An acclaimed academy for young women is set to offer Atlanta Public Schools’ first-ever Japanese language program and plans to kickstart the program with a related physical education class: karate.
Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy is a STEM-certified girls school that runs from grades six through 12. It boasts a 100 percent graduation rate — an enviable achievement for any high school, much less one in one of the city’s most under-resourced zip codes in northwest Atlanta.
Principal Eulonda Washington, who alternates between calling her students young women, scholars and “our babies,” told Global Atlanta the recipe for success has been creating family-like atmosphere that creates excellence by blending equal parts care and accountability.
CSK’s expanded language ambitions stemmed (pun intended) from its effort to become a signature school for science, technology, engineering and math after Ms. Washington came on board in 2016.
“One thing that any instructional leader has to become is a reader and a researcher,” she said. “I had to do my homework — to be able to lead an effort, I need to be able to speak to that effort and generate educated dialogue and create a vision.”
With the STEM certification under its belt and an overarching vision of minting globally engaged, work-ready citizens, Ms. Washington started seeking language programs that would dovetail well with the school’s STEM focus. She wanted to show her students, almost exclusively young women of color, that they don’t have to be content with being “grossly underrepresented” in these fields.
“We hone in on that and we create opportunities that are gender-specific for our young ladies,” Ms. Washington said.
With more than 300 German companies in Georgia, and with the German economy’s heavy focus on engineering and technical knowhow, that language seemed a good place to start. Ms. Washington wrote the application for a grant from the Atlanta-based German-American Cultural Foundation that underwrote a half-time German teacher, and the program generated enough enrollment to gain sustained funding.
A similar playbook is being used to bring the Japanese program to fruition. The academy has set aside $89,000 for salary and benefits, split between half-time instructors of Japanese language and karate. The goal, again, is to boost student enrollment in Japanese to the point that the district kicks in more money to the program.
Ms. Washington doesn’t foresee that being a problem, given the stream of emails and phone calls she has received from parents about both Japanese and karate, which as a P.E. class will be open to all students for all four years of high school. (The first batch of karate uniforms, or gis, just came in, colored in pink for middle schoolers and black for high schoolers.)
“This is something that we have been talking about doing for three years,” Ms. Washington said, noting that the pandemic brought budget cuts in 2020 that put the programs on pause.
Along with French and Spanish, CSK in the fall of this year will offer four languages, with it’s rare 6-12 model affording some instructional advantages: In seventh grade, students will complete a nine-week rotation in each of the four languages. They pick one in eighth grade to study until they graduate. The goal is not only to learn casual conversation, but to be fully literate in the target language and earn a Georgia Seal of Biliteracy on their diplomas — a signal to employers about the graduate’s level of proficiency.
Margaret McKenzie, director of ESOL and world languages for Atlanta Public Schools, said the programs are a testimony to Ms. Washington’s tenacity. The City of Atlanta, she said, didn’t even have a German program until that collaboration a few years ago.
Dr. McKenzie understands the challenge of both studying and teaching world languages. After her own college graduation, she became certified as a German teacher before venturing abroad on the Japanese island of Hokkaido as an English teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (or JET) Program, which is funded by the Japanese government. Before joining APS, Dr. McKenzie taught German, ESOL and Japanese in Cobb County, later joining the district and working on world languages and dual-language immersion programs.
Now she is helping Ms. Washington apply for a Japan Foundation grant that would provide $30,000 in each of the first two years of a newly established Japanese language program.
They learned of the opportunity from Yoshi Domoto, executive director of the Japan-America Society of Georgia, also a JET program alum, who grew up in a bicultural household where both English and Japanese were spoken.
“I definitely know the value and importance of learning another language, and I really commend APS for opening up its first Japanese program here in the City of Atlanta. It’s really exciting for me and for the Japan-America Society as well,” he said.
The society works on a variety of cultural, commercial and educational programs that create and sustain links between the state and the country, gleaning strong support from some of the 600-plus Japanese firms with locations in Georgia.
One such exchange is the annual Asia-Pacific Children’s Convention, which takes four 10- or 11-year-olds to Atlanta’s sister city of Fukuoka each year. That could be a feeder program generating interest in Japanese at CSK — one of many ways the society hopes to be of help to the school, Mr. Domoto said.
In the meantime, CSK is still searching for that just-right teacher — ideally one who could teach both Japanese language and karate. The latter is seen as a way to build confidence and discipline as the girls ease back into in-person learning.
“Especially after this past year with the pandemic and with kids primarily surviving through virtual learning, there is that whole social emotional aspect we have to address,” Ms. McKenzie said.
For Ms. Washington, it’s important that both teachers are intensely dedicated to student success and that they infuse their instruction with cultural knowledge.
“Our vision is that all of our scholars will be globally conscious,” she said. “STEM is everywhere, and if we are going to be able to compete against those who don’t necessarily look like us, we need to know what is going on in Japan, Germany, what is going on around the world.”
Of course, there are also other metrics for success, especially in karate.
“My vision is that our young ladies will graduate as black belts,” Ms. Washington said. “How cool is that?”
Learn more about the language teaching position here: World Language Japanese Teacher
Learn more about the school by watching this Good Morning America feature: