Principally Speaking, She's Worked Wonders

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Principally Speaking, She's Worked Wonders

When you think of Korean public schools, do you think of drab buildings, kids jammed into classrooms and teachers who only drone on and lecture dryly from the front of the classroom? If so, you might be surprised by the quaint and cozy classrooms and other learning and recreation facilities at Munsan Elementary School in Paju, a city in Kyonggi province.

Only about two years ago, Munsan was just like any other ordinary, colorless school. But in the fall of 1999 the school's newly appointed principal, Kim Hye-sook, began a comprehensive renovation. "We firmly believe that comfortable and friendly surroundings are the best way to help kids learn, mature emotionally and grow to be well-balanced adults," Ms. Kim said. Funds for the improvements were raised by parents and former students.

Below the school's main set of stairs, about five pyeong (16.5 square meters) have been transformed into a charming library that is decorated like something out of a fairy-tale book. Bookshelves topped with flower-filled vases line the room, and floor-to-ceiling windows ensure plenty of natural light. Many students can be found there after school, crowding around the desks reading one or another of the library's 300 books. Others climb up on the principal's lap to be read a fairy tale. The atmosphere is more like a kid's fun room at home than a stuffy school. There is also another similar reading nook under the stairs leading up to the third floor.

Probably the favorite after-school retreat of the pupils, though, is the so-called multi-purpose room, which occupies about 40 pyeong. There the kids can choose among many ways to let off steam after an arduous day of studying, such as singing on a karaoke machine and dancing to a "pump" dancing video game, the type that was all the rage a couple of years ago. There is also a small stage with lighting equipment and mirrored-walls, where children can practice the latest dance craze. Kids are always hanging around there not only after school, but on weekends and holidays, and even during vacations when it is kept open.

Going around the side of the school building, there is an outdoor training area, another 40-pyeong space, where kids can test their physical strength, agility and daring. There are five workout courses, including a rock-climbing wall and a tire tunnel. A five-kilometer trail leaves the workout area to wind through the trees behind the school, and there is a shelter under which kids can cool off and catch their breath.

Back inside and along the main hallways, exhibitions are often held to showcase the students' paintings, crafts and calligraphy. Many of the big events at the school are captured in photographs and displayed on the hallways as well.

"I'm deeply thankful to the parents, alumni, and the faculty for the progress we've made," Ms. Kim said. "Others come here to see what we've done and emulate it, so I think our efforts have been worthwhile."

The Munsan Elementary School have recently won one of the superior prizes at this year's most beautiful school contest, a recognition of all the innovations they have made.

The school also runs a community homepage site at to allow students and parents to be part of the school outside of the classrooms. On-line chat rooms and Web sites complimenting the students and teachers in the school are also available.

by Jeon Ick-jin

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