[Viewpoint]Fighting for studentsYemi Elementary School is located in the abandoned mine village of Yemi in Sindong Town, Jeongseon County, Gangwon Province. The school has only 60 pupils, and there is no private after-school academy in the village. Study guide tutors do not come to Yemi; it is too remote.
On January 26, Yemi Elementary School earned nationwide fame when its students won the 13th National Students’ English Speaking Competition at the International Conference Hall of the Federation of Korean Industries. The children growing up in the isolated mountain village won the overall competition because one student received the grand prize and four others won top prizes.
The secret to their success was the support of the Korea District Heating Corporation. The public corporation made an agreement with Yemi Elementary School two years ago to run a project to educate talented students.
The employees at the District Heating Corporation formed Guardian Angels of Yemi and taught English and computers to the students. They bought personal computers, encyclopedias and science textbooks. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, a native English-speaking instructor hired by the corporation visited Yemi for after-school lessons. During semester breaks, students joined English camps. Naturally, the students’ English skills improved.
Last year, two students were recognized at the Children’s English Speech Contest hosted by Seoul YMCA. The biggest accomplishment, according to the Dean of School Affairs, An Yeon-mi, is that Yemi students no longer fear English or non-Koreans.
Feb. 15 was the graduation day of Yemi Elementary School. Seventeen sixth graders graduated from the school. Around the time of graduation, the mountain village found itself in the middle of a big fuss.
Nine students, more than half the graduating class, decided to go to middle school in other counties, instead of Jeongseon. Eight of them are going to schools in nearby Yeongwol County, and one is moving to the city of Wonju. Only eight students ― two boys and six girls ― chose to remain in the area.
The parents of nine students moved house and decided to send their children to schools in other towns. They wanted to give their children a chance to compete with a stronger pool of students in a bigger school. The students remaining in Jeongseon will go to a middle school where each grade has only one class. In contrast, middle schools in Yeongwol have four classes in each grade.
To the eyes of those living in Seoul and other metropolitan cities, Jeongseon and Yeongwol might be the same rural towns in Gangwon Province.
Nevertheless, the parents and students made the decision after serious thought. The middle schools in Yeongwol gladly accepted the students, offering free lunches and other benefits.
Jeongseon County is disappointed, as the talented students it has worked hard to educate left for other towns. Jeongseon lost 80 middle school graduates last year and 48 this year to high schools in other counties.
Moreover, both Jeongseon and Yeongwol are making strenuous efforts to prevent the population from declining. Jeongseon County has a population of 41,000. If a county has less than 40,000 residents, its government structure has to scale down, so every person counts for the county.
Yeongwol County is in a state of emergency. It has 40,074 residents as of February 15. The county is offering boarding costs and housing subsidies for students moving there and providing resettlement aid and license plate replacement costs for those relocating to the rural town.
Jeongseon has also prepared a countermeasure. It has signed a contract with Education and World, a company assisting public educational systems, and will begin free online and offline educational services for middle and high school students in the county.
In other words, the county is appealing to students to remain in the area by offering free after-school education that can match the Gangnam district in Seoul.
When we educate students well, schools will compete to take them, no matter where they are from. Those living in better environments, such as Seoul, Busan and Gwangju, are at an even greater advantage. Central and local governments have a duty to provide proper conditions for education no matter where students live.
Whether a child lives in the city or the country, whether he is from a wealthy or a poor family, he should be given the benefit of a school like Yemi Elementary School.
Imagine if we have hundreds of elementary schools like Yemi. Their students will excel in English and math competitions, and nearby middle schools will compete to have them.
This would be a noteworthy achievement.
*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun