Schools in Seoul struggle to keep classrooms full

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Schools in Seoul struggle to keep classrooms full

A 117-year-old Seoul elementary school has enrolled only seven first-graders for the spring semester, a stark reminder of Korea’s plunging birth rate.

According to the Seoul Office of Education, Kyodong Elementary School in Jongno, central Seoul, accepted seven first-graders this semester, down 58 percent from last year (12 first-graders) and down 46 percent from 2009 (15 students).

While 830 students graduated from Kyodong school in 1970, only 70 students will be graduating this month.

Jaedong Elementary School, in Jung District, central Seoul, is accepting fewer and fewer first-graders. The school said 38 first-graders will be enrolled for this year’s semester, down from 49 in 2009 and 42 in 2010.

Experts blame the trend on the declining birth rate as well as the trend of families moving to suburbs.

They say central Seoul has been subjected to the “doughnut effect,” meaning the city becomes hollow because the population moves from inner suburbs to outer suburbs as people search for newer, larger or more affordable houses.

Some Seoul schools are finding it increasingly difficult to attract students and are worried that the schools could even be shut down, the worst-case scenario, so schools are now trying to promote their schools to parents.

Namsan Elementary School is a case in point. As the Namsan school barely enrolled 30 first-graders annually in recent years, its alarmed teachers began distributing flyers containing information about the school at department stores, preschools and hospitals.

The school also distributed online information on the intranets of three local banks. As more double-income couples are less willing to bear a child because of concern over suitable day-care, the school began running a day-care program where its teachers look after students until 9 p.m., aiming at parents who are at work later.

Namsan school said the day-care program bore fruit, as five parents whose offices are in Jung District decided to send their children to the Namsan program.

Maedong Elementary School, central Seoul, is providing different but tempting deals to attract more students. It offers first-graders English classes taught by native-English speaking teachers while other elementary schools normally offer such courses from the third grade.

Meanwhile, experts said Korean parents shoulder a heavier burden for children’s private education expenses and urged the government to do something to stem the heated private education fever.

A study done by the Korean Educational Development Institute that polled 2,527 households with children aged three to seven-years-old found 99.8 percent of the children have parents who pay an average of 164,000 won ($147) for private education per month.

The institute said Korean parents spend 280.6 billion won for preschool private education every year.

The study also found that 40 percent of respondents said they gave up the idea of having a second or third child because of the mounting burden on their first child’s private education expenses, while 93.1 percent of respondents said private education costs are lowering even more the already lowered birth rate.

“The burden of preschool children’s private education costs will cause inequality in education opportunities based on parents’ income level and worsen declining birth rate,” the study found.


By Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]

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