Jeju international schools see a boom in business
JEJU - “Yes, they’re back. It seems like hundreds of parents flocked in over the past several days to drop off their kids. Some came by cab. Some drove up in rental cars. Some came by school shuttle.
“There were foreign cars as well, but not as many as you would think,” said a residential guard working at the Jeju Global Education City, in Seogwipo, the island’s second most populated area.
Just the previous week, when the Korea JoongAng Daily visited, the area had been completely quiet.
As summer ended the North London Collegiate School Jeju (NLCS Jeju), one of three international schools in the area, saw the arrival of some 750 students last weekend for the start of its new academic school year on Monday - up more than 300 students from the previous year.
Gangnam-style education has made way for “Jeju-style,” at least for some academic-conscious Seoul mothers who opt to send their kids to the beautiful southernmost Korean island touted as the new “global education center” in lieu of incessant hagwon (private academy) or schooling abroad.
A handful of education-centric Seoul parents are not just there to drop off their kids - they’ve come to settle down permanently on the southernmost island.
One 36-year-old mother from Seoul surnamed Lee bought an apartment last year in front of the school and settled down there to take care of her 8-year-old daughter who was accepted to the prestigious U.K.-based NLCS Jeju.
The school opened its 26-acre Jeju campus last September, the second school to open a campus after the co-educational Korean International School Jeju, which runs from kindergarten to middle school, earlier that month as a part of the South Korean government’s ambitious vision to transform the southernmost island into a hub of international education. Canada-based Branksome Hall Asia, an all-girls school, opens next month.
Lee’s daughter, stressed by the vigorous and long hours of schoolwork supplemented by hagwon, had grown more withdrawn since entering elementary school.
“Now, she is more confident in speaking and participating in school activities,” said Lee.
Lee is not the only Seoulite to settle down in the neighborhood for the school year.
Jeong, a 42-year-old mother with a 9-year-old daughter that attends Korean International School Jeju, left her husband to settle down on the island because she did not want to be a typical “Daechi-mom.”
Daechi-dong, one of the neighborhoods in the posh, academic-centric Gangnam District, is known for its overly-attentive mothers, driving their kids from hagwon to hagwon, sometimes as late as midnight.
“In Gangnam, starting from third grade, kids are enrolled in 9 to 13 hagwon, so mothers are forced to wait around for their kids. When English hagwon ends, they take them to math hagwon then after that, essay-writing hagwon. But that sort of lifestyle makes me nervous; there is no life for the child and no life for the mother,” she told the JoongAng Ilbo.
For mothers like Jeong, a happy medium is reached on Jeju Island, less than an hour’s flight away from Seoul.
The three idyllic international school campuses are surrounded by palm trees, the ocean and green tea plantations. Nearby lies a quiet cluster of low-rise gray apartments located in the heart of the massive Jeju Global Education City.
For now, there are no restaurants, pharmacies or even a coffee shop in the area. Just a single convenience store, though a pizza place will open soon.
Still, in Canons Village, a residential area for school staff and parents, some gung-ho mothers from Seoul settle down to oversee their kids as an alternative to sending them overseas.
According to the management office of the Canons Village apartment cluster, 152 apartments have been sold so far. Some 90 were parceled out to the school’s faculty.
“But the rest are students’ parents,” said Yoo Bu-ahn, head of the management office. “Some of these parents can be from Busan, a few from Jeju, but most are from Seoul.”
The lot cost around 7.3 million won ($6,450) per 3.3 square meters back in April.
“The second round of new entrants is currently moving in this week,” said Yoo. This will include some 72 households.
Korean mothers are notorious for investing everything into their child’s education, giving up their careers, social lives and sometimes even living without their husbands to focus on schooling.
Some mothers even move overseas, forcing their husbands to remain home and earn money as gireogi appa, or goose fathers, and fund their children’s education in a foreign country while the mother stays abroad as a hawkeyed guardian.
A 34-year-old mother surnamed Kim sent her 7-year-old son to a kindergarten program in a top English-speaking hagwon in Gangnam, southern Seoul, for a year with the objective of sending him to an international school.
Last year, she hired a private tutor for three months to brush up on her son’s English skills to prepare him for an interview with NLCS.
“It’s important my son attends an international school since once he enters elementary school, I don’t want to have to send him to regular school and then English hagwon afterwards.” Of course, not learning English is not an option.
Many of these students attend such hagwon to prepare for studying at least a year abroad. She did not want to send her son to another country - at such a young age, she wanted him to be nearby.
In a poll conducted on the “Jeju International School Parents Association” Naver cafe site with over 5,800 members, after 1644 votes 25 percent stated they chose the international schools in Jeju in order to “build creativity, personality and leadership” in their child.
