The cream of the crop

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

The cream of the crop

ANHEUNG, Gangwon

Over the front door of the main school building hangs a large banner: "A heaven for students who want to study, and a hell for the students who don't."

That's no idle threat, not at Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, an elite private school that sits in the picturesque mountainside. Here, some of the best teenagers in Korea struggle through three years of science, humanities, advanced placement courses and 350 new English words each week.

"Please don't print that we learn 350 words a week," says Bae Yu-kyung, a typical first-year student at the academy. "People will think we're nerds."

The graceful curves of the traditional blue roofs appear quite suddenly after a seemingly endless stretch of winding road over the mountainside. Atop a 12-story building, the Chinese-character sign proclaims "Minjoksagwan Godeung Hakgyo" (literally, "Korean Traditional Heritage High School").

Few have ever accused Korea's education-obsessed high school students of not studying enough.

But that's what concerned Choi Myung-jae, the chairman of Pasteur Dairy Products Corp. He worried about Korea's best and brightest young people so much that he started his own school six years ago.

The only way to reach the mountainside high school in Anheung, Gangwon province, 138 kilometers east of Seoul, is through the Pasteur Dairy compound. Mr. Choi insists on the route because he wants the students always to be reminded that their education is made possible through the labor of the people working at the factory below.

The gates of the school are flanked by statues of two of the most respected figures in Korean history ?on the right by the Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the loyal military leader who fought the Japanese during the Hideyoshi Invasion in 1592, and on the left by Chung Yak-yong, a noted Joseon period scholar.

In fact, the traditional architecture of the school buildings and the students and teachers all wearing traditional Korea costumes are enough to make you wonder if you have entered a school from ancient days.

But national pride is one of the two founding purposes of the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy, to instill a sense of pride and respect for the cultural traditions that have been the backbone of Korean society for centuries.

The other purpose is academics ?serious, serious academics, modeled on such elite U.S. schools as Philips Andover, Exeter and Choate Rosemary Hall. To get into the academy, you have to be among the top 5 percent of middle school students, score more than 620 (out of 670) on the TOEFL English test and write a special mathematics test administered by the school. Each year, only one-in-four applicants make it.

The English score is important because almost all classes and conversations must be in English, all day, every day, except Sundays. And don't think that the English is at odds with the school's nationalist character; every day the students recite a reminder that English is only a means, not an end ?learning English is to help the students compete on the world stage. "We are not concerned that the students will lose their cultural and national identity," Park Ha-shik, the school vice-principal, says. "We wear hanbok on campus, Korean language and history classes are taught in Korean and our students are required to learn traditional music and sports."

All students track into one of three areas: international, humanities and science programs. The international program, called "Ivy Class," recently made headlines when all 14 of this year's graduating class were accepted into prestigious foreign schools, including Yale and Stanford universities in the United States.

Part of the success of the school stems from the fact that it is an independent private school with greater freedom to formulate its curriculum and admissions process.

Those who make it to the academy find an impressive student-to-teacher ratio of 3.3 to 1 highly qualified teachers, many of whom have advanced degrees from Korean and foreign universities, and a wide-ranging curriculum that includes more than 10 advanced placement classes that prepare students to sit for tests that can earn them college credits. Students have classes for eight hours and study hall for four-and-a-half hours a day during the week.

"Our students can take up to 12 advanced placement classes during their three years," Mr. Park says, "and their average SAT score is 1500 out of a possible 1600."

The pressure to achieve can sometimes become too much and the school has counselors who offer individual and group counseling, according to Mr. Park. Even among the whiz kids, there are some who fail to make the grades. "Every year, we get about 3 to 5 students who fail to go on to the next grade and transfer out to normal schools," he says.

For the privileged 207 students on campus this semester, this education comes free, thanks to the 400 million won ($250,000) Mr. Choi's dairy gives to the school every month. Students only need to come up with the monthly room-and-board fees of 650,000 won.

