Second chance at successThe onset of puberty among teens brings many changes, both mental and physical. In some cases, rebellion takes place in the school, the home or both. This may bring about greater self-awareness, but it can also cause turmoil: In Korea, nearly 70,000 middle and high school students drop out of school every year.
For those who opt to resume their education later, whether on the academic or vocational levels, there is a second chance. It is known as an “alternative school.”
While these schools provide students the basics of reading and writing, in many other respects their curricula diverge sharply from those of typical schools, by emphasizing extracurricular activities such as nature studies and volunteer work, and focusing on development of human relations skills.
For Seung-hee, 15, of Seoul, who asked that her real name not be used, an alternative school has been a life preserver.
Despite the presence of a teacher, the three 15-year-old girls who share a table make no effort at holding back yawns or talking softly.
“Teeth is the plural form of tooth,” says the teacher, Yang Ji-eun, to which the trio repeat in unison, “teeeeth.”
Ms. Yang appears willing to put up with the low-grade chaos in her class, but she has her limits. When the disorder reaches that point, Ms. Yang knows how to calm her pupils.
“Hey you guys, let’s wrap this up quickly, O.K?” she says firmly. Upon hearing their teacher’s gruff voice, the kids calm down.
A hard-edged girl in a leather jacket, Seung-hee appears to be the fiestiest of the three. She also boasts the most thunderous voice. She bluntly tells Ms. Yang that she wants to finish classes early, as her friend Hae-ri did.
Seung-hee has been attending winter session courses at Kkumteul School in northern Seoul to prepare for the exam required to graduate from middle school on April 5. Along with her twin sister, Seung-ju, and her friend Hae-ri, Seung-hee spends most of her time here ― often lingering until 8 p.m. ― even though school does not resume until mid-April.
Does she consider it fun to study and hang out here?
“I ran out of money, so I can’t go shopping ― and I don’t want to stay home,” she says. “So I come here.”
The facility hardly meets the standards of the lowliest type of school building. It amounts to four rooms, two classrooms, a kitchen and a main hall in an apartment building’s ground floor intended for retail space. Its walls are decorated with students’ paintings of cartoon characters like Winnie the Pooh and Dooly, a green dinosaur.
Just as the setting does not resemble a typical school, the activity inside also differs. Here, students are not required to stare at a blackboard and write in their notebooks all day. Yes, the students, who range in age from 15 to 19, must take basic competency courses in speaking, writing and English, but drama class and courses in the Internet, film production and other practical subjects are also on the agenda.
Regularly scheduled field trips, allowing students to go camping, fishing, take a ceramics class and become involved in community service projects such as visiting the elderly and disabled, also figure prominently in the curriculum.
After a two-hour English class, the girls eat a simple lunch of kimchi and doenjang, or bean-paste soup prepared by a volunteer. Over the meal, the girls squabble with some older students and joke around with their teachers.
THE SMOKING LOUNGE
After lunch, the teens along with some 20-year olds, head straight for a small room adjoining the kitchen. It’s the smoking lounge, a focal point on the campus.
“We assigned a smoking room because if we forbade it [smoking], the students would be more rebellious and not come here,” says Kim Eun-gyu, an English teacher, adding that many teens have been smoking for several years. The school does not officially sanction smoking, he noted.
Plastered on the walls of this closet-sized room are newspaper and magazine clippings identifying the hazards of smoking. But the girls make light of them.
One teen giggles as she points to a list of English words and their corresponding meaning in Korean. “Look there,” she says. “Ms. Yang has even put up English words related to smoking in the hope that we will memorize them while we’re here.” The three of them giggle some more.
Seung-hee dropped out of middle school after being left back a grade.
“I couldn't stand the scorn and humiliation of having to study with kids younger than me,” she says shrugging. “So I decided to leave school last March.” A neighbor informed her of the alternative school being established near her home in north Seoul. Once she contacted the school, Ms. Yang, the schoolteacher, prodded her to enroll by phoning her repeatedly. Finally, Seung-hee relented and signed up last May; her twin sister, Seung-ju (also not her real name) came aboard three months later. She quit when her mother told her join her sister, but not before working for a spell at her father’s printing shop.
Like many dropouts, Seung-hee hated some teachers at her traditional school. They insulted her and treated her in a degrading manner, she says. As she speaks, she repeatedly uses the word musi, for “looked down upon” when referring to some of those instructors’ attitude toward her.
“Like, last year when I went to school to get a document, my teacher said to me, ‘So, I hear you’ve been working as a bar waitress?’ ― in front of all of the other teachers.”
Seung-hee pauses as if recalling a past pain. “That was really degrading,” she says, exhaling a mouthful of cigarette smoke.
Her current teachers have left more positive impressions on her.
“The teachers here are extremely understanding,” she says. “They’re very caring, even calling me to say good night. They don’t discriminate nor are they condescending toward me. If I ask silly questions during class or if I don’t get something right away, they’re really patient and encourage me not to give up.”
Seung-hee's sister agrees, saying, “The teachers are on our side, you know. They comfort and placate us, they listen to us when something horrible happens, stuff like that.”
At Kkumteul School, a guidance counselor is assigned to each student to supplement classroom teachers.
Although Seung-hee’s mother appreciates the schooling her daughters receive, her brother insists she doesn’t study at a “proper school.” As if in rebuttal, Seung-hee points to a scar between her eyebrows that she blames on her brother’s violent behavior. “My brother is so mean to girls, he’s never going to get a girlfriend,” she says. Seung-hee has run away from home a number of times over family disputes.
Seung-hee’s sister points to a burn scar on her hand. “He put an iron on my hand because I didn’t iron his pants well,” she says.
THE REPORT CARD
Only 13 alternative schools nationwide are accredited by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, but hundreds more are run by nonprofit organizations or provincial governments, or they are managed privately.
“There is no way we can keep track of all of the alterative schools in the country because it’s possible to establish one with relative ease,” says Kim Seong-won, who oversees alternative schools at the ministry.
According to instructor Kim Eun-gyu, alternative schools fall into four categories: accredited, nonaccredited, summer-winter session and after-school types. Kkumteul is a not-for-profit but is not accredited by the government. Although nonaccredited alternative schools are not considered unlawful, they are not entitled to governmental financial support as accredited schools are. However, they are free to develop their own curricula free of government strictures.
Most of these two-year institutions are based outside of cities’ cores ― many in rural areas ― because they include dormitories. That is not the case with Kkumteul School, however.
“We are in the heart of the city because we want our students to learn about life through using the city’s resources,” says the teacher Kim Eun-gyu. “We arrange our curriculum so that students can learn about themselves and gain vocational independence.”
The school has four full-time teachers and a score of volunteers who teach subjects as varied as English, physics and drama.
Seung-hee feels content at this special institution. A lunch volunteer, Seong Eun-ju, notices some changes in the girls’ attitude.
“The kids appear more cheery than they were six months ago,” she says.
“They are no longer angry,” agrees Mr. Kim.
If Seung-hee passes the exam required for a middle school degree, she wants to buy new clothes. From there, she wants to attend a vocational high school and dreams of eventually pursuing a singing career.
“I know it’s hard to become a star, so if I don't make it, I can always become a beautician.”
by Choi Jie-ho