Applying Korean Standards to NYC Public Schools, Immigrant Mom Decides Her Kids Need More


Kyle, Choi, and Teo Fairbanks. (Photo: Micaela Scofield)

Fi2W is featuring stories by students in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School.

Choi Fairbanks, the mother of two-year-old Kyle and four-year-old Teo, has her hands full. Fortunately for Choi, when it comes to entertaining preschool-age children she is an expert. Choi is a music teacher at her own business, Sunnyside String School, in Sunnyside, Queens. The school specializes in music education for very young children, with students as young as two-and-a-half.

Choi is a firm believer in the benefits of early childhood education. She attributes her own success as a musician to the disciplined instruction in cello and piano she received from a very young age growing up in South Korea.

When it comes to the education of her two sons, Choi is not as optimistic. “I always had dreams of going back to Korea so the kids would have access to a better education,” she says. Choi feels that American parents don’t place enough value on their children’s education; “There is much more pressure to study in Asia. American kids are 1-2 years behind what students in the same grade level learn in Korea,” she says. Studies have shown the United States to rank significantly below South Korea and other countries in educational achievement.

Choi hopes someday she can take her kids to South Korea, but for now she and her American-born husband Jeff are busy building their music careers in the U.S., a challenging though rewarding way to make a living, says Jeff.

Choi and Jeff met at the University of South Florida, where he mastered in jazz composition and she in classical cello. Inspired by his wife’s culture, Jeff incorporates traditional Korean instruments, such as the Guyageum (a Korean version of the Japanese koto), in his compositions. He has produced Asian-jazz fusion music for a number of record labels and has performed in concert venues around the county. Choi, in addition to running the school, teaches piano, cello and violin lessons at a few local schools and plays the organ for All Saints Episcopal Church in Sunnyside.

As she and her husband pursue their passion for music, Choi is determined to prepare her sons for school, assigning them 2-5 pages a day to complete from a stack of workbooks she proudly displays. Of the extra studying, Choi exclaims—“They love it!”—to which young Teo shows his agreement with an affirmative smile.

Although eligible for financial assistance through the NYC Department of Education, Choi cites the lack of quality and access as her reasons for not sending Teo to a Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) program.

“There just aren’t enough services or teachers available to accommodate the needs of all the families who apply,” Choi explains. Depending on the district, coveted full day programs are not always available. Of the 51 schools with UPK in Fairbanks’ district, only 7 have full day programs.

President Obama’s recent education reform plan proposes expanding universal pre-kindergarten to boost opportunities for children of working poor families. The Fairbanks are skeptical about the effectiveness of such government-subsidized programs. Like many critics, they highlight the failure of Head Start.

Jeff cites the threat of budget cuts as a source of anxiety for the family when their older son Teo was enrolled in Head Start. He says the Fairbanks’ eligibility was continuously scrutinized because of a potential “‪bias against self-employed people based on a false assumption that we don’t need assistance,‬” Jeff says.

The Fairbanks consider themselves lucky to be able to send Teo to a private preschool where Choi receives a generous employee discount for teaching music lessons.

Choi says she is doing everything she can to ensure that Teo is ready for kindergarten next year. But the Fairbanks will only send Teo to a public school if a Gifted and Talented program is offered. Choi hopes that more academic opportunities are available to her kids in the future so that she can feel less pressure to pick up the slack in her children’s education.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.



AboutMicaela Scofield
Mica grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where she has organized around immigrant, day laborer and LGBT rights. She is currently a Global Studies student at The New School writing her undergraduate thesis on the intersection of LGBT and immigration politics within activist organizations. She graduates May 2013.