Schools get a new lease on life
Kim Han-gyu was skeptical when he first walked into the playground of Myeongrae Elementary School in Milyang City, North Gyeongsang province, three years ago.
Mr. Kim was looking for a place to open an alternative film college in Milyang, a city of less than 44,000 that is mostly known for its apples. Hanam township, a farming village within the city limits, was an ideal option for students wanting to learn unique film aesthetics away from the mainstream urban film schools, he said.
But when he actually got to the school, it was worse than he had expected.
The grass on the playground had grown so tall that he had to wade rather than walk through it. When he finally got inside the building, the rooms were covered in spider webs and the floors were strewn with leftover trash from the former tenants, who ran a vinyl factory. There were marks on the walls everywhere.
Milyang Film School, which officially opens in March 2006, is not the only old countryside school to have been turned into a cultural-educational facility.
Across town, an abandoned elementary school was turned into a studio-playhouse by a renowned theater troupe from Seoul. Before a major production, actors from Seoul come down to the village and spend months rehearsing at the theater, sometimes inviting residents to come watch their rehearsals.
According to Milyang’s school board, 26 of the city’s 49 elementary schools closed down between 1991 and 1999, as people moved out of town.
Some families left for their children’s education. Others moved away to cities for jobs while their elderly parents stayed back in town.
“You could safely assume that most parents with young children moved to bigger cities during that period,” says Jang Geun-jae, a taxi driver in Milyang. “It’s because there are no jobs here for young people, except farming. Who would want to spend their youth farming these days?”
A clerk at Milyang Office of Education said most other rural communities in Korea are renting out school buildings these days.
“[Renting out school buildings] is a strategic plan for small cities to survive,” one official says. “Any schools with less than 100 students will likely be shut down nowadays, because most of us won’t be able to afford to pay for maintenance if we have any fewer students.”
Chateau Mani, one of the few domestic companies selling locally-produced wines, also remodeled an old school in Yeongdong, South Chungcheong, to be used as a tasting room for their wines. In Namhae County in South Gyeongsang province, an old school was turned to Sunrise Art Town, offering hands-on programs for young students. Similarly, the artist Lee Seok-won opened an art studio for kids, Gyeongbok Art Institute, in an old mining town of Hwasun, South Jeolla province. Students come in and take a weekend workshop in the studio.
“I hadn’t originally thought of making this into a business,” Lee said. “I just needed a studio space to work quietly on my own without worrying about the rent. Now it’s different. It’s meaningful, because you are creating something new in this abandoned place that nobody seemed to care about for years.”
Last year, a popular theater troupe led by the veteran actor Yoo In-chon turned an old school in the city of Bongpyeong, Gangwon province, into a playhouse with an open-air theater, called “Moonlight Theater.” The theater, near a ski resort, drew significant numbers of people last winter, when the troupe staged a Christmas musical, “Magic Moment.”
Part of the appeal of renting schools is its win-win dynamic: both the city government and the businesses gain from the transaction.
For the business moving in, the abandoned schools are an ideal alternative, with low costs and little remodeling required. Local governments also benefit, because the remodeled businesses increasingly became tourist draws among travelers nostalgic for rural life.
For leftover students in town, the system has given them a chance to learn in bigger schools with better curriculums and more teachers, even though the situation forced them to make longer trips to their schools every morning.
At Milyang Film School, two and a half years of remodeling has added a modern feel to the old concrete fixture.
The classrooms have been broken into smaller rooms to be used as a dormitory for students living away from home. In the playground, the school installed a large screen board for outdoor screenings for students and villagers.
Last week, when the school held a test screening for their new projector, dozens of villagers from the county showed up at the school playground, bundled up in coats. It was a rare chance for them to watch a free movie on a large screen, as the closest theater, in downtown Milyang, is about half an hour away.
“It was an emotional moment,” Mr. Kim said. “They’ve watched the school being rebuilt for the last few years. Then it finally came to an end. I felt a sense of duty for the villagers, because some of them who went to school here were really hurt by the fact that their old school closed down and was being used as some petty factory.”
by Park Soo-mee