New Jersey: Surge in Asian enrollment alters schools

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 3 14:17:37 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,  December 3, 2006

Surge in Asian Enrollment Alters Schools

Cresskill, N.J.

WHEN Cresskill School District officials proposed a $31.1 million
renovation of their three public schools in 2004, they worried that
residents in this affluent borough of 7,700 in Bergen County would not go
along. The last school project was rejected twice before narrowly passing
in 1998. And that was for only $3.9 million. While the Cresskill schools
clearly needed fixing up boiler repairs at the high school alone were
costing $25,000 a year many parents told school officials that it was
simply too much to spend, said Charles V.  Khoury, the superintendent, who
met with nearly a dozen parent and community groups.

So Mr. Khoury was all the more surprised after making his pitch to the
Korean Parents Association, known as the K.P.A., which co-exists alongside
the more traditional parent organizations at the Cresskill schools. The
association, which was founded in 1982 for Korean families who spoke
little English, now represents more than 100 families. They said, Why dont
you ask for $40 million?  Dr. Khoury recalled, with a grin of disbelief.
It was a wonderful feeling because I realized I didnt have to sell them on
it. They recognized the value of education and the value of the schools.

The Korean parents quickly went to work, lobbying people at churches and
cultural events to support the renovations, which included building an
athletic complex and updating seven science labs at the high school. On
the day of the referendum, in January 2005, a half-dozen Korean parents
gathered at the high school to place last-minute calls to Korean voters.
And by the end of the night, the most expensive school project in
Cresskills history was approved by two-thirds of the voters. Even as the
Asian population hovers at 4 percent nationwide, an influx of Asian
families in towns across the New York region in the past decade has helped
refashion suburban school systems that were once predominantly white.
Asian students are the fastest-growing minority in the region, and have
even become the majority in the Herricks Union Free School District on the
North Shore of Long Island, where more than half of the 4,200 students are
Indian, Korean and Chinese. In New Jersey, 46 percent of the 13,682
students in the Edison Township School District were Asian last year, up
from 36 percent five years ago.

South Brunswick, Woodbridge and the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional
School District in New Jersey have also seen big increases in the last
five years, as have Syosset and Jericho Districts on Long Island. Of
course, New York City continues to be a magnet for many Asian immigrants,
who have historically spent time in its ethnic enclaves Chinatown,
Flushing and Sunset Park before moving to the suburbs, a migration pattern
set by earlier generations of European immigrants. In the last five years,
the citys Asian population has increased by more than 100,000, or roughly
13 percent, according to the planning department.

But in recent years, many educated, successful Asians have carved out
their own route, bypassing the city to move directly to the suburbs. The
families are often drawn by word-of mouth about the schools, rather than
by low taxes or social services, and tap into thriving networks of Asians
already living there. In some cases, Korean and Japanese mothers have been
known to take their children to the United States for the school year
while the fathers stay behind at high-paying corporate jobs in their own
countries. Koreans are very aware of the schools, and their rankings;
thats the first thing they ask other parents when they move, said Maria
Shim, 40, whose two daughters, Esther, 12, and Nicole, 10, attend the
Cresskill schools.

School officials, teachers and parents say the expanding Asian population
has strengthened their schools, not only by raising test scores but also
by promoting diversity and tolerance. At Edison High School, in New
Jersey, Indian students have formed the Peacock Society, an after-school
club that organizes cultural festivals. Similarly, on Long Island, one of
the most popular events at Great Neck South High School is Asian Night,
where Chinese students and others put on a two-hour extravaganza of Asian
art, theater and dance. Its noisy, its fun and everybody loves it, said
Ronald L. Friedman, the superintendent. Across the region, the enrollment
of Asian students is up 28 percent since the 2000-1 school year. Almost
every school district has felt some impact from Asian immigration, but the
growth has been most remarkable in districts in Somerset, Middlesex,
Mercer and Morris Counties in New Jersey and Nassau County in New York,
which now have large Asian student populations.

WESTCHESTER and Connecticut have lower Asian enrollments, but populations
there are growing as well. Stamford has seen a 45 percent jump in Asian
enrollment in five years, but Asians still number just 6 percent of the
total. In the Valhalla Union Free School District in Westchester,
enrollment has doubled since 2000-1. Perhaps nowhere is this diversity
more evident than in the Herricks school district on Long Island, where
administrators say a majority of students this year are Asian. Last year,
the district reported to the state an enrollment that was 45 percent
Asian. As the schools have gained a reputation for rigorous academics,
more Asian families have moved in, fueling a rapid rise in the Asian
student population, from 26 percent in 1991. School officials have even
received inquiries from parents in China and India who are relocating to
New York.

Jack Bierwirth, the Herricks superintendent, said the impact can be seen
in everyday classroom discussions that have grown deeper, richer and more
personal as students from other countries share their experiences. Whether
its a piece of artwork or a piece of literature, he said, you all gain
something from seeing it from different perspectives. To that end, school
officials have started taking part in educational exchanges to South
Korea, China and Japan. Since 2004, 62 Connecticut schools have been
partners with Chinese schools in Shandong Province. After Michael Graner,
the superintendent of the Ledyard Public Schools, where 5 percent of the
3,000 students are Asian, returned from the Qingdao Arts School last year,
he told his own students about how the Chinese students went to class six
days a week and had to compete for admission to the high schools.

