For expats, affordable educationThe availability of international schools that offer a quality education at relatively low cost is something many foreigners in Korea have dreamed of.
The expatriate community has complained repeatedly that there are too few international schools in Korea, but less attention has been paid to the issue of high tuition costs.
By law, foreign schools are not entitled to receive government subsidies, and thus the only direct source of income is from tuition fees, which makes the schools quite expensive. Tuition ranges from 15 million won ($15,000) to 20 million won a year.
A decade ago, two Americans ― Robert Holley, 43, and his friend James Haddon ― set out to change that, embarking on a mission to provide inexpensive education for foreigners in Korea.
They collaborated in opening the Busan Foreign School in 1996, so “people without huge monetary support could attend school,” Mr. Holley said. “We created by far the cheapest foreign school ... in Busan.”
The undertaking partly reflected the situation of their children, including Mr. Holley’s eldest son, who was attending a Korean elementary school and receiving home schooling at the same time.
Mr. Holley noted that “the International School of Busan charged 15 million won per year, which made it very expensive to attend.”
He and Mr. Haddon had the idea of turning the home school into an educational institution. After receiving approval from the Education Ministry. they opened the facility, which later became the Busan Foreign School.
A former Mormon missionary, Mr. Holley, who arrived in Busan 25 years ago, went on to establish two more schools in Korea ― the Gwangju Foreign School in 1999 and the Jeonbuk Foreign School in 2001. They are by far the cheapest international schools in Korea; the Gwangju school charges less than 10 million won.
Commenting further on the reason for opening the schools, Mr. Holley said, “Korea has been very good to me and it was a chance to do something nice. I received a blessing in Korea and I wanted to pay back the Korean people in some way.” Although the schools are for foreign students, Koreans with foreign citizenship and those who have lived abroad for more than five years can also attend.
In the late 1990s, after learning about the founding of the Busan Foreign School, Gwangju Mayor Koh Jae-yoo approached Mr. Holley about setting up the first foreign school in that city, hoping to attract foreign investment.
A small building with a purple brick facade, once a community service building, was turned into an elementary and middle school. It had only 13 students and five teachers in its first year, and conditions were not easy. In contrast, the Seoul International School, which has been around for more than 100 years, has 1,500 students.
Some parents who came to examine the school saw a tiny group of students studying in an old building and walked away. “It was a frustrating moment,” said Myoung Hyon-suk, the chief administrator of the Gwangju Foreign School and Mr. Holley’s wife.
With no assistance from the government, the school encountered financial problems; the property is leased from the city, which charged a reasonably low but “not sufficiently cheap” rent, she said. The school needed to pay the salaries of many staff members, including cooks, bus drivers, custodians and a secretary, as well as the teachers.
Mr. Holley covered the school’s mounting losses with funds from his own pocket, earned working as an international lawyer and appearing on television and radio shows.
Six years later, the student body has grown to over 100 students, including Mr. Holley’s three sons, and there are 18 teachers. The facility, which now serves students from elementary through high school, is no longer in the red, and the building’s interior has been renovated to upgrade the learning environment.
One tenth of the students come from other regions to take advantage of the inexpensive tuition, according to Ms. Myoung.
The first high school graduate emerged three years ago. Nine graduates have gone on to major universities in the United States, something that has made the effort worthwhile, Mr. Holley said. “I think we have accomplished a lot in educating students and instilling them with values.”
In 2001, Mr. Holley founded another school, in Jeonju, North Jeolla province, for a similar reason ― the province’s governor, You Jong-keun, wanted to bring foreign investment to the province.
The situation at this school mirrors the early experiences of the Gwangju school. With fewer than 30 students, the Jeonbuk school is losing tens of million of won every year, Ms. Myoung said, adding that, “The school's cash reserves run out a couple of months after a semester begins.”
As is the case in Gwangju, not many companies are based in Jeonju, especially foreign companies. The location of foreign schools and the number of foreign companies in a region often determine the level of tuition the schools can charge. For example, a foreign school in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang province, also has fewer than 30 students, but the school can charge around 20 million won per year since foreign companies like British American Tobacco and Scania, which have manufacturing facilities there, support the educational expenditures of their employees, Ms. Myoung said. While the absence of a foreign school hinders foreign investment in a region, so does the absence of foreign companies.
Because of the lower tuition, parents often questioned the Gwangju school’s quality. To prove that it provides a decent level of education, the school has sought to become accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of six regional associations that accredit public and private schools, colleges and universities in the United States. The school passed a second screening by the association in April, and is waiting for its final decision.
The inspection process has been very demanding, but association officials complemented the school on how well it is doing, Ms. Myoung said. After interviewing teachers in the school, the officials commented that the teachers were generally pleased with how they were treated and happy to be working at the school.
“They (Mr. Holley and Ms. Myoung) always listen to us, and make us feel important,” said Chris Schuster, the school’s assistant principal, who is an English teacher from New Jersey.
Mr. Schuster said the school has had virtually the same staff for the last three years because they like working for the school, while other foreign schools do not have such a high retention rate.
One of the concerns Mr. Holley and Ms. Myoung have always had is whether teachers would choose to move bigger and more established schools.
“One time we had a sports competition with another school. That school had an artificial grass field, and the sheer size of the school was nothing comparable to ours. Everything was so nice. We were worried that when teachers saw it, they might be tempted to move to another school like that,” Ms. Myoung said. Their worries, however, proved unfounded. Later, teachers told her that the facilities are not a decisive factor in judging a school, and that the Gwangju school had better books and teaching materials.
Most of all, teachers feel it is worthwhile to work at the school, as small as it is. “When you are working for a school like this, your opinion as a teacher and principal makes a big difference,” Mr. Schuster said. “I have seen the school become better and make improvements because of things I have done, and that the other teachers and administrators do here.”
by Limb Jae-un
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