Ethnic Education

As America welcomes its largest influx of immigrants since 1910, it is seeing the rise of an alternative kind of educational institution--the culture school. From California to Connecticut, more and more such programs, also known as cram schools or ethnic-heritage schools, are opening to help preserve children's native culture and language. In some cases they also aim to compensate for shortcomings in the American education system. "There is a real rebirth of interest in these programs now," says Laurie Olsen, an education scholar who is directing a two-year study of ethnic-culture schools in America for the organization California Tomorrow. In part, she says, it's a reaction to America's very vocal English-only movement; both California and New York recently ruled to end or limit bilingual education, gestures many immigrants find troubling.

Almost every ethnic group now has a cultural program of its own, from Latvians and Nigerians to Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants, who have some of the oldest and best-established schools in the United States. Though there are no national statistics encompassing all schools, some individual ethnic groups keep track: the number of Polish-language schools on the East Coast, for instance, has more than doubled since 1990; the number of Korean schools nationwide has boomed from 490 in 1990 to 890 today; and the number of students enrolled in Chinese-heritage programs nationwide has grown by more than 25 percent since 1995, topping 100,000.

Along with language, culture and history instruction, many of the schools also instill ethnic customs and values. Kin Sheung Wong, principal of the New York Chinese School in Chinatown, the largest such school in North America with more than 3,000 students, says he is still shocked by the degree of freedom bestowed on American teenagers and the lack of respect they show their elders. After a younger faculty member enters his office, bows and extends a party invitation to him, holding it in both hands, he demonstrates how an unmannered youngster would do it. "In America, this," he says, lightly tossing the paper across his desk with one hand.

Often parents drive the push for cultural education. Phalla Eam, who came to the United States from Cambodia in 1989, has been sending her 16-year-old son, Corolia Meas, to the Khmer Emerging Education Program in Fresno, California. There, in a cheerful classroom adorned with an American flag, he studies literature and history as well as the Khmer language. Eam hopes that the after-school program will broaden her son's education and improve his chances of success--and keep him off the streets. But Meas has enjoyed the classes so much that he recently signed up for two additional days of culture-related courses at a local Buddhist temple. "It's helped me find my true self--who I really am," he says.

Many youngsters pass seamlessly between their American world and their ethnic one. Fifteen-year-old Marcela Maryniak, who emigrated from Poland with her parents when she was 5, has been attending a Polish Saturday school virtually since she arrived in Brooklyn. "I guess I'm more American now," she muses. "But there are so many good things about being Polish." For one thing, the food is good, she says. Also, she and her friend Gabriella can gossip in their native language without fear of being understood by their English-speaking peers. But isn't there something ever-so-slightly uncool about sitting in a classroom, discussing Polish Renaissance literature while your friends are out shopping? Not at all, says Marcela. Many of her friends do the same thing on weekends: one goes to Chinese school and another attends Hebrew school.

In some cases, political changes back home have helped spark a child's interest in his native land. Anna Izak, principal of the school Maryniak attends in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, says the fall of communism in Poland has improved the country's image and made it easier for immigrants to travel back and forth, staying in closer touch with their roots. "We didn't want to have an attachment to that old Poland," she says. "Now we see a Poland that we'd like to represent."

Immigrant parents also rely on the cultural schools to correct or enhance the things their children learn in American schools. Korean immigrants, for example, send their kids to cram schools to help prepare them more rigorously for the SATs. Vitaly Berman, a sixtyish man with a goatee and a thick gold chain around his neck, founded two math schools, one in Boston and one in New York, to help change the way Russian-American kids learn math. "When I first opened an American textbook, I thought I'd die," he says with characteristic hyperbole. The American public-school math curriculum, he says, is overcrowded and makes students feel rushed. His program covers topics in more depth, allowing kids to develop more lasting problem-solving skills. Berman, himself an immigrant from St. Petersburg, where he earned a Ph.D. in math education, says he's fulfilling his "duty to our children" by opening the schools.

In many places, ethnic heritage schools are becoming increasingly visible. Some are beginning to organize themselves into national networks and to seek connections with public schools. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, Chinese schools have begun accepting non-Asian students for language-immersion programs that are accredited by public schools. Select public schools in other parts of the country have begun experimenting with dual-language immersion programs--putting native English speakers in classes with native Spanish speakers, for instance--and teaching a mixed group of kids in one language at a time. Ethnic-heritage schools will never replace American schools for immigrants. But they may forever change them--just as immigrants have permanently transformed America itself.