Schools a magnet for Asian immigrants
High standards at Hoover especially attractive
by Jennifer Deitz-Berry
A certain story passed down among generations of families in Hong
Kong, Taiwan and mainland China illustrates the importance Asian
culture places in education. In the legend, a mother moves with
her child not once, not twice, but three times as she seeks out
the best environment for her son.
This appreciation of education is a major factor in the growth
of Palo Alto's Asian community, given the city's reputation as a
top school district.
Emily Wong, a mother-of-two, was born in Taiwan, but attended middle
school up through graduate school in the U.S. She moved to the Bay
Area for work, and married her husband who was earning his PhD at
Stanford. When their daughter was born, the family gave up their
home in Mountain View to relocate in Palo Alto.
But even in Palo Alto, Wong wasn't content to send her children
to just any school. When it was time to enroll her daughter, she
asked other parents for recommendations. They pointed her to the
"choice" programs at Hoover and Ohlone.
Hoover is known for its structured curriculum and strict rules.
The school's standardized test scores are among the highest in the
district and students are generally assigned more homework than
at other schools. The curriculum is what's known as "back-to-basics,"
focusing on mastery of basic skills as a stepping-stone toward more
conceptual understanding. Students are drilled in calculations and
spelling, and memorize key dates and events in history.
Only certified teachers can work with students -- no aides or parents
allowed. Parents can't sit in on their children's classes to observe
their progress. Instead, teachers send home weekly reports.
A Hoover science project gave students the opportunity to
send seeds into space on a recent shuttle mission.
Ohlone offers a more flexible environment aimed at fostering creativity.
Unlike Hoover, instruction is not "teacher-centered." Students are
instead encouraged to learn from one another, often by working together
on assignments and projects.
Because admission to both of the alternative schools used to be
on a first-come, first-serve basis, friends advised Wong to sign
her daughter up for both programs. (The district has since switched
to a lottery system.) Her daughter was accepted to both programs,
but Wong decided Ohlone would be the best match.
Even so, Wong was torn when it came time to choose a school for
her son. He had a free pass into Ohlone because his sister attended,
but he also made the lottery for Hoover. "I lost a lot of sleep
over that decision," Wong said. Ultimately, she decided her son
needed the structure and discipline Hoover offered.
Many Asian parents choose Hoover over other elementary schools
in the district because it bears a greater similarity to schools
in their home countries.
"In Asia, families and schools are very structured, disciplined,
highly academic and students are very respectful to their teachers,"
said Nancy Wong, whose son recently completed fourth grade at Hoover.
At most schools in Palo Alto, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the students
are Asian. Last year at Hoover, the district's ethnic report showed
46 percent of the students were of Asian descent.
Nancy Wong, Emily Wong and Julia Yu -- another Hoover parent --
all say that although Hoover is a very good school by American standards,
they still believe a few lessons can be learned by seeing how children
are educated in Asian countries.
The rigid structure of the school system in Asia may not be as
effective as American schools at fostering free-thinkers or artists.
"We are not as creative, maybe as a whole, as a nation," says Julia
Yu. "But our basic standards are very high."
Still, a balance should be struck between the two systems, all
three women say. Americans should take note that Asian classrooms
appear to be more successful helping students excel in math and
science-based fields like engineering and computer programming.
As proof, they point out how desperately high-tech companies recruited
Asian employees -- many of whom were educated in their native countries.
All three wives and their husbands now work in finance, high-tech
or engineering fields.
Yu also expressed concern that Palo Alto's curriculum may be watered
down by the district's effort to improve the performance of all
students, so that 90 percent perform above average. Yu and other
parents worry such improvement may come at the expense of providing
enrichment for students already performing at the highest level.
"I think the most successful system is for everyone to stretch,"
But asking teachers of large and diverse classrooms to push every
student to the limit may be expecting too much. In Palo Alto, the
practice of "laning" (grouping students in classrooms by their ability)
is on the decline. The goal, instead, is to mix students of all
abilities into each classroom, and encourage teachers to vary instruction
to reach students of different learning styles and abilities.
The structured curriculum and strict rules at Herbert Hoover
Elementary School in Palo Alto attracts many Asian residents,
who vie to send their children to the school.
Some districts offer GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) programs
in which students are pulled out of class to work on more challenging
projects. In Palo Alto schools, GATE students are taught within
regular classrooms. A part-time GATE advisor circulates between
elementary schools, suggesting enrichment activities and lessons
teachers can offer their GATE students.
Although the Asian parents interviewed said they understood the
problems inherent in "laning" -- namely the concern that children
in lesser-performing groups could suffer from low self-esteem and
be less motivated to try in school -- they consider the notion of
schools spending time on students' self-images uniquely American.
"From an Asian perspective, we feel that the confidence comes from
what you know and knowing it well," Emily Wong said.
They also worry that increased teacher turnover will compromise
their children's opportunity to learn. When the three women attended
school in China and Taiwan, all schools at each grade level used
the same textbook and curriculum, so the quality of teachers was
less important. Here, standards are based on what a child should
know, not how they should learn it. Few textbooks are used and teachers
have more latitude in devising learning plans, so curriculum can
very widely from school to school.
So although an experienced, well-prepared teacher may be able to
reach students across a wider spectrum, newer teachers are likely
have more trouble -- particularly in the larger classes in the middle
grades, which could have up to 29 students.
"So much depends on if they have a good teacher," said Nancy Wong.
"If the teacher is inexperienced, this whole year could be lost."
This is what Wong feels happened to her son last year in fourth
grade. Wong was dissatisfied with the teacher's expectations, and
throughout the year her son had less homework and writing assignments
than seemed appropriate, she said.
Finding out that both of the fifth grade classes at Hoover would
be taught by new teachers, made Wong uneasy. "I don't want to take
the chance...that my son will be unhappy for another year," she
Instead, Wong enrolled her son in the nearby Challenger private
school, where students must meet certain academic standards to even
be admitted. She is glad he will be among peers who are driven to
succeed in school, but also worries the school may put so much emphasis
on academics, there won't be enough time for play.
Even after they've gone to the effort to find the best school they
can for their child, many Asian parents continue to look outside
of the school system for academic enrichment programs. All three
women send their children to after-school programs like Kumon or
Score, which offer more challenging work in math and reading.
"I know I can't totally depend on the system or the school," said
Nancy Wong. "It's more how I help my child and develop their potential."
E-mail Jennifer Deitz Berry at email@example.com