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Autonomous high schools in suburban areas emerge as powerhouses

June 18,2016
For the last 11 years, Pungsan High School, located in the remote suburbs of Andong, North Gyeongsang, has had the highest increase of students who topped the college scholastic ability test (CSAT), according to a study by the JoongAng Ilbo.

The JoongAng Ilbo studied the CSAT grades of about 6 million students from 2005 to 2015 and ranked the schools according to the increased number of students whose grades in English, math and Korean ranked within the top 11 percent of the nation’s entire test-takers. The study excluded the scores of students from special-purpose high schools, such as foreign language high schools.

In second place was Yangseo High School in Yangpyeong, followed by Sema High School in Osan and Suji High School in Yongin. All three are located in Gyeonggi.

Many of the top 10 schools with drastic increases in the number of students who performed well in the CSAT were either located in suburban areas or small to mid-sized cities. Four of them - Sema, Cheongwon, Wabu and Posan high schools - were autonomous public schools.

The autonomous public school system was adopted by former President Lee Myung-bak. Schools designated as such can more freely organize their curricula, select students and invite teachers to join their faculties.

In 2005, the number of students whose CSAT grades in English, math and Korean tests were above top 11 percent amounted to 0.7 percent in Pungsan High School.

“The school was the most avoided high school in Andong since it’s deep in the suburbs and the grades of the students were low,” said Lee Jun-seol, vice principal of Pungsan High School.

But after 2005, the number of students at Pungsan High that scored high on the CSAT started to gradually increase, and in 2015, they amounted to 49 percent of all test-takers at the school.

Pungsan High’s transformation from the most avoided school to one of the nation’s elite high schools started when it was designated as an autonomous school in 2002.

The school’s foundation increased the amount of scholarships and built a dormitory that could house its entire student body. Despite such efforts, however, students were reluctant to enroll in an unrenowned school. Only 66 students entered the school in 2003 (the cap then was 99).

To attract more students, the teachers personally visited schools and private academies in Seoul and other metropolitan areas. The teachers asked them to send students who were determined to study hard and willing to live in dorms. They pledged to take better care of them than any prestigious high school.

The teachers also dedicated most of their time to providing a rigorous study environment. The students studied until 11:30 p.m. in the school dormitories while teachers took shifts monitoring them.

The school became famous for its around-the-clock management of students, and as a result, an increasing number of skilled students from metropolitan areas started to enroll.

Sema High School in Osan, Gyeonggi, also experienced a drastic increase in the number of students whose CSAT scores in English, math and Korean ranked within the top 11 percent of the entire nation’s test-takers. Such students increased from 5.6 percent in 2013 to 48.3 percent in 2015.

“Please increase the school’s self-study time so that we can study during weekends and vacations,” commented one student on the Sema High School’s online site. The student was complaining that the self-study time, which is until 10 p.m. during the weekdays, isn’t enough.

Choi Moon-young, head teacher of the school’s 12th grade, said, “The students of the school are willing to study voluntarily without anyone forcing them to do so.”

Choi also had to personally visit each of the middle schools in Gyeonggi as well as talk face-to-face with some 200 parents who visited the school in order to attract more talented students.

In addition to such efforts, Sema High School also capitalized on the privileges enjoyed by autonomous schools. The school was allowed to select students before ordinary high schools and they also exercised more discretion in organizing about 50 percent of the school’s curriculum.

The students who are accepted to Sema High School, for instance, are given workbooks for math, Korean and English in January, two months before the official start of school. The students review materials on each subject during their vacation and submit the work to their teachers, who carefully look over their assignments and return them with corrections at the beginning of March.

“The teachers can examine the strengths and weaknesses of their students and prepare class materials accordingly,” explained Choi. “The students also get to strengthen their fundamental academic skills during vacation, instead of going to private academies.”

After officially entering the school, the 10th grade students are split into groups of 20. Although the student cap for each class is 30, by assigning fewer students to each class, students-to-teacher interaction is greatly enhanced.

Thanks to the school’s focus on the individual skills of each student, and its selection of intensive lectures, word quickly spread among parents that there was no need for them to pay for private lessons so long as their children attended Sema High School.

Cheongwon High School in Cheongwon County, North Chungcheong, which ranked fifth in the study, has also taken advantage of its autonomous school status, which it obtained in 2009. Since then, the school has invited talented teachers to join its faculty, and the teachers have worked hard to develop uniquely challenging, effective lesson plans and activities.

“Skilled students in Cheongwon County used to attend high schools in Cheongju,” said Lee Bum-mo, the principal of the school. “But now, about 100 of the school’s 240 students come from Cheongju.”

Students from other parts of North Chungcheong including Chungju, Jecheon, Goesan and Eumseong also come to study at Cheongwon High School.

Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi, was another suburban area that suffered, as many of the region’s best and brightest went to schools in Seoul. The students in Yangseo High with CSAT scores in the top 11 percent amounted to 1.7 percent of test-takers at the school in 2005. But in 2015, the number of such students increased to 46.7 percent.

Yangseo High took advantage of its suburban location to become another emerging prestigious high school. After the school was designated as an autonomous school, it built a dorm that could accommodate the entire student body. It also overhauled the school’s curriculum.

“The school takes great pride in its unique after-school activities and volunteer work that the school organizes with nurseries, a local insect museum and ecology schools in Yangpyeong,” said Han Sang, the principal of Yangseo High School. “We turned the school’s location, which used to be a weakness, into a strength.”

As part of their volunteer service, students at Yangseo High also teach middle school students in the region, where it’s difficult for students to go to private academies.

At Yangseo High, only math teachers use blackboards. The others hand out workbooks before each class to let the students study beforehand. They also make worksheets that follow the latest educational trends.

The intention behind this is to enable students to get everything they can out of the school, since many of them cannot attend private academies.

In science and math, students choose a topic of their own and conduct experiments, research and debate with their peers. The students also share their studying tips during math and science conventions that are held at the school.

BY NAM YOON-SEO, BAE MIN-KYUNG [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]


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