Thursday, December 30, 2010

South Korea's Abandoned Rural Schools

Some estimates put the population of greater Seoul at 23 million, nearly half of South Korea's population. And while only three in ten people lived in or around a city fifty years ago, the ratio is closer to 9 out of 10 today.

Sangri Elementary
Mass migration to cities has left a string of abandoned or nearly-abandoned schools in the countryside. I visited one such school a few weeks ago.  Sangri Elementary is in a mountain-top village outside of Yecheon in a farming area known for apple orchards and garlic fields.

This school had 13 students - thirteen - down from a high of 160 a few decades ago. And while thousands of schools with similarly dwindling enrollments have closed, this one - and many more - have stayed open, propped up by national government support.

Kindergarten class at Sangri
Sangri has a nearly 1:1 staff to student ratio. Field trips and free lunches. A fully stocked computer lab and huge flat screens in each classroom. Itinerant art and music teachers. Native English teachers who visit the school or give live web-cast lessons from the Philippines every day. And while public school doesn't typically start until first grade, kindergarten is offered on site for free.

I was stunned to see resources like this flowing into such a small school, particularly in a country where class sizes of 40 are still common. It's the most compelling evidence I've seen of the Korean government's commitment to equity.

The bus route map with every single
student on it!
A vast majority of Korean students get regular help from after-school tutors or private academies, but children in rural areas typically come from poorer families and are more likely to rely on the public schools.  Sangri delivers with free after-school programs and lots of individual help in classes of two or three.

And while recruiting good teachers to rural areas can be challenging, the South Korean system is designed with regional equity in mind. Public school teachers are assigned for three or five years and then rotated to another school throughout their career. This is meant to prevent all the most talented and/or experienced teachers from concentrating at a few schools.

You can read more about this small school in an article I wrote for Global Post's series on "one-room school houses."
Art class at Sangri

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