Korean Families Chase Their Dreams In The U.S. A public school in Los Angeles has become a magnet for Korean families who want their kids to learn English while escaping the intense rigor of the Korean school system. In the U.S., they move from school district to school district, cherry-picking the best schools as their kids rise through the grades.
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Korean Families Chase Their Dreams In The U.S.

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Korean Families Chase Their Dreams In The U.S.

Korean Families Chase Their Dreams In The U.S.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This summer, we're hearing different takes on the American dream. Today, the dream of some Korean families who moved to the United States to send their children to American schools. Some do this even when it means splitting up the family. As NPR's Martin Kaste found out, many of them are chasing the American dream of recess.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Take me out to the ball game...

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Welcome to the annual patriotic pageant at Hancock Park Elementary in Los Angeles.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ....some peanuts and Cracker Jacks. I don't care if I never get back...

KASTE: What could be more American than second graders dressed up as pilgrims singing about baseball? But in this school, the pilgrims come with a twist.

ASHLEY PARKER: I would say that we have a very significant Korean population.

KASTE: Principal Ashley Parker. She says her school gets a steady stream of these new arrivals.

PARKER: They start first grade, second grade. We have new fifth graders coming from Korea.

KASTE: Hancock Park is nearly 40 percent Korean. And though the school doesn't keep track of student citizenship, it's clear that a significant number are Korean nationals. This 11-year-old boy just finished fifth grade.

WOOSUK KIM: My name is Woosuk Kim. And my English name is Eric.

KASTE: Woosuk's father brought him to L.A. two years ago, specifically to attend Hancock Park Elementary. His mom stayed in Korea to keep working and support them. This setup is common, so common that Koreans have a term for it.

KIM: Kirogi family.

KASTE: Kirogi family. It means goose family because they migrate in search of English-language schooling.

KIM: Parents - mom and dad - have to be separate for the kids' education.

KASTE: Woosuk and his little brother say they've become used to bachelor life with their dad. Even his cooking is now acceptable. And this goose family is unusual. In most cases, it's the mother who accompanies the kids to the U.S. while the father stays in Korea to work.

There's a whole colony of goose mothers living here at Park La Brea Apartments. It's a gated community, which the Koreans perceive as especially safe, that's why so many of come to Hancock Park Elementary. The school is right next door. Jihyun Lee brought her kids over last year. Her friend Diana Park translates.

JIHYUN LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

DIANA PARK: She - they wanted to come to a more globalized place so that their mind becomes more globalized, larger.

KASTE: Goose Families aren't usually looking to put down roots here. This is a version of the American dream that's more about what happens in Korea. When these kids go back home, says Diana Park, they'll have a special status.

PARK: If you do not have that American experience and you live in Korea, it's not the same as the people who've been here. They treat you differently in Korea if you say you've been in America.

KASTE: And there is something else: many of these goose parents say they're also here to get away from Korean schools.

PARK: Although the academics in Korea is more rigorous, there's no creative mind there. it's - everything's rote, memorization, and it's purely academic. There's no individual thought in their teaching.

KASTE: And to be blunt, for these Korean kids, the American school is kind of a vacation.

LEE: (Foreign language spoken)

PARK: Recess. Apparently, they don't have recess in Korea.


PARK: They get time to eat, and that's it. And then, I think right after school, they go to another after-school program, so they don't really get any recess or any time to play.

KASTE: Over the years, American parents at Hancock Park Elementary have puzzled over the nonstop influx of Koreans. Shari Cooper volunteers for the Booster Club. She's the one who gets the inquiries from prospective new goose families.

SHARI COOPER: From Korean families, I probably get three to four emails every month. And then, just this week, I've had four. Because over the summer is when most of the families come.

KASTE: Cooper says some of the American parents have grumbled in the past, especially given the current budget crunch in L.A. schools. But those tensions eased when the Booster Club got more of the Koreans to donate to the school's fund drive. When asked if she'd like to see the district charge goose families tuition - that does happen in other countries like New Zealand - Cooper says no.

COOPER: It doesn't sound like a very American way to go for people here. I think that it's a free country with a free public education. And if you start charging people, they're going feel more like visitors. They're not going to be invested in the school and in the country the same way.

KASTE: But while the goose families may feel invested in this school, they don't feel the same dedication to the larger Los Angeles public school system.

HYUNGSOO KIM: Schools in L.A. is very terrible now.

KASTE: This is Hyungsoo Kim. He's the goose father, Woosuk's dad.

KIM: Because of budget cuts and then - and so educational environment is getting worse, so that's why we moved to here.

KASTE: As soon as Woosuk finished fifth grade, the family relocated to Orange County to live near a good middle school. And they're not alone. Woosuk says he's already running into familiar faces.

KIM: There's many families from Hancock Park move to Irvine, yeah, to our neighborhood.

KASTE: So you're following each other?

KIM: Yeah.


KASTE: In fact, Korean goose families follow a kind of wagon trail of American public education, moving from district to district as their kids age through the system, a journey that culminates ideally on one of the campuses of the University of California. It's a migration that combines educational ambition with a desire for leisure.

Sitting by the pool in their new gated community in Orange County, Hyungsoo Kim says America has given his boys the chance to relax.

KIM: I think whole life is competition when they grow up. But when they are young, they are - when they are small kids, they need some happiness.

KASTE: His boys agree. They say, back home, the kids are now suffering through a pile of summer vacation homework. Here in America, there's little danger of that. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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