My son recently had the privilege of attending kindergarten for three years at the Seoul National School for the Deaf. He isn’t hard of hearing - rather, he enrolled in a special immersion program bringing together children with various hearing impairments and those without in the local community.
This integrated program, called the Sunhee Kindergarten, has been in place for the past 13 years at the Seoul National School for the Deaf. The little ones learn basic reading and math together, sing and dance together, play on the swings and slides together, prepare food together (everything from tteok, or rice cakes, to pizza) and grow by leaps and bounds together. The school created this program to help deaf children become more comfortable at an early age, live in the larger society and build important communication and interpersonal skills that will improve their academic achievements and, eventually, their career prospects.
Everybody wins in this kind of integrated program. The children with hearing impairments gain tremendous confidence at a crucial point during early childhood through close interaction with their peers in a typical classroom setting. The local children, such as my son, who enroll in the school through an annual lottery, gain empathy through greater awareness of what people with disabilities go through day to day. They also learn a bit of sign language and get to know their classmates in kindergarten and older students at all grade levels.
With all the current interest in fostering “social integration” as Korean society becomes more diverse, as well as the imperative for the country to strengthen social welfare programs and move up from its last-place OECD ranking in this area, one would expect the government to hold up the Sunhee Kindergarten as a model program and encourage other schools around the country to consider the fine example of the Seoul National School for the Deaf.
Instead, the Ministry of Education did just the opposite. As word has spread nationally about the success of the program and other special-needs schools became interested in starting their own integrated kindergartens, the ministry decided the program was too expensive to replicate. Worse, the ministry has forced the Seoul National School for the Deaf to eliminate the integrated kindergarten, claiming it would be unfair for only one school to continue the program.
Another sticking point with the Ministry, reminiscent of the ongoing debates over free lunch provisions for school children, was that the program has provided free kindergarten to local children who won the lottery.
So the Sunhee Kindergarten has become a casualty of its own success. Until this March, the kindergarten had three grade levels: the baby chick room (5 year olds), the rabbit room (6 year olds) and the giraffe room (7 year olds). As of this March, the integrated baby chick room is gone, and next year, only the giraffe room will remain for its final class. The children with hearing impairments will still attend kindergarten at the school, but they will no longer be surrounded by local children. The class sizes will be much smaller, and the opportunities for social interaction severely diminished. The school is considering returning to an earlier program, dating back to the 1980s, in which deaf children were placed for one week in local schools to give them a short-term immersion experience.
This is a most regrettable state of affairs, not only for the children who benefited directly from the program but for the entire nation. With so much public dissatisfaction about the pressure-cooker educational system in this country - a system notoriously out of touch with the genuine needs of individual children - the Sunhee Kindergarten served as a welcome corrective by providing a holistic, well-rounded education to a diverse mix of children. The Ministry of Education is wiping out a model program that, until now, heralded a bright and innovative future for Korean education.
I can understand the concern that it might be unfair to allow the Seoul National School for the Deaf to continue the program but not allow other schools to launch similar programs. However, this country’s educational system is never going to advance if the Ministry of Education kills off its most successful prototypes. Two remedies are in order: first, the ministry should reverse its decision and keep the integrated kindergarten going at the Seoul National School for the Deaf. Second, the government should find a way to open the door for this kind of program at other special-needs schools nationwide. In all respects, the country’s educational system needs to move forward, not backwards.
*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Hans Schattle