Alternative Schooling Makes Grade

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Alternative Schooling Makes Grade

Programs Fit Many Students Who Want or Need Options

There are three things that television and Korean education have in common: you have to pay for it, the program changes every two seasons, spring and fall, and the closer you get, the dumber you become. Sounds harsh? Well, that's the reality many Korean students face today. In the debate about the Korean educational system, the fact that it is driving more and more kids out of school is no longer an issue. Its rigidity and homogenizing nature have been deemed unacceptable by the many students who become disillusioned with education as a whole as a result. And they aren't its only victims: teachers are exhausted from taking care of 60 students every day and parents are becoming pushy, because their children's university entrance exam is next week but the kids would rather spend their afternoon playing Starcraft at a PC room than study.

According to the recent survey done by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, about 70,000 students in Korea drop out of school yearly. Families with better financial standing may send their children overseas, but most simply wander around the streets of downtown Seoul looking for so-called "3-d jobs": dangerous, difficult and dirty. If they are lucky, they may end up in a vocational school that costs several million won for a handful of lessons a month.

There is another option for the growing number who are falling through the cracks of the present system. Commonly known as alternative education, it is for students who want their learning experience to be more creative.

There are a few different alternatives within this umbrella term. There are religious schools, where the curriculum and the way of teaching are strictly based on religious beliefs; there are "home-schools," which cater to a small group of students who are taught by parent-teachers; there are irmaladjustment schoolslu which are for students who are expelled from their schools or those whose families cannot afford to send them to the local public schools; there are "progressive schools," which have recently been getting more attention from Korean parents.

Named after the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, who insisted on civil disobedience in the face of British occupation and political corruption, the Gandhi School works with a similar philosophy in its approach to teaching. Started as a small organic farm in Sancheong, North Kyongsang province, Gandhi School is now one of the most successful models of alternative schools in Korea.

When it opened in 1995, it had only 10 pupils but now boasts 105 junior and senior school students. The curriculum itself is not very different from public high schools, except that at Gandhi School, the emphasis is on independent thinking rather than rote learning. Some courses are mandatory, but students with judicious reasons have the right to not attend classes. They have to be prepared to suffer the consequences of their decisions: Certain courses have prerequisites and those who decide to not attend the mandatory classes might find that they have not fulfilled the requirements to enter university.

Park Jong-ha, the education coordinator of Gandhi School, says most students who attend do so of their own volition. Mr. Park emphasizes that these students are different from maladjustment kids, who are expelled from school for causing trouble, but are those who reject schools and institutional politics at large.

"Kids are reacting to the traditional education system because they are not getting the kind of education they want. Students who used to be full of complaints come here and suddenly turn into model pupils."

Thanks to the growing interest in alternative education, the board of education recognized Ghandi School as an official secondary educational institution last year. This is welcome news for students in their last year of high school as they don't have to prepare for a separate set of exams for their university admission. Although the school tells the students that post-secondary education is optional, ultimately the decision to matriculate belongs to the students.

What about students who are expelled or abandoned by society, "the real troublemakers"? The Small School in the City (02-716-1319), located in Mapo-gu, is for adolescents between the age of 15 and 19 who are unable to attend regular schools. At the nation's first nonprofit, unauthorized institution organized by the Korean Youth Foundation, the students range from teenagers who are currently under the supervision of the city to ones who left school due to financial difficulties or a crisis in their family. At a cursory glance, the school looks like a playground, but this is where kids who generally have had negative experiences come and spend their time. "They might not have respect for regular teachers, but they certainly like us," says the vice president of the SSC, Yum Byung-hoon.

The program at this school is unique. In the first week, a volunteer teacher asks the students what they want to learn, and their study is based on the responses. However, there are mandatory classes, too. These include "Superman Analysis," a seminar dealing with male sexuality and violence, "Walking Lesson" in which students get to observe the way they walk, "Vocational Schools" and "Virtual Interviews" during which career options are presented. For the benefit of those who work at PC rooms and restaurants until late at night, the classes are in the afternoon from Monday to Friday. There will be more students joining the school in March, which means that it will need more funding.

"Students leave schools for a variety of reasons, but the important thing is that many will continue to live here in the city," says Mr. Yum. "Some may attend alternative schools in the suburbs, but most will eventually end up getting jobs in the city because they were born and raised here. This means someone has to help them figure out options for their future right here."

There are a few other alternative schools. Dae-an Elementary School, opening in March, is made up of a few parent-teachers and students who want to cultivate equal relationships between the two parties and practice ecologically sound living. That is not an easy goal to pursue in Seoul, but they were lucky enough to find a space last December. Built with a small garden in han-ok, a traditional Korean-style house, it uses a space that was once a restaurant.

There is also Un-hyun Elementary School, run by the local school board, which aims at alternative ways of teaching.

Institutions that stylize themselves with the catchphrase "alternative schools" are increasing, but some civic groups have raised concerns about this trend. In any part of society, there is a distinction between alternative and mainstream cultures. Once the mainstream appropriates alternative practices for commercial reasons without regard for the meaning and inspiration of the alternative, the end becomes perverted and, ultimately, meaningless.

You can always turn off the television or change the channel to watch a better program and as it works out, you can do the same with education.

by Park Soo-mee

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