistance. As a language-immersion program it will provide not only second language skills and cultural competency but also aim for high performance on standardized tests in English and to guide students to develop greater cognitive flexibility, increased attention control, better memory and superior problem-solving skills.

Latoya McGowan doesn’t speak Japanese but is encouraged that her kindergarten son is learning more than just a foreign language.

“When I graduated from college so many years ago with a degree in accounting, they were looking for people who spoke Japanese,” she said. “In this global economy, it’s good to know the culture and customs when you’re learning another language.”

McGowan believed so much in what the school is setting out to do that she ran for president of the Parent Teacher Organization. Though she’d never done that type of exhaustive volunteer work, she wanted to help ensure the school’s success on every level.

“Fundraising, supporting the teachers — it’s all part of what we do to support the school. I don’t want (failing to do) something that I could have done to keep the from school being successful,” she said.

That’s a common theme at the school.

Chiharu Chu was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. as a teen. She married an American and doesn’t expect to move back to Japan. But she’s excited that the culture of her native country can be a part of her children’s education.

“We moved from Marietta so our sons can attend this school,” she said. 

With four boys — a first-grader, kindergartner, 3-year-old and a newborn, she’s put a lot of energy into their futures. Although they were in a great school district, her children would have been minorities at the school as far as she knew. The school had very little diversity she said. 

“This is great for us — the perfect environment,” she said. “Multiculturalism is important and I’m glad that my sons are in a place where no race is considered a minority.”

Japanese-based education in Georgia began after economic development exchanges between the two countries started in 1973. According to the U.S. State Department, Georgia was the first state to open a trade and investment development office in Tokyo. That same year the YKK Group, the zipper and aluminum products powerhouse, and Murata Manufacturing Co., the global electronics firm, opened facilities in Georgia.

With employees coming to the state for three-year spans before returning to Japan, it was important to provide an education for those with children. In 1974 the Consulate General’s office, responsible for Japanese relations with five Southeastern states, opened in Atlanta. That same year, the Georgia Japanese Language School also opened with only nine students.

In those early years, most Japanese students were enrolled in private schools. With technology and more Americans taking on leadership roles in the state’s now 600-plus Japanese based companies, the demand for that type of private school education diminished. The push across the country for more globalization of education made business leaders look toward establishing the charter school.

“This is the school of the future,” said Ranzy. “We don’t always have a voice or a choice in how our schools are run but here we thrive on feedback. We are a community and the success of the students, the teachers, the parents is the success of all of us.”

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