All booked up

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All booked up

Walk around Daechi-dong, in southeastern Seoul, and you soon realize the area centers around teenage students and their parents. Square, wide roads cut through endless rows of high-rise apartments, broken only by barbecue restaurants and scores of hagwon, or private educational institutes. Underground video arcades, comic book stores and gift shops suggest the small, clandestine pleasures of high school students, stealing a break from their studies.

Tucked behind the bustling business district of Gangnam, Daechi-dong has for several years been a popular neighborhood for families. But ever since last November's university entrance examinations, one of the most difficult in years, frenzied parents have flooded in, drawn by the best hagwon in Seoul and by their desperate dreams of success for their children.

In Korea, success depends on getting into a good university. Getting into a good university depends on acing the College Scholastic Aptitude Test. Scoring high on the test depends on getting the most and best private instruction money can buy. And more and more, money is buying that instruction in Daechi-dong.

"You'll realize many homeowners in these apartments are just leasing," says Jeong In-jae, the 44-year-old president of Kangnam Injae Academy in Daechi 1-dong. "They move into this neighborhood when their kids are about to enter junior high school, and move out to homes in quiet areas like Bundang once their children enter university."

Daechi-dong is now home to a staggering 29 percent of all of Seoul's hagwon. There are institutes for almost anything and anyone, but in Daechi-dong the "tweezer" hagwon rules, readying students for the university entrance exam ?tweezer meaning the classes teach questions "plucked" from actual entrance exams.

Even 10 years ago, they were mostly middle-class apartments. But as Daechi-dong has become the hot spot for education, combined with more difficult entrance exams than ever, the biggest money has come chasing the best opportunities. As more money comes in, property prices have soared, even more than in the rest of Seoul, threatening to drive out the less-affluent, longtime residents, and changing the character of the neighborhood.

This fervor for Daechi-dong, however, is only the latest flare-up of an old problem. As Korea has grown economically, so has the competition for the best universities and schools.

In the late 1970s, many of the best high schools moved south of the river to the young, rapidly growing Gangnam district. Ambitious, well-off parents and their children quickly followed.

The schools were supposed to take in students according to a lottery system, but bribery and favoritism soon made a hash of that idea. All the while, people kept pouring in to Gangnam, causing property values to soar, spurring on the shift ever more.

In the 1980s and early '90s, the nouveau riche flocked to Rodeo street and Apgujeong-dong, close to the river. Apgujeong-dong is perhaps defined more by its shopping and expensive boutiques than anything else. Now, however, it's all about Daechi-dong and its hagwon.

Some call it a battle between public and private education. But if it is, private education is clearly winning out in this part of town. The hagwon focus on exam preparation, without any of that well-rounded education slowing things down. The instructors can earn almost triple the salary of public school teachers, even more if the qualifications are right.

And because about 70 percent of the questions on the university entrance exam can't be found in the school textbooks, private teaching is a requirement for anyone serious about secondary education.

"Sure the schools offer supplementary lessons for children after school," says Cho Seung-hee, mother of a 16-year-old boy in Daechi 1-dong. "But they're not as effective and concentrated as a good hagwon. Schools offer standardized education, and kids outside that standard fall behind."

But the best hagwon are expensive, and for those who cannot afford to attend, their futures are in jeopardy.

Mr. Jeong, however, argues that the battle is fair. "Children can choose," he says. "If an instructor at a hagwon makes them fall asleep or fails to raise their grades within a short period of time, students leave. Only the competitive institutes survive in this neighborhood. The rent is high. Word spreads fast. Once the parents decide a hagwon is no good, the place closes within a year."

Unlike the larger institutes in renowned hagwon districts such as Noryangjin and Jongno, institutes that offer classes in almost anything, Daechi-dong's institutes offer smaller classes and more specific courses.

In fact, most hagwon owners in Daechi-dong, Mr. Jeong says, including himself, are practicing instructors who built their careers in the large downtown institutes. Then, once popular enough, they moved to Daechi-dong and established their own institutes.

Now, instead of lecturing in front of huge, packed halls of high school students, these so-called "sellout instructors" in Daechi-dong teach medium- and small-sized groups of students.

"Our goal is not to attract many applicants," says Mr. Jeong. "We want a modest number of potential students whom we can send to quality universities in the time we are given."

Lee Poong-rim, of the Gangnam district council, says, "Five years ago, if you said the word 'Gangnam,' it usually meant Apgujeong-dong. Times have changed. The epicenter of Gangnam nowadays is Daechi-dong."

by Park Soo-mee

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