It was an eye-opening experience, said Mr. Graner, whose district recently
was host to a Chinese teacher from Qingdao. A lot of times, for American
students, the world is what they see. Still, the large numbers of Asians
have also stretched resources and posed other challenges for schools that
are rushing to expand classes for students speaking little English, hire
more bilingual teachers who can be de facto translators and bring together
often disparate cultural experiences under one school roof. SCHOOL
officials in Woodbridge, N.J., have been trying to hire a qualified
teacher for a bilingual class in Punjabi for four years. They still do not
have one, though other classes are offered in Urdu and Gujarati for the
districts Indian students, who speak more than a half-dozen Indian
dialects. In New Haven, the Worthington Hooker Elementary School started
its first bilingual Chinese class last year. Asian students make up 22
percent of the 398 students at the school, which draws many families of
Yale faculty members.

In Cresskill, Koreans have moved next door to Irish, Italian and German
families who relocated there from New York City after World War II. Asians
make up about 20 percent of the boroughs population, and have an even
larger presence in the schools. Nearly one-quarter of the districts 1,640
students are Asian, and of those, most are Korean. Benedict Romeo, the
Cresskill mayor, said Korean families have become an integral part of not
just the schools but also the larger community. For instance, he said, a
Korean man donated 100 chairs to the community center in March, and other
Korean parents have coached Little League and community soccer leagues.
Weve accepted them, and thats the way it should be, he said. It enriches
the population of the town. We have a broader range of cultures and we all
seem to be getting along fine.

The Cresskill schools, though not as well known as those in Ridgewood or
Princeton, have increasingly earned recognition for their top-performing
students. In September, the Cresskill Junior-Senior High School was ranked
15th in a statewide survey by New Jersey Monthly magazine. Last year, the
school placed 93rd in a national survey of high schools published in
Newsweek magazine. Cresskill students have consistently outscored their
peers on state assessments. In 2005, 90.8 percent of Cresskills 11th
graders passed tests in reading and writing, and 89.8 percent in math,
compared with state averages of 83.2 percent and 75.5 percent. Cresskill
students had average SAT scores of 555 verbal and 597 math compared with
state averages of 501 and 519. All of that has been a selling point for
Korean families.

Ms. Shim, who was born in Seoul, recalled that when she graduated from
Cresskill High School in 1985, it had only a half-dozen Asian students.
Thirteen years later, Ms. Shim settled in Cresskill with her husband, Seo
Koo, who owns an import business in Manhattan, so that her children could
attend the boroughs schools. THE Korean Parents Association, which acts as
a good-will emissary of sorts for the Korean community, has sought to
bridge the different cultures. In 2004, the parents raised $3,500 from
membership dues, garage sales and bake sales of dumplings to send the high
school principal, Peter Eftychiou, to visit schools in Seoul. This year,
the parents plan to raise $4,500 to send Dr. Khoury, the superintendent,
to Seoul.

Korean parents have also treated their childrens teachers to Korean plays
and Carnegie Hall concerts. For the Lunar New Year, they set out a buffet
of traditional Korean foods like stir-fried noodles and barbecued beef in
the teachers lounge. They send Korean food to classrooms for International
Day festivities. Its sort of our obligation to show our culture, said
Julie Kim, 42, a piano teacher whose daughter, Leena, 17, and son, Andrew,
13, attend the high school. We want the teachers to understand where we
came from because we are different when we go home.

Without such efforts, Korean parents said that cultural differences could
lead to social problems. For instance, Ms. Shim noted that Korean-born
teenagers tend to be less self-conscious about holding hands and patting
one another on the arm than Americans. Sometimes, people raised here, they
dont know how to react, she said. They think: Is he being nice to me, or
is he bullying me? Cresskills Korean culture has filtered into the
hallways of the high school, where even non-Korean students will shout out
Korean words like the one meaning stop, hahjima! And while some racial
stereotypes persist for instance, 14 of the 24 students in an honors
chemistry class were Asian along with the teacher others have been
dispelled by the large, diverse population. Nearly one-fifth of the
Cresskill football team is Asian, and a former star quarterback was
half-Korean and half-Chinese.

Even so, many Korean students seem most comfortable hanging out with other
Koreans. In classrooms and during lunch periods, Korean students could be
seen sitting together, separating themselves from other students. I get to
know the students more when theyre Korean, said John Han, 16, a junior who
moved to Cresskill last year from New Paltz, N.Y., where he said there was
only one other Korean in his school. Min Klein, a Cresskill math teacher
who is Korean, said that her Korean students asked her to speak Korean to
them in class. She refused. I do want to see more of a mix, she said. I
dont think its a problem, but sometimes the other kids say, Why do all the
Koreans sit together? I dont have the answer.

To help address such concerns, the schools guidance department sponsors a
Mix It Up day every month, when students are required at lunch to sit
outside their usual cliques, whether that means Koreans, jocks or
neighborhood youths. Were telling them, These are kids in your grade, get
to know them, said Mr. Eftychiou, the principal. Bob Valli, a guidance
counselor and football coach who has worked at the school for three
decades, said Korean students have set an example for their peers with
their positive attitude and work ethic even as their growing presence has
given the faculty new challenges like communicating with students who
speak little, if any, English and who may not share common bonds and

Its a small school so were able to assimilate everybody, he said. If it
were a larger school, that may not be the case. We try real hard to keep
the kids together.

Ford Fessenden contributed reporting.


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