Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Fairfax Brand Goes Global

In a country where academic prestige is paramount, Fairfax County Public Schools has cachet.

Fairfax GT Education academy is opening
in southern Seoul this spring.
Matthew Lee, a former counselor for Fairfax schools and the operator of a Korean-style after-school academy in Northern Virginia,  is opening an English-language kindergarten in Seoul this winter - and selling it with the Fairfax label.

Many Korean parents are familiar with the high performing 170,000-student school system thousands of miles away in the Washington DC suburbs, Lee said. They compare it to Gangnam, the high-rent, education-obsessed neighborhoods in southern Seoul, where he is opening his academy.

His school is designed for children who will eventually study abroad. Citing research that shows a large share of Koreans who go to Ivy League colleges end up dropping out - and his own difficult transition from Korea to America 30 years ago - he said students who prepare early will be more likely to succeed.

"I want to bridge the gap," he said. His school will offer a full-day kindergarten program as well as after-school classes for older students. The focus will be teaching English but also  skills that American students learn, such as reading books and debating the ideas in them.

Director Matthew Lee in the entry to
his new academy
Class size will be limited to six, and students will sit around a table and talk. The American teachers he has hired will use theories of multiple intelligence to tailor instruction for each child, he explained.

His own family moved to Fairfax County when he was 16. He was a good student in Korea and didn't want to leave. He vividly remembers the first time he was called on in class at Lake Braddock High School and all he could do was smile, prompting giggles from his classmates, because he he didn't know enough English to respond.

He was unhappy and overwhelmed, and he rebelled by skipping classes and getting into trouble - a pattern that lasted until he was kicked out from Ohio University several years later.

When he returned home and enrolled in community college, he found his calling as an educator who could help other students chart the same path. A few degrees and a few decades later, he's returning to Korea to do the same work.

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