School offers fast track for languagesGimpo Foreign Language High School has about 290 students. There are eight classes: four for English students, two for Chinese and two for Japanese. Four foreign teachers ― one each from America, Canada, China and Japan ― are on hand to help the students learn foreign languages. Lee Jong-deok, vice principal of the school, said that students also minor in two foreign languages.
Though the daily schedule is as crammed as any other high school’s, all students are required to do 70 minutes of sporting or recreational activities a day. Students choose five of 13 activities that include horseback riding, kendo, jazz dance, yoga, basketball, flute, computers and the board game baduk, more popularly known as go. Golf will be added to the list once the school finishes its nearby course.
“I want the students have at least one hobby in their lives,” said Jeon Byeong-doo, the founder of the school. “It pains me to see Korean adults who don’t know how to enjoy themselves. You know, many of them just drink, sing in karaoke rooms or play go-stop [a Korean card game].”
“I love horseback riding,” said Lee Jung-hyun, who is majoring in English. “It’s like I become one with the horse. I hope I’ll be able to share feelings with the horse.”
When asked whether she feels spending 350 minutes a week on non-academic activities is a waste of time,” she replied, “I think it’s only an excuse when people say they didn’t study because they didn't have time. I think we can make time. I can even study while I’m stretching, by memorizing English vocabulary.” She then produced the revision notes she’d brought along for the 20-minute ride to the horse-riding stables.
Students were very proud of the teachers. “Teachers are always studying in the office in order to teach us better and more. It’s really impressive,” said Kim Min-ji, an English major, who dreams of becoming a teacher at the school. “The teachers share both our pains and pleasures.”
Nearly every teacher lives in a dormitory along with the students.
All students at the school must live in the dorm, where they are three to a room. Mr. Jeon said that as well as giving students a taste of independence, dormitory life could offer students with no brothers or sisters an opportunity to learn cooperation and social skills. The dormitory is also designated an English-speaking zone, meaning everyone ― dorm supervisors, teachers and students ― must speak English there.
Even though the school set bedtime at midnight, it didn’t reckon on the zeal of the students ― some keep studying into the wee hours of the morning. So, the school prepared tables for 10 persons in the lobby of each floor of the dormitory, and the seats are usually occupied early in the morning when students go to school.
“I’m planning to study abroad after graduation,” Jung-hyun said, “because I want to see the world from other points of view instead of being trapped in one viewpoint. After all, she said, one of the school’s goals is to foster global leaders.
The daily schedule
Morning exercise, breakfast
19:00-20:30: Evening classes
Reading English newspapers
A founder’s path from poor to millionaire
GIMPO, Gyeonggi province ― The popularity of special-purpose high schools ― considered a shortcut to Korea’s top universities, such as Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University ― has been surging in recent years. In the past year alone, five such schools have opened in Gyeonggi province.
Last week, the JoongAng Daily talked with 56-year-old Jeon Byeong-doo, the founder of Gimpo Foreign Language High School, one of the new Gyeonggi schools. Mr. Jeon decided to set up the school after making a fortune from a machine-tool business he owned for over 30 years.
“I was born in 1950, just before the Korean War broke out,” began Mr. Jeon. “During the war, my father and uncle were killed by North Koreans.” With Mr. Jeon’s mother having to raise five children single-handedly, life was tough for the family. And with money tight, Mr. Jeon, the youngest child, was unable to finish high school.
In 1969, when he was 19, Mr. Jeon started selling machine tools in Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul, and opened a shop the following year.
“Around that time there was a boom in apartment construction,” recalled Mr. Jeon. “Many apartment buildings in Apgujeong-dong and Yeouido were built back then.” That was a stroke of fortuna for Mr. Jeon, who saw demand for construction machinery soar. Indeed, business was so good that he was soon able to build his own factory in Incheon.
He clearly has money to spend, having used 20 billion won ($21 million) so far to build the school and a dormitory for freshmen.
“I always dreamed of building a school because I couldn’t study much,” Mr. Jeon said.
Along the way, however, Mr. Jeon had to slightly refine that dream. An initial plan to build a technical high school in his hometown of Pocheon, Gyeonggi province, was scrapped when such schools started declining in popularity. Mr. Jeon then decided to give around 10 billion won to a university, but when he heard that the Gimpo city government was looking to attract a foreign-language high school, he decided to build one in the city (he also owns a jjimjilbang, a Korean-style sauna, in the city).
“As I made money in the city, I thought it would be a good way of giving back to society,” Mr. Jeon said.
And give back he has. Mr. Jeon has already invested over 20 billion won in the enterprise ― double what he planned to spend ― and with another dormitory for second- and third-grade students and an indoor gym yet to be built, more money will have to be found. Understandably, he said that it would be great if the Gimpo city government offers financial support to the school.
That’s partly why Mr. Jeon still works at his shop in Cheonggyecheon, work overalls and all. It’s also why he isn't yet used to wearing a suit and tie like other millionaires ― before the interview, he spent several minutes struggling to put his tie on.
“Even though the school has cost far more than I expected, I have no regrets,” Mr. Jeon said. “It is my dream.”
“And if I passed my wealth to my children, what would they do with it except go to court and fight for more?” he joked.
Mr. Jeon also said that more specialized schools should be established in Korea. “These days, parents are sending their children abroad even when they are only elementary or middle school students,” he said. “I think students should live with their parents until high school because they have a lot of things to learn from home.”
This idea is reflected in one of the school mottos: “We aim to raise humane people.”
“Smart kids easily become selfish, but we give equal stress to the importance of good character at school,” said Mr. Jeon. Uniquely for a high school, students at Gimpo Foreign Language High School have 70 minutes a day to focus on developing their physical and psychological health.
by Park Sung-ha
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it