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Home Sweet School

Koream Journal, News feature, Kai Ma Posted: Nov 15, 2008

In a culture that values name-brand schools and academic competition, more Korean Americans are going against the grain by choosing to educate their children at home.

Yummy! shrieks Ellie, bolting through the living room. The spunky 4-year-old, wearing pink leggings and a yellow dress, takes an enthusiastic chomp into a chocolate chip cookie, then bounces into the next room, where her older sister Katie is dancing with a Snoopy doll. Cookies are good! she roars.

Yummy, yummy, yum!

Jean Hong sits on the couch, watching her daughters play. Ellie is really energetic, she says, laughing. Katie, a dreamy 7-year-old in a striped tank dress, tumbles in with an armload of colorful stuffed animals, then throws them at her mothers feet. While a phone rings in the background, Katie belts out

Celebration by Kool & the Gang. Celebrate good times, come on! she sings. Theres a party goin on right here

Similar to most mothers of young children, Hong, 38, seems flustered by the chaos, yet comfortable within it. A thoughtful, engaging woman with large eyes that are prone to tears, Hong describes the past two years, and how her life changed drastically after she pulled Katie out of a Montessori school, and Ellie out of private nursery school, to teach them at home instead. Homeschooling is the perfect choice for her family right now, she says, even as it also raises questions about the future of her daughters.

I worry about the socialization factor, she says in her living room in Fontana, a Southern California suburb 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Theyre not around other kids all the time. I cant recreate school for them, and thats not the point. But I do want them to have friends and other opportunities.

homeFormerly viewed as a quirky system adopted by reclusive families, eccentric hippies, or religious fundamentalists, homeschooling, the practice of educating children at home, typically by parents or professional tutors, has grown exponentially in the past decade. The most recent report provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, a unit of the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that 1.1 million students were homeschooled in the spring of 2003 (an increase from the 850,000 students who were taught at home in the spring of 1999). Now, there are two million homeschooled children in the United States, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, an organization established to defend and advance the constitutional right to homeschool.

Koreans, known for succeeding within public and private American schools (including the Ivy League), are also abandoning traditional education to teach their children in their kitchens and dining rooms. By choosing to homeschool, many of these parents, who include immigrants, are rejecting assimilation on an entirely new level: by refusing to conform to how 55.8 million American children are educated today.

Empowered by the Internet and growing support groups, parents are turning to homeschooling for various reasons, many of which overlap. They live near poor-performing public schools and cannot afford private school tuition. Some are Christians who dont want their children exposed to differing values and lifestyles be it Darwins theory of evolution, or a peer with divorced parents or two daddies. Or, as in the case with Hong and her husband, Johnny, a child may have special needs.

Katie, who Hong calls a late talker, has a mixed expressive/receptive language disorder that requires work with a speech therapist. The disorder is not cognitive (she tested negative for autism), but causes certain language skills to be delayed. After Katie entered a private preschool, then Montessori school for kindergarten, Hong feared that teachers wouldnt have the time or resources to properly address her daughters specific needs. Its hard for teachers, says Hong. Of course, they want to help every single student, but with Katie I felt she wouldve fallen through the cracks.

So in early 2007, Hong decided to teach Katie herself. And when the time came, Ellie, who showed no signs of her sisters disorder, was sent to a private preschool. But being sent to school, while her sister and mother stayed at home, confused Ellie. Even though I felt she could benefit from being around other children, she felt like she was missing out, says Hong. Having both of them home, they can communicate with each other. Its become a family thing. It really is a lifestyle.

As most children are sitting in classrooms miles away from their homes, Hongs daughters are a few steps from their bedrooms in a second-floor loft space packed with sunlight and color. The airy room is lined with a Little Tikes kitchen set and bins stuffed with toys; in the middle lies a large desk and plastic slide.

Bookshelves are stacked with games, texts such as Green Eggs and Ham and Where The Wild Things Are, and childrens stories by Asian American authors.

While Katie is completing handwriting exercises, Ellie creates a farm scene using plastic sheep and cows. She then mows a truck through the animals. Truck begins with T, says Hong, pointing to a box of wooden shapes used to create letters of the alphabet. Can you make me a T, both capital and lower-case?

Yet homeschooling isnt simply about turning a spare room into a class setting.

Education can happen at any given time, inside the home and out. To learn about seasons, the Hongs go outside to collect leaves. At Irvine Regional Park, they ride bikes, go on pony rides, visit the duck pond, and search for the free-roaming peacock. At museums, they receive personalized tours, allowing the children to ask questions with ease. Even trips to Costco offer lessons in adding and subtracting.

And recently, they took a trip to Big Bear Mountain to see and touch snow.

Homeschooling was so daunting to me in the beginning, admits Hong, a second-generation Korean American who received a bachelors degree in Asian American Studies at UCLA. Its hard. Only because I feel like Im just going about it on my own. But learning is not just about going to school; its about your life. And at this young age, teaching [my daughters] is about providing exposure and allowing for real experiences. Its about showing them the world. Its not as unnatural as some people might think.

Though regulations vary across the nation, homeschooling has been legally recognized in all 50 states since 1993, the year Michigan became the final state to strike the teacher certification requirement for home educators, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. (The organizations website, www.hslda.org, summarizes all state laws.)

Home education has become so recognized that elite colleges and the military have become increasingly open to accepting even recruiting homeschooled students, despite their lack of conventional transcripts, report cards or diplomas. Co-ops and support groups are also sprouting across the country, allowing parents to plan play dates and field trips, organize athletic teams, and exchange advice on curriculum.

Homeschooling allows parents to exercise options, says Jack Klenk, director of the Office of Non-Public Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Whether it should be used or not, that debate doesnt exist anymore. Homeschooling has become mainstream.

In a 2003 survey by the NCES, 31 percent of parents (the highest percentage) chose home learning because of concerns about safety, drugs and negative peer pressure at other schools. Thirty percent of parents cited religious and moral beliefs, and 16 percent selected dissatisfaction with academic instruction.

Not that there isnt opposition.

In March, the California Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District ruled that homeschooling parents were required to be certified in order to teach their own children. But the ruling faced so much resistance by parents of the states estimated 166,000 homeschooled youth, that it was reversed last month.

Still, there is much speculation over the academic and social development of these children. Theres the argument that students educated at home will miss out on receiving a wide array of experienced teachers. That it robs them of the more playful aspects of childhood and adolescence: prom, student government, writing for a school newspaper, the chance to be crowned homecoming queen.

Even homeschooling parents worry if their children will develop properly. Will they make friends, or will they become isolated and withdrawn? Will they get into colleges and graduate programs? Mainly, are they getting the education that they need and deserve?

Even with a masters degree in early childhood education, Hye Kyong Lawlor, a former teacher at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, felt insecure about homeschooling her children. It was scary, says Lawlor, who is 43. Its a whole different arena. Teaching phonics, I never studied that. Or how to teach math on a first, second, or third grade level. And oh my goodness, how was I going to teach calculus? Was I going to be able to continue what Id started?

Yet Lawlor, who lives in Elk Grove, Calif., with her three children and husband, felt she had no choice. When their son Adam, now 10, went to a public elementary school for kindergarten, they had to pull him out after six weeks.

My son had a horrible experience, says Lawlor, who observed Adams classroom for seven days. She was appalled by the level of aggression among the students, the lack of problem solving skills within the class. He had a teacher that was really inappropriate and intimidating. She was going through menopause and she yelled at the children. It left them feeling paralyzed and humiliated. When you have a tense, emotional climate like that, kids cant learn. So I was actually left having to homeschool.

There was no other alternative at the time.

The decision still raised eyebrows. Lawlors parents were dumbfounded and her mother-in-law, a former public school teacher, was against the idea. Both of our parents were baffled, Lawlor recalls. I remember my mom saying, But dont you have to send them to a real school? I get comments from everybody. Its pretty constant.

Though Lawlor admits to being weak in the math and sciences, she has been homeschooling her two oldest children, Adam and Natalie, age 8, since 2003. She plans to do the same for her youngest child, who is 4.

For Adam and Natalie, school is in their dining room, or if they choose, at the kitchen counter or on the couch. Barefoot and wearing house clothes, they both study math through a Saxons workbook. Using reading guides, Adam is now reviewing C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia series, and Natalie is poring over Charlottes Web. Other days, the children play basketball at the park or sketch animals at the zoo. When cooking a meal, Lawlor will ask them to double a recipe, which requires the use of fractions.

