- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

Soon-Ja Kim has taught third grade at Lakewood Elementary School in Rockville for the past 20 years, to the acclaim of her students and their parents.

Her students routinely rank in the higher percentile among their classmates, and she has been nominated many times for teaching awards.

And today, Mrs. Kim, 62, could find herself out of work because she says she has been told by a former boss that her strong Korean accent is a hindrance in the classroom. She is scheduled to meet with Montgomery County public school officials for a hearing this morning.

Mrs. Kim said that because of jealousy and discrimination, she has been identified by a former principal at Lakewood as “underperforming” — a designation that has subjected her to a peer-review program mostly dedicated to reforming struggling new teachers.

Mrs. Kim said she is being railroaded into quitting, though she won’t go without a fight.

“This is my life,” she said. “I get to work at 7 a.m. every day. … I love my students, I individualize each child. Basically, I’m a very nice person, unless my [superiors] unfairly criticize me or do bad things to me.”

Brian Edwards, a county schools spokesman, said he cannot comment on specific personnel issues or confirm that Mrs. Kim is under review.

“Our No. 1 interest is that we have teachers that are capable and qualified in every aspect,” he said. “Every day we’re entrusted with 140,000 students. Parents may occasionally disagree with our [judgment], but we believe we’ve earned their trust to make these decisions.”

Mrs. Kim, her husband and their two children came to the United States from South Korea in 1974. After learning English at a community college, she enrolled at George Mason University, where she earned a teaching certificate.

Employment opportunities were scant until 1986, when she answered a Montgomery County school ad in a Korean newspaper.

Since then, Mrs. Kim has been a staple at Lakewood, garnering awards and nominations — as well as the ire of some colleagues who she said didn’t appreciate her all-out approach.

“Some parents whose children were in my class would look at what their children were doing the next year, and they would say, ‘Why aren’t you doing what Mrs. Kim’s class is doing?’” she said. “Some of the other teachers didn’t like that.”

Mrs. Kim said former principals Michael W. Headman and Anne G. Barlow kept her detractors at bay, but the backlash against her picked up steam in 2003 when Elaine L. Chang was named Lakewood principal.

Ms. Chang harped on Mrs. Kim’s age and nationality, Mrs. Kim said. Her criticism of Mrs. Kim’s accent is especially puzzling, considering the school’s large Asian population and that Ms. Chang is Asian-American, Mrs. Kim said.

“She told me if you don’t speak English well, then you can’t teach,” Mrs. Kim said. “She said I should teach Korean children. … I think I can speak fine. I don’t think that I speak poorly or that I don’t give students clear directions when I teach. None of my students complained.”

Ms. Chang has since been reassigned, and Robin Barber is now the school’s acting principal.

Mrs. Kim’s attorney Gary C. Tepper said his client has gotten more than 300 letters of support from parents and former students, who wrote to county schools superintendent Jerry D. Weast upon hearing of Mrs. Kim’s possible dismissal.

“This is a highly unusual situation because there have been zero parent complaints in the past 20 years that Mrs. Kim has taught,” said Mr. Tepper, whose two children are Mrs. Kim’s former students.

Mr. Edwards, the county schools spokesman, refuted claims that parental input regarding personnel is marginalized, but noted that neither popularity nor student performance would overcome a teacher’s incompetence.

The panel for the peer-review program consists of eight school-based administrators and eight teachers. The program mentors novice and underperforming teachers, who are recommended by the Montgomery County Education Association, the union representing more than 11,000 public school teachers and educators.

The program provides support and advice from an independent consulting teacher for a year, before a recommendation is made on whether or not to keep the teacher.

More than 2,600 teachers have been placed in the program since its inception in 2000.

About half of the teachers deemed incompetent by the peer-review committee either retire or quit, said Douglas Prouty, the union’s vice president and co-chairman of the peer-review committee.

Mr. Prouty also could not comment on the case, but said that due process is rigorously followed. Letters, e-mails and comments from parents are factored into the decision, but aren’t the main criteria, he said.

“Likewise, scores from standardized tests are a way of measuring [teacher success], but it’s not the definitive way,” he said. “Teaching is a complex art.”

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