by jennifer vick
"Centennial High School is a top school in Maryland," says Song. "It made my husband impressed."
For nine years Song has lived apart from her husband in South Korea so their son and daughter could attend school in the United States. Before arriving here, the Songs did extensive research on "famous high schools" and came across newspaper articles on Centennial High's academic accomplishments. Their son is now in the 10th grade there.
Families like the Songs are contributing to a steadily growing Korean population in the county, particularly in Ellicott City, where they are drawn to schools with strong academic reputations such as Centennial and Mt. Hebron high schools, affordable apartment complexes along the Route 40 corridor, and the bustling Lotte Plaza Supermarket, which sells Korean, Chinese and Japanese foods.
Many Ellicott City residents of Korean descent also cite Howard County's convenient location between Baltimore and Washington and its relatively low crime rate as reasons to settle in the county.
"Like it is for any other race, this is a good place to live," says Tim Park, pastor of the English ministry at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City. Of the 1,500 people in the congregation, 70 percent are immigrants from Korea.
But according to Min Kim, a liaison for the school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program, a majority of the Koreans who come to Ellicott City do so to enroll their children in the county school system, where students traditionally score above national and state norms on standardized tests.
Park says education is highly valued within Korean culture, and that Korean parents are willing to sacrifice much for their children.
As a result, the Asian population in the county schools has been steadily rising, says Kim. About 10 percent of the 45,000 students currently in the county school system are of Asian descent, 3,000 of whom are estimated to be of Korean descent.
Out of the 1,228 students in the school system's ESOL program, 315 are Korean-speaking and 315 are Spanish-speaking.
Data from the 2000 U.S. Census report on Howard County's demographics is not yet available, but 1997 Census projections indicate that the Asian population in the county increased by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 1996.
According to official Census figures, 8,098 people of Asian or Pacific descent lived in the county in 1990. By July 1996, according to Census projections, that number had swelled to 12,557. Total county population at that time was projected at 224,483.
A packed seminar
School principals say they often have trouble getting parents of their Asian students involved in PTA and School Improvement Team activities, whether it is because of a language barrier or because many of the parents are business owners and work long hours.
However, school officials were successful in November in reaching at least 200 Korean parents who packed the Department of Education in Ellicott City for the first countywide education seminar conducted in the Korean language. A similar seminar was held in January for Korean parents of elementary school students.
Kim says many parents gravitate to the Centennial High School district, in particular, because of the school's high SAT scores, the large numbers of students participating in advanced-placement courses and the high percentage of students attending college following graduation.
Centennial's combined average SAT score last year was 1,148, well above the county average of 1,071 and the state and national averages of 1,016 and 1,019.
Currently, 21.6 percent of Centennial High's student population is Asian, the highest among county high schools. Mt. Hebron High is close behind with a 15.5 percent Asian population.
Among middle schools, Burleigh Manor, whose students go on to attend Centennial High, has the highest Asian population at 21.1 percent. Pointers Run Elementary has the highest elementary Asian population at 23 percent.
Don Kim, a senior at Centennial High, says that when his mother got a job at Johns Hopkins University four years ago, they looked for good schools before they looked for a house as they prepared to move here from Arizona.
"My parents did their research," says Kim, who was born in South Korea but came to the United States with his parents when he was 2 years old. "Centennial High School was basically our only reason for moving [to Ellicott City]."
Kim's parents initially purchased a town house near Centennial High and later bought a single-family house not far from the school.
Lynda Mitic, Centennial High's principal, is aware of the school being promoted in Korea and suspects the Internet plays a big role in parents finding statistics about the school.
Many Korean immigrants say they discovered Howard County simply through word of mouth.
Kristy Park, who came to the United States from South Korea 24 years ago, said that when she gets together with Korean friends who live elsewhere in the state, their conversations often center around comparing school systems.
"The [Howard County] school system they say is one of the best in the country," said Park, who has a son at Patapsco Middle and another at Waverly Elementary.
Mike Choi came to the United States about six years ago from South Korea and owned a gas station in Florida before coming to Howard County.
"I didn't have any information about Howard County but my friends and family said Howard County had good schools," he said.
His daughter Margaret is a senior at Mt. Hebron.
"I was kind of surprised there were so many Koreans here. It was like living in Korea" she said, noting there was only one other Asian student at her previous school in Florida.
According to Min Kim, Koreans prefer American schools because they afford more opportunity. In South Korea, parents must pay tuition for their children's education. The school day can often last from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., classes are large and rote memorization is the norm. The universities are also very selective.
"They have to study all day long. That's all they do in Korea," Choi said. "Here they can enjoy some of the day life."
American schools, on the other hand, are more innovative, offer smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction, Kim says.
Although he lacks supporting numbers, Ken Williams, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, believes the number of Korean-owned businesses is increasing as well.
Many of these businesses are located along Route 40. The largest and best known is the Lotte Plaza Supermarket. The store is part of a shopping center that has transformed itself into an Asian-oriented marketplace including a food court serving Japanese, Chinese and Korean fare and a video store offering Asian flicks.
Just in the last few months, several new businesses have arrived along Route 40, including a branch office for the Washington, D.C., bureau of South Korea's independent newspaper, the Korea Times.
There is also the Korean-owned Centennial Cue and Karaoke, N Generations, which features women's clothing imported from South Korea, and a business called PC where teen-agers can be found playing Korean video games on the store's two dozen computers or reading Korean comic books for a few dollars an hour.
The board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce plans to discuss at its retreat in June how to collect data on and reach out to minority-owned businesses, Williams says.
The school system's own efforts in reaching out to the Korean population include translating important school documents into Korean (they are also translated into Spanish and Chinese). About 60 students of Korean descent at Mt. Hebron have formed a Translation Club to assist in translating documents into Korean.
Howard Community College is also looking into translating its recruitment material into Korean and Spanish.
Mt. Hebron High School has organized a PTA for Korean parents that meets a few times a year. About 40 parents attended a meeting last spring. Centennial High, however, has not been as successful.
Joung Ok Song has been working with Mitic to organize school meetings for parents conducted in Korean. About 35 parents attended one such meeting two years ago. But, Mitic admitted, no one showed up for the last one, held in November.
Northfield Elementary School is trying another method to draw out Korean parents _ offering free English classes.
"We can be a resource to the Korean community and at the same time get them involved," said Principal Steven Meconi.
The school hopes to start up the classes, conducted by the school's ESOL teacher and community liaison, this spring.
The school system's county-wide seminar in November for Korean parents was conducted in Korean and talks given by Superintendent John O'Rourke and other school officials were translated. Officials gave the parents information on SAT testing, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and other school issues.
Min Kim, who helped organize the event, hopes to hold more of these seminars, not only for the Korean community, but for other ethnic populations.
"For me," she said, "this is the beginning step of getting them information and engaging them in a dialogue."
E-mail Jennifer Vick at email@example.com.
'My parents did their research. Centennial High School was basically our only reason for moving to Ellicott City.'
Don Kim, who was born in South Korea but came to the United States with his parents when he was 2 years old