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Urban schools see student decline

Institutions forced to shutter as population of inner-city decreases

Apr 12,2014
Gyeseong Girls’ High School, located near central Seoul’s popular Myeong-dong shopping district, was once bustling with students.

But in recent years, the swarming crowds in the area - one of the capital city’s premier tourist destinations - have become too much for some locals, prompting many to search for quieter residential neighborhoods.

The trend has made Choi Gi-seok, the high school’s vice principal, anxious.

Faced with a declining number of residents and applicants, it has decided to move by 2017 to Gileum-dong in Seongbuk District, where a number of apartment complexes have sprung up following a redevelopment project.

“We were really worried about the shrinking number [of students],” said Choi. “This year, only 205 students applied. But 10 years ago, it was more than 300. So the relocation was somewhat inevitable.”

Gyeseong Girls’ High School even rented a bus this year in a push to attract students living in more remote areas of the city, but that move was met with little success.

The number of students per class this year stands around 25, far lower than the average 32 in other Seoul schools.

Built in 1944, Gyeseong Girls’ High School is considered one of the most prominent all-girls’ high schools in Seoul, with a strong alumni network featuring a number of leading female figures, including Ewha Womans University Dean Kim Seon-wook.

But Gyeseong is not alone. Other schools in nearby central urban areas, such as those in Jongno, Yongsan and Jung districts, are also planning to relocate, a decision that was based on people’s tendency to avoid settling in densely populated areas, a phenomenon that has contributed to the decline of inner-city residents.

The number of applicants for high schools in the three central districts shrunk to 12,695 this year, a significant drop compared to the 18,085 in 2005. In 1995, that figure stood at 41,539.

Pungmoon Girls’ High School in Jongno District is scheduled to move to Gangnam District; the Seoul city government has decided to transform its current site into a museum.

“The population of the inner city has consistently decreased,” said Shin Jae-woong, an official with the Seoul Metropolitan Education Office. “This is precisely why the city government encourages schools in central districts to move into other residential areas.”

Kim Gil-dong, the vice principal of Pungmoon, said school officials hoped to relocate by 2017 and were working on drawing up a specific plan to meet the deadline.

“We hope the education office will give us the green light to move forward because we are still waiting for the result,” Kim added.

Daeshin High School in Jongno District is also in a similar situation. Following an exodus of residents, the number of classes there gradually dropped to 10 this year from 15 last year.

“We face an uphill battle in attracting new students because residents are simply leaving,” said Vice Principal Kim Gil-soo.

The high school has not yet decided where it will relocate.

Jongno’s Soongshin Elementary School, meanwhile, is slated to find its way to Wangsimni, in northeastern Seoul, by 2015.

While the schools’ relocations now are largely voluntary and based on resolving shortages in students, 40 years ago, in the 1970s, many educational institutions were forced to relocate as part of urban development projects.

At the time, the northern part of Seoul was overpopulated, while the southern area was largely underdeveloped. In an effort to attract more students, the government pushed more than a dozen well-known high schools in northern Seoul - such as Whimoon High School and Kyunggi High School - to move south.

“The government figured people will be motivated to move into a new area if top high schools were located there,” said Son Jeong-mok, who was working for the Seoul city government at the time and involved in the relocation movement. He is now an emeritus professor at the University of Seoul.

BY YOON SEOK-MAN [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]




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