Thats all education, she says. Its not contained in a book.

Lawlor, who emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, when she was 7, admits to being a non-traditional Korean. Like any parent, she wants her children to excel, but academics isnt my number one priority, she says. Its not the primary goal. Its more about discipleship, character-building, and having my children build relationships with one another. If my children chose against going to college, I would accept that.

Though the children take comprehension tests at the end of the school year, Lawlor doesnt share the results with them. I dont bring in the elements of competition or comparison, she says. I just want them to learn. I dont believe in grading.

Over the years, Lawlor has gained confidence in her role as a teacher. It was my calling from God, she says. People have forgotten that parents are the primary educators because were brainwashed as a society to believe that education should happen in a formalized setting. I dont know why people accept that so blindly. Education starts at home.

Yet other homeschooling parents do reach a limit. Being a stay-at-home mother, while also tacking on the responsibilities of being a childs primary teacher can be physically, mentally and financially taxing especially when having to teach several children at varying levels.

After homeschooling her three oldest children for five years, Lisa Kim, a married mother of five who lives in San Diego, has recently decided to send them back to public school.

It might sound selfish, but I want to take a break, says Kim, who is 36. It gets really overwhelming when everybody is talking and has questions while Im changing a diaper, or nursing. And now, I feel that my oldest three are ready to be introduced into public schools. They were with me long enough to develop the Christian value system that we wanted them to have. Going from homeschool to public school is a big jump, but I will get involved with the school and each class and teacher, to make sure that their education is not compromised.

Kim emigrated from South Korea when she was 15 years old. Even after she decided to homeschool her oldest child in 2003, she worried that it could compromise his education.

That was one obstacle, she says. I felt inadequate because I never experienced American elementary education. My English is not native, and I didnt want my children to receive a limited education because of my lack of knowledge.

But she found solace in her decision after observing other homeschooled children, many of whom she found unbelievably well-behaved and mature.

I was convinced that, although Im not perfect, that God made me to be my childs mom for a reason, and that I could teach my child. And if the Lord calls me back to homeschool in a couple years, Im willing to do it again.

Its hard to deny that Koreans from both South Korea and the United States place a tremendous emphasis on school, so much that immigrants are believed to have journeyed here so that their children can receive an American degree. Which is why Korean American homeschoolers are going against the grain in radical ways. But its not that they dont value education; they do. Arguably, by taking these matters into their own hands, they value education even more.

I imagine many [Korean Americans] who are opting to homeschool want the best for their children, and believe they can do better than what a public school can provide, says Jamie Lew, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Rutgers University, and author of Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap Among Korean American Youth. Its not that education is not important to them, or even less important. But they are looking at alternative routes, and not necessarily choosing what may be the narrative of the immigrant community.

These mothers, mainly 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans, are also redefining what good education is all about, weighing in aspects that many first-generation parents, due to cultural, economical or generational factors, were not able to emphasize: family bonding, character-building, independent thinking, a mind not defined by grades or SAT scores.

As an Asian female, says Hong, I was taught to always respect your elders and follow the rules. Ive come to realize that its not good to always follow the rules; you have to question things. I think if you go to school and do the things you have to do to be a straight-A student, youre only getting half of what you need. There are benefits to being a little bit rebellious.

Downstairs, Ellie is sprawled on a table, reaching for a book. On the walls above her are posters displaying numbers and coins. Big line, little curve, Hong says, showing Ellie how to write the letter P. I did it! Ellie screams, as she traces the letter. Big line! Little curve!

For now, this is the ideal learning environment for her children, Hong says. They are close enough in age that learning can occur jointly, and their subjects, unlike foreign languages or advanced sciences, feel manageable. But as they grow older, will homeschooling still be plausible?

I waver back and forth, Hong says, when asked if she will continue to homeschool.
Her eyes fill up with tears.

Theyre only going to be this age for so long, she says, her voice breaking. It seems like this could all fly by really fast. I have doubts too [about homeschooling], but I feel I understand my children and can make them feel accepted and loved. Thats going to give them so much confidence. And thats what I believe is the basis for everything.

Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi

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