Other reasons with over 200 votes included: “in order to send their kids to colleges in Korea,” since their grades will be accredited, and “in order for their kids to participate in activities other than studying.”
“In order to learn English properly” was voted for 190 times. Surprisingly, a third of 292 respondents in another poll on the site regarding their kids’ study abroad experience replied they had “never studied abroad” before, while 87 stated they studied abroad for less than a year.
With a 1,200-student capacity at the moment, NLCS saw 60 daytime students and 360 boarding students last year, which is expected to rise this year, including both Jeju residents and students whose parents moved from Seoul.
Yet, it is hard to break away from the image that these Jeju international schools are “elite schools” for the well-off and not accessible to the general public.
Critics have said that taxpayer money has been pumped into the development of the area, which only the wealthy may be able to access, not unlike a Gangnam hagwon, which can be costly over the years and overseas education, which is even more expensive.
NLCS tuition is around 40 million won a year including boarding.
But Seoul mothers on the island can enjoy a more relaxing lifestyle. Some opt to settle down in Jeju City or resort areas a 15-minute drive away from campus. They drop their child off in the morning and pick them up at night. In the daytime, they can enjoy golfing and other sports and cultural activities with other mothers.
“I haven’t been inside the school yet, but I heard the school facilities can’t be compared to schools around the world and are even better than the original London branch,” added Yoon Ok-jin, a Jeju resident and manager of the convenience store across from NLCS which opened last May.
Yoon can only see the school through the glass windows of the store. But she interacts with students and mothers on a daily basis.
“The neighborhood was really empty during winter vacation, I remember. All the mothers returned with their kids to Seoul, and they only live here through the school year.”
“You can’t see the mothers during the daytime. They drop off the kids in the morning and pick them up in the evening. I think most of them enjoy sports. Like golf.”
“Despite what you expect, the Seoul mothers here dress modestly, and you rarely see foreign cars,” said Yoon. “But some of the city mothers are coy, not in the way they dress, but they way they speak and act. They would point to something and say, ‘how do you eat this?’?” admitted Yoon. “You know the saying, ‘even if you’re well off, how well off can you be?’?”
But on the contrary, Yoon says, all the students she has encountered are very courteous and polite. When they visit the store, they oftentimes communicate in English. “Whatever their mothers are like, I guess the schools must be doing something right.”
On the other hand, some mothers find it lonely looking only at their child on the rural island. “There are mothers who go golfing and get massages all the time, but it’s too expensive to maintain that lifestyle,” confided one mother.
Another mother surnamed Park, a member of the NLCS Parents’ Guild, said, “It’s not like Korean schools where all the parents gather together. It’s really hard to gather all the parents together and do anything because some are in Seoul, some are here, and the kids all partake in different activities.”
All the mothers in the Parent’s Guild are Seoulites, she admits, saying that she is the only Jeju-native in the guild, though “there is a considerable amount of Jeju students attending the school.”
Jonathan Taylor, marketing advisor and teacher at NLCS, stated, “In the long run, it is still more cost-effective than going abroad, and furthermore, parents can come see their students often and take them home if an emergency arises.” And they are getting high-quality education under close supervision by the NLCS in the U.K.
In the case of NLCS, Taylor said their target is 20 percent overseas Koreans, 70 percent Korean nationals and 10 percent Chinese - which is convenient because they do not require visas to reside in Korea.
As for parents who move to the island, Taylor pointed out for long-term students, buying an apartment on the island balances out with the cost of a dormitory.
And local real estate agents state that it is not a bad idea to invest in land now. “Many Chinese investors are rapidly buying up lots.”
Kim Sang-kwon, a local taxi driver, said, “One time, a mother called to be picked up from the Jeju International Airport. She asked to be taken to the school, asked to standby while she rushed up to the dormitory to pick up her son who was ill and be driven back to the airport the very night.”
“Of course, if her child was overseas, she would not be able to go pick him right away.”
Taxi fare to and from the airport can cost between 20,000 to 30,000 won each way - a round trip can sometimes cost as much as plane fare from Seoul to the island. But that is a far cry from plane flights abroad.
The 940-acre Jeju Global Education City in Daejeong-eup, southern Jeju Island is a part of the Jeju Free International City development project which eventually envisions the area to be an educational and cultural hub expanding to universities, medical centers and resorts.
The government and the Jeju Self-Governing Province invested 1.78 trillion won since 2008, figuring that yearly, the country was losing some 5 trillion won in education money spent by Korean parents overseas. “Why not invest that money back into Korea and keep the talent here?” asked developers.
The Jeju Free International Development Center aims by 2017 to have a population of 23,000 people in the area, which seems like a far-off target.
More schools are on its way to the city, including most recently Vermont-based St. Johnsbury Academy, which signed an MOU in May.
By Sarah Kim, Chae Yoon-kyung [firstname.lastname@example.org]