Students rock rather than readKim Tae-ok was 16 when she dropped out of high school and into the Haja Center, an alternative learning environment in southwestern Seoul.
Tae-ok says the past year at the center ― making videos and reporting stories for its Web site ― has changed her life. “Kids at public schools have no idea about anything but studying for college. The Haja Center has taught me to enjoy life and go my own way,” says Tae-ok, who uses the nickname Ok at the center.
The Haja Center, officially known as the Seoul Youth Factory for Alternative Culture, rejects Korea’s emphasis on rote learning. It focuses on learning by doing.
It’s home to roughly 400 youths, mostly high-school dropouts or teens interested in arts programs that aren’t available at their schools. The Haja Center, in Yeongdeungpo, is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Unlike traditional schools, its day off is Monday.
Enter the dull red-brick building and you see walls splashed with bright colors. Students, calling themselves “jooktories,” rush between “factories,” Haja’s production facilities for film and video, Web design, music, visual art and “civil culture,” a program addressing issues of importance to young people. The jooktories consult with “pandories,” the center’s teachers, who adopt the role of mentors and work with the students on their projects.
The Haja Center, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, has been praised by educators as a radical alternative to Korea’s standardized educational system. Its approach is less structured and more creative than the hundreds of other alternative schools operated by provincial governments and nonprofit organizations in Korea. Haja is the brainchild of Chohan Hye-jeong, a sociology professor at Yonsei University, who also serves as the center’s director.
“The youths at the center know they no longer live in an era in which college degrees or certificates can guarantee their future,” Ms. Chohan says. “What they fear most is the disease of spiritlessness from participating in the current system of schooling.”
What they get in its place are short-term classes in the five factories and a production school, a three-year experimental school within Haja. The factories are open to anyone under the age of 24. They run two or four months and specialize in such areas as vocal training and video making. The production school is more structured and requires 210 credits to complete. However, since it isn’t accredited, graduates get a letter of recommendation instead of a diploma.
Haja, which is Korean for “Let’s do it,” is operated by the Center for Youth and Cultural Studies of Yonsei University and funded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. The city is pleased with the program and frequently invites visitors to see it in operation. The students can be more critical, as evidenced by “Lemon’s Diary,” a Web cartoon created by Lemon, 20, a jooktori for the past three years.
Viewers note how Lemon’s character changes in her diary. She’s initially enthusiastic about the center’s offerings, but grows increasingly sluggish during the next 18 months. Six years after entering the program, she has morphed into a sarcastic, incompetent person who grumbles, “Why would someone like Seo Tai-ji come to Haja Center?”
The cartoon is a hot topic among the jooktories and pandories at Haja Center. Some say it points to Haja’s failure to help youths find their place in the outside world; others are disappointed to see such pessimism registered by one of their own.
Ms. Chohan, 54, believes that by fostering personal growth, Haja’s youth will be happier and eventually find their place in Korea’s conformist society. She founded the program for people like Seo Tai-ji, one of the 1990’s most influential pop icons, who became so disillusioned with Korea’s educational system that he dropped out of school. “Seo Tai-ji is someone who’s devoted to what he loves,” Ms. Chohan says. “His passion opened up brand new territory for me.”
Haja jooktories do what moves them. They compose and record pop, hiphop, heavy metal and hard rock music in the center’s third-floor studio, and perform in the building’s basement live-music venue. They make films and videos that have been screened at the Jeonju International Film Festival, the Koding Film Festival and the Seoul Independent Film Festival. They design clothing and business cards.
Hatchi, Aho, and Sibin are running the Snail Cafe on the center’s first floor. They’re high school dropouts, in their late teens, who have been jooktories for more than a year. They launched the Snail Cafe in January with 400,000 won ($335) seed money.
Their project is teaching them about cooking, catering and bookkeeping. Five percent of their profits go to the center. They keep the rest. Their motto is “providing quality slow food for fellow jooktories.”
Sibin is preparing rice, soup and three side dishes, and overseeing the preparation of a tasty mushroom curry. Her partners are making sandwiches and desserts.
They hold meetings each night to discuss how well the day’s items were received, how much money they made and what they need to do to improve. “The other jooktories are quite particular about food,” notes Sibin, “so we have to change side dishes every day.”
Sibin dropped out of school last May after moving to Seoul from Daejon. She felt suffocated by the school atmosphere. “The dean of my new school hated me from the very first day,” she says, “because I was wearing five earrings when I went to the school office to get my I.D. card. He harassed me whenever he had a chance.”
In another part of the building, 19-year-old Sangchoo is writing stories for the Haja Center News, which can be read on the center’s home page (www.haja.net).
In the basement is Anarchi (as in anarchist), the 17-year-old guitarist and lead vocalist of Celestial Chorus, a five-member rock group that meets two nights weekly at the center to practice.
These and other students say they like Haja’s free, open environment. They don’t feel trapped in a strict college-preparatory system that doesn’t allow them to make choices.
“There are lots of Korean teens who don’t know what they want because they’re constantly told what to do,” says Anarchi. “But Haja offers lots of opportunities to do your own stuff. It’s a very cool thing.”
However, some note that with no teachers prodding them, they run the risk of goofing off. Perhaps that’s one reason why Lemon’s Web-based cartoon character becomes increasingly jaded, and is bitter and dejected by her sixth year at the Haja Center.
“I don't think I’ll be like that in six years,” says the real Lemon. “It’s just a phase in my life that I’m expressing in my cartoon; it’s part of growing up.”
Nevertheless, her cartoon makes the point that the Haja Center also has to grow up. Now that three years have passed, some students say it’s time for the center to improve its offerings.
Since the Haja Center is a nonaccredited alternative school, its jooktories can’t earn degrees that are accepted by other educational institutions. Even students who attend the three-year Production School program must take a qualifying exam to get a high-school equivalency diploma or apply to college.
Since Korea is so degree-oriented, some students have left the Haja Center because they feel they need some sort of official credential. Some educators have criticized Haja on this account, saying it’s too idealistic, only providing what kids want.
Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs emerging from the center. Five seniors in the production school program have recently wrangled internships, getting real-life experience. One of them, Jerry, 19, worked for the Christian Broadcasting System last fall as a television production assistant.
And the school is expanding. Haja hired 15 new pandories in January, bringing its team of mentors up to 40. The pandories are skilled in their fields. A drama teacher who goes by the name Tinkerbell has been a member of the well-respected Sadari theatrical group for more than seven years. “I don’t feel like I teach students. It’s more like showing them how to express their bodies and emotions,” says Tinkerbell.
While there are a handful of students, like Lemon’s imaginary character, who find it difficult to fit into Haja’s alternative program, the majority are enjoying their experience.
“Usually, kids’ lives depend solely on their college entrance exam scores. But at Haja, I’ve learned there’s something more,” says Ok, the Haja jooktori who has spent the past year making videos and reporting for the center’s Web site.
Ok promised her mom that she would return to public school after a year at the center. “Now, I think I’ll be able to enjoy [traditional] school without the burden of college exams weighing so heavily on my shoulders,” she says.
Returning to public school doesn’t mean that Ok will stop being a jooktori. She says that she plans to continue working on projects at the Haja Center after classes at her regular school are finished simply because she enjoys it.
by Kay Park
Haja Center is near the Yeongdeungpo-gu Office station on subway lines No. 2 and No. 5. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and closed Mondays and public holidays. For additional information, call (02) 2677-9200 or check out www.haja.net.