Democracy Prep High School opened in 2006 in the northern Manhattan neighborhood. It is the first school in the city offering regular Korean language courses.
The majority students are African-American and Hispanic, and although currently there is no single Korean or even Asian student at the school, all the students are required to learn Korean for one hour every day, according to the school founder Seth Andrew.
“There were some objections, especially (from) the parents (who) said, ‘Why Korean, not Spanish or French?” Andrew said in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Thursday.
But he said he believed that learning Korean would give his students a “unique opportunity.”
“When they go to college, they will be probably the only African-American and Hispanic students who speak Korean and it will make them unique and stand out.”
The school also teaches taekwondo, and other aspects of traditional Korean culture as well as a part of its curriculum, he added.
The 34-year-old, who used to teach English at a public school in Cheonan, said he had a “tremendous impression” from his teaching experience in Korea.
“I was in Korea for one year but the impact that had on me was profound, because I saw my students love learning and also love and respect teachers,” he said.
There is also something special about his school. Unlike other American schools, Democracy Prep High School is known for its strict discipline, and students study longer hours than their neighborhood peers.
He said the five core values of his school are discipline, respect, enthusiasm, accountability and maturity.
“I call it DREAM value,” he said, adding that he, especially, copied the benchmark for the level of discipline and respect for teachers in the Korean education system.
Despite its short history, his school has already become famous in New York after more than 90 percent of students passed the state math and English exams required to receive their diploma. And the school received top marks from the city’s education department for its advances made in the 2010-11 academic year.
Andrew first set up the Democracy Prep Charter School foundation in 2005 to ensure that “every single student would work hard, go to college and change the world.”
The Democracy Prep Public Schools currently operates seven high-performing schools in New York and serve about 2,000 students.
“We now have a waiting list of 5,000 students every year,” he said, noting that he is planning to open two more schools in September with an aim to operate 12 schools by 2015.
Andrew said he believes education is one of the most powerful ways to come out of the poverty, pointing to Korea as the best example.
“Korea has come so far through education, and I want to do same in Harlem and around the United States, and hope to bring really excellent schools to many more students.”
By Oh kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org)