Photo caption: A reading lesson with Sangri Elementary School's first-grade class, all two students of it, in rural South Korea. (Michael Alison Chandler/GlobalPost)
SANGRI, South Korea — When principal Han Jong Geun began teaching more than 35 years ago, his sixth-grade classroom in rural South Korea had 68 students in one, small room. Today, in a mountain-top village less than an hour away, he presides over a whole campus for just 13 students.
As class sizes in rural areas have dwindled to sometimes tiny numbers, the government is — somewhat ironically — directing more resources their way. The state wants to help the children who do remain in rural schools keep pace with their urban peers in one of the most competitive academic systems in the world.
Surrounded by apple orchards and ginseng and garlic fields, little Sangri Elementary School used to boast 160 students. But as Korea’s agricultural past gave way to a hyper-industrialized future, more fields lay untended and the school’s daily roll call grew shorter each year.
Nine out of 10 Koreans now live in or around a city, up from three in 10 half a century ago. Metropolitan Seoul alone, with 23 million people, claims nearly half the country’s population.
Han said the small number of students is the school’s greatest strength. “In a big school it’s difficult to know the children and to help them individually; Here we can do that,” he said from his narrow office filled with chrysanthemums.
Sangri Elementary provides free lunches, school supplies and a fully stocked computer lab. And while kindergarten is not provided by the public school system in much of Korea, a free program is run on site, as is a range of after-school programs.
“The government puts the rural people first,” said Song Mi-ryung, an English teacher at Sangri. She used to work in big schools in Daegu, a city of more than 2 million, but she found better technology and facilities in the countryside, she said.
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Eleven staff members — including the principal, three homeroom teachers, a computer teacher, administrators and a school bus coordinator — work with the children from Sangri. Itinerant English teachers and art teachers come one or two days a week to help. The students also get daily English instruction from tutors in the Philippines beamed into the wide flat screens in every room.
“That’s what I call investing in every child,” said Anthony Jackson, vice president for education at the Asia Society, an organization based in New York. Jackson attributes South Korea’s top rankings in international math and science tests to assigning high-quality teachers and setting high standards for all students, not just those in the wealthiest schools.
To keep teacher talent fairly distributed, Korean teachers are assigned to public schools and rotated every three or five years.
One winter afternoon at Sangri, the first grade — all two students — formed a tiny circle with their teacher as they took turns reading. Nearby, the third- and fourth-graders teamed up, five students in all, for a math lesson. And in the library, two fifth-graders sat around a low table practicing telephone etiquette in English with two teachers, one a native speaker recruited from South Africa.
Art class at Sangri elementary, South Korea.
(Michael Alison Chandler/GlobalPost)
By mid-morning the entire student body joined together for a music class. Each child sat cross-legged on cushions holding a drum, practicing traditional Korean rhythms. Later that afternoon, the younger children chased each other around the same room before staining their hands with colorful paint and filling a six-foot-high sheet of butcher paper with watery blues and wobbly sea creatures.
At this school, if you ask 10-year-old Gyeon-bae who his best friend is, he usually says Ye-dam, the only other boy in the third grade. And the three girls that comprise the sixth grade are often sitting in a row holding hands.
Children in the rural provinces have more complicated needs, as it’s become harder to make a living off the land. They are more likely to live with poverty, alcoholism or single parents. An increasing number of children come from multi-cultural families.
The government is hiring migrant workers from overseas to fill agricultural jobs. And while more Korean women move to cities in search of higher education and better paying jobs, men are looking to China and Southeast Asia for brides that are often arranged by brokers.
The high investments in these small rural schools is controversial. The government has closed or merged 5,452 schools since 1982 in an effort to spend more efficiently while offering more services and social opportunities. Officials recommend closing any school with enrollment under 60, but each time the decision is made individually with input from community.
About five years ago, Sangri village faced the prospect of shutting down their small school, but parents lobbied overwhelmingly to keep it open, and they prevailed.
The parents come regularly to school meetings armed with questions about the budget and after-school programs. They want more English classes and technology classes, the principal said. “They believe education will help them. They want their children to have a better life,” he said.