School reflects on changes as it celebrates 90th year

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School reflects on changes as it celebrates 90th year

Approach the front gate of Seoul Foreign School and you'll see a bright, yellow banner that says "SFS 90th Anniversary." Go inside the school's buildings and you'll see walls lined with posters and drawings that celebrate the school's nickname, "Crusaders," and announce special events to mark the anniversary and the start of another school year. It appears to be a quite a celebration. But at the same time, the school works to keep a low profile.

Seoul Foreign School has been providing Western-style education to children of expatriates since it opened in 1912. Foreign missionary, diplomatic and business families here send their children to the school's preschool, elementary, middle and high school divisions. The school teaches an American education curriculum, except for a separate elementary school division that uses a British program. Throughout its history, the school has grown from a little missionary school in a remote and tradition-bound country into one of the foremost international schools in a thriving, dynamic city. As the school prepares to mark its anniversary, it will reflect upon its legacy and what it has achieved over the years.

The school sits atop a hill in Yeonhui-dong, western Seoul, on some 25 acres just west of Yonsei University. Its grounds are cozy and well-maintained, with neatly cut lawns and clean exteriors. Its facilities include an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, two gymnasiums, computer labs, two well-stocked libraries and an auditorium that seats 400. A 9 billion won ($7.5 million) performing arts center and an additional floor to the British elementary school are under construction. Clearly, this is a healthy institution. The hallways and classrooms resemble those you would see at a public school in the United States; the only sign of Korea is the giant Korean Gate in the courtyard that links the high school and the elementary school. The campus is a tranquil island in the middle of a bustling city.

The peak of the anniversary celebrations will come Oct. 19, when the school will host a ball attended by parents, alumni, faculty and other staff. In attendance will be the former head of the school, Richard Underwood, and his brother Horace G. Underwood; their grandfather, also named Horace G. Underwood, founded Yonsei University. Winners of art competitions, essay contests and other activities related to the anniversary will be announced. Then, next spring, the school will hold an anniversary picnic for students, parents and faculty. "We are very much looking forward to celebrating this year," says Harlan E. Lyso, who succeeded Richard Underwood as the head of the school in 1992.

The school's student body includes nearly 50 nationalities, including students from Slovakia and Qatar. Edie Moon, an English teacher at the school since 1983, attended the school from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and is proud of the ethnic diversity. "We have retained the cultural diversity which has always been a strength," she says. Still, about 60 percent of the school's 1,271 students and 120 teachers are U.S. citizens; and many of the students -- some say too many -- are Korean-American.

Because of the variety of backgrounds among students, the school's teachers and counselors have always been actively involved in helping "third culture" kids. "We hold a conference once a year for students who are new or just about to leave in order to help them adjust or readjust to differing environments," says Annette Faldyn, a counselor at the elementary school.

A recent graduate of the school, Edward Lee, is now a medical student at Northwestern University. By e-mail, he recalls his four years at the school positively, but says it was decidedly isolated. "There wasn't much interaction with the rest of the city, or the country for that matter," he says.

Indeed, Seoul Foreign School and other foreign language schools have been criticized by people who say the schools cater to rich Korean-Americans who want to skirt the rigorous Korean education system. Tuition at Seoul Foreign School is high, at about 18 million won a year for high schoolers. (There is a subsidy for children of the original missionary families.) The head of the school, Mr. Lyso, says that "tuition takes into account capital expenses; otherwise we would be unable to build new facilities and update our technological infrastructure." Officials refused to disclose the school's budget, but said that the school has no endowment.

The ethnic mix has changed dramatically over the past decade. People who attended the school in the 1980s say that most of the students then were white. Nayoung Chung Mathiesen, a director at the school, acknowledges that a majority of the high-school students now are ethnic Koreans. "But the difference between ethnicity and nationality must be taken into account," she says. "Most of the Korean-American students in our school are U.S. citizens, as are their parents."

Dealing with that perception of imbalance is probably the school's biggest challenge, and its administrators are clearly concerned about it. They are reluctant, however, to discuss it in detail. When asked what percentage of the students were ethnic Koreans, Ms. Mathiesen was unable to answer. The school may be wary of rekindling the scandals that rocked other foreign-language schools a few years ago.

Mr. Lyso says he devotes most of his time and energy recruiting teachers. The biggest hurdle in recruiting good teachers, he says, is "the misconceptions people have that Korea is undeveloped, due to the TV programs such as M.A.S.H."

While the Seoul Foreign School has shed its evangelical roots and now embraces students from all races, nationalities and creeds, its goal is to "provide excellent, quality education to our students while retaining our Christian ethos," says Mr. Lyso.


The health of the school through wars and booms, overseen by Underwoods

Seoul Foreign School was founded in 1912 by an association of Methodist missionaries to teach children of foreign missionaries living in Seoul. The school opened in a room borrowed from a Methodist school in the Jeong-dong area of downtown Seoul, near where the U.S. ambassador's residence now stands.

The initial class had 18 students and one teacher, Ethel Van Wagoner, who later became the wife of Horace Horton Underwood, son of the founder of Yonsei University and the first Presbyterian missionary in Korea, Horace Grant Underwood.

In 1924 the school moved to its own building, Morris Hall, on a two-acre property in Jeong-dong, where it remained until 1957. During World War II and the Korean War, the school was forced to close while foreigners were evacuated from the peninsula. During those years a great amount of school property was stolen or damaged. After the Korean War, Horace H. Underwood, who worked for the U.S. military's property control office, went to great lengths to preserve the school and continue its existence by raising funds and maintaining a permanent area for the school.

In 1958, Seoul Foreign School moved to its present location in Yeonhui-dong, where a public cemetery had been. There were 241 students in the June 1959 graduating class, the first since the Korean War. The 1960s and '70s saw a rapid increase in students and expansion of facilities. Added were dormitories, an auditorium and gymnasiums, and tuitions went up commensurately. The school's annual budget rose from $38,000 in 1960 to $1.3 million in 1978, with almost all of the revenue coming from tuition ?the school receives little in the way of contributions or subsidies. Much of the growth was overseen by Richard Underwood, a son of Ms. Van Wagoner and Mr. Underwood, who was principal of the school from 1961 to 1992.

The British School was incorporated into Seoul Foreign School in 1992, but still maintains a separate board that determines school policies such as admissions, teacher recruitment, and curriculum. It now has 266 students from preschool to grade six, and offers English standard examinations for entry into British boarding and private schools. Unlike other divisions of the school, the students at the British School must wear uniforms.

by Choi Jie-ho

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