Sports and extra-curricular activities are also important at Minjok. All first-year students learn Korean archery and golf at the on-campus facilities. In the winter, students go to the nearby ski slopes for weekly ski lessons.

To allay the concerns of anxious parents who send their teenagers so far away from home, to see them only one weekend a month, the dorm masters keep a close eye on their charges. All rooms have closed circuit TV cameras, which can be monitored at a central location in the building. The intrusion of privacy has never been an issue with the students, according to Mr. Park. "Students have no problems with it. They know that they are being monitored," he says. The cameras are, however, switched off from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. when students take a break from studying.

Perhaps even more than the rigorous classes is adjusting to the dorm life. "Living in a dorm is an important lesson in learning human skills," says Mr. Park.

One of the lessons the school aims to teach is independence, and area school officials say their otherwise brilliant students seem to be lacking. "Every year, we do a survey of incoming freshmen and one of the questions we ask is 'Who do you admire and respect the most?'" Mr. Park says. "It is hard to believe, but all of them write 'My parents.'" The school may teach filial piety, but for Mr. Park, that's a sign of how narrow a perspective of society the students have.

Maintaining strict discipline is the academy's way of fostering independence. Tardiness, dozing in class and not keeping the rooms tidy are punishable by two strokes of a cane, which is carried out by the teachers. Fifty-five strokes and you are out of school. "A student can appeal his case to the weekly student court," Mr. Park says, "and the student council president who presides as the judge will adjudicate."

Bae Yu-kyung is a lively 16-year-old freshman who, unlike her more ordinary peers, already knows where she wants to go: Princeton University, where she wants to major in economics. She has already taken three advanced placement exams, including microeconomics, and scored a perfect five on all of them. She took a tour of the university with a classmate in September and, "I just fell in love with the campus."

Ms. Bae has no difficulties with the school's English-only policy, even though she has never lived abroad. "I actually enjoy speaking English although it is a little strange speaking English with other Koreans," she says.

Although the official lights-out is at midnight, most of the students stay up until 1 a.m. studying, according to Ms. Bae. With eight classes, those notorious 350 new English words to learn every week and two required readings a month (Ms. Bae is currently grappling with Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles"), even the most gifted students need to burn the midnight oil. It isn't abnormal for the kids here to study even during 10-minute recesses.

Hurrying through lunch, she says she needed to get back to her room to clean it up. "Today is room inspection day, and my room is a huge mess from a fashion show last night," she says. A number of friends got together in her room to choose outfits for a dance party, and they didn't get the room cleaned up. What does a teenage whiz wear to a dance party? Cool gray, of course. "Grey pants, a gray dress shirt and a gray cardigan," she says.

In a large room with desks and chairs arranged in a U-shape, four incoming freshmen students are learning about the French Revolution in an advanced European History class.

In one 50-minute class period, Alexander Ganse takes his pupils from the freemasons to the "Let them eat cake" quote attributed, quite incorrectly according to Mr. Ganse, to Marie Antoinette in an attempt to harm the reputation of the foreign queen to the assembly of the Estates-General in 1798. Rather than lecturing the students, Mr. Ganse, from Germany, tries to elicit responses and questions from the students, who seemed not-quite comfortable with this method of learning. Some of the students are punching in words into their pocket electronic dictionaries to look up the meaning of new words even as Mr. Ganse is speaking. One male student occasionally dozes off, the effect of having eaten too many cookies after lunch, he says.

"You may be wondering about the speed of all this. This is necessary because these kids will take the exams next May," says Mr. Ganse, who has been teaching at the academy for five years. "The lecture is supplemented by research and historical movies to help the students understand the material," he said. The class had just watched "La Marseillaise," a 1938 black-and-white film about the French Revolution by Jean Renoir, with English subtitles.

Mr. Ganse finds the academy an ideal place to teach. "Even in Germany, this would be an excellent situation," he says. "The willingness to work, the talent and the facilities are there."

by Kim Hoo-ran

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now