New America Media, Peter Schurmann
A public high school in the affluent Bay Area suburb of San Ramon is set to offer what will be only the second Korean-language program in Northern California, where an ongoing fiscal crisis is driving most schools toward drastic cuts. But thanks to grants from the South Korean government, Dougherty Valley High is set to play a part in Seoul’s larger push to deepen ties with the United States.
Rob Stockberger is director of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, host to a growing number of ethnic Korean families. He said that Dougherty Valley High has plans in the works to set up a two-year Korean-language program, though much depends on whether or not the classes will draw a sufficient number of students.
According to Stockberger, the school can only proceed with the plans if at least 50 students sign up for the class. Because most students have already determined their schedules for the coming fall term, he said, the school will have to work to inform students via e-mail or through the schools website on how to make changes if they decide to enroll.
Only 60 Korean Classes in U.S.
Throughout the United States only 60 public schools from elementary to high schools offer Korean as a second language, and two-thirds of them are concentrated in Southern California, home to one of the largest Korean communities outside of Korea.
San Francisco’s Lowell High, among California’s top-rated public high schools, has offered Korean classes since 1993. Officials at the school said the class has consistently drawn students of both Korean and non-Korean heritages.
“As South Korea becomes an increasingly globalized society, the government has made it a mission to reach out to various communities around the world to strengthen awareness of Korea’s language and customs, and to foster greater intercultural understanding through such exchanges,” said Sang Shin Han, vice president of the Korean Education Center in Los Angeles. The center draws funding from the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Relations between the United State and South Korea go back six decades, when America fought alongside South Korean and United Nations’ troops in a bloody three-year conflict against North Korean and Chinese forces.
Washington still maintains a sizable military presence in the country, while trade ties between the two sides continue to deepen. Still, most Americans remain woefully ignorant about Korea, which has long been overshadowed in the American mind by China and Japan, and by memories of the Vietnam War.
Sinok Kim, director of the Korean consulate’s education department in San Francisco, said the Korean government has offered a setup grant of $25,000 to $30,000 to schools willing to host a Korean-language program, depending on the size of the class. The government will then provide a maintenance grant of $6,000 the following year.
If Dougherty Valley High gets the funding, it will have to commit to offering the program for at least two years, Kim said.
Kim also noted that Seoul has already begun offering scholarships to students to provide them an opportunity to travel to Korea to study its language. She and Han said the students would help foster greater cultural and economic ties between the two countries.
Foreign governments have only rarely funded local language programs in U.S. public schools. Beijing, for instance, has spearheaded a campaign in recent years that has helped establish numerous Confucian Institutes across the United States. Individuals can learn at them about Chinese language and culture. The institute in Chicago played a part in setting up a Chinese-language program in a local school last year.
Working With Schools, Parents
According to the Oakland-based Korea Times, the Korean Education Center in San Francisco (KECSF) has been consulting since February with the boards of education in several cities and counties, including Cupertino and Monterey, about establishing Korean language classes in local high schools.
The Korea Times article noted that KECSF worked with local parents to launch a promotion committee aimed at drumming up student interest in Korean language classes. It added that the soon-to-be established class in San Ramon came about through the school’s emphasis on global languages and parents’ active support.
The growing number of Korean families settling in the area, many employed in the local Internet-technology industry, led to the formation in 2010 of a Korean parents group. It began to work in conjunction with the South Korean embassy in San Francisco to push the school district to create a Korean language program.
“A joint effort by the Korean consulate in San Francisco and our local parent group helped open the gate to establishing the Korean program,” said Sang Chul Kang, president of the group.
A first-generation Korean immigrant, Kang said he and other Korean parents were frustrated by the fact that the San Ramon school district did not provide the opportunity for their children to learn their ancestral language.
There are about 200 students of Korean descent at Dougherty Valley, making up roughly 10 percent of the student body. Kang said he and other Korean parents petitioned the school for the classes. He noted that his group organized a number of events seeking to introduce Korean food and culture to the wider community. Also, Kang said, there are also plans to set up a class for Taekwondo, Korea’s traditional martial art.
Dougherty Valley High, like most schools across the state, offers Spanish and Chinese classes, reflecting larger societal demographics and the relative demand for these languages. But with a rising Korean population in the United State and the emergence of South Korea as a major economic player the picture appears to be broadening.