Korea is now facing a crisis due to the potential collapse of its public education system. One of the most fundamental issues is that public education is attended only as a means of finding employment and preparing for the college entrance exam. Ideally, education should be done voluntarily by students. Public education as it currently exists kills individual creativity and thinking ability due to the inefficient delivery of knowledge. Moreover, in schools which maintain the order of bureaucratic ranks, the autonomy of teachers is weakening, and the quality of classes are falling as a result. Another principal issue is the excessive emphasis on educational background. This along with intense competition involved with university entrance has caused private education to prosper which has caused other social problems, such as the burden placed on household budgets as well as disharmony between classes and regions. One of the most overlooked factors in public education is the effort to build students' character. In response to these shortcomings of public education, alternative schools have been created.
What is an Alternative School?
According to educational law, alternative schools are defined as "Schools which seek a learner-centered autonomous curriculum and various teaching methods with an educational goal to deliver a nature-friendly lifestyle." A school which criticizes the problems inherent in the current regular school system and acts on the plans represented as a solution is an alternative school. At present, there are 29 authorized alternative schools (8 middle schools and 21 high schools) in the country, and the number of unauthorized schools are also increasing, so it is difficult to know the exact number.
Dalgubul Highschool, Daegu
Located at the foothills of Mt. Palgong, Dalgubul Highschool is the only alternative school in Daegu. As a differentiated educational system, their system is referred to as a "Small School." Inside one school, several specialized schools exist and these schools aim to develop students' innate talents. The Small Schools each have original colors and curriculums: Media School, Welfare School, English Nuri School, Music School, Physical School, Yorijori School (Cookery school), Autonomy Experience School, and Ecology School. Moreover, once a semester, the "Self-Reliance Project," a work-study program which focuses intensively on real life experience study, is performed outside school. This project is planned, prepared, carried on, and appraised by students. In addition, the school has discussion time once a week between teachers and students. During these meetings called the General Meeting of Dalgubul, everyone can talk about anything ranging from suggestions to complaints regarding the school as well as compliments about others. There is another meeting similar to the General Meeting called the Student-Teacher Council. Student and teacher representatives are encouraged to freely express their opinions at this meeting. These meetings are direct proof that unlike other schools, at this school students and teachers are connected horizontally, not vertically. In Dalgubul High School, there is a Day of Small School. On this day, students can share experience-study that is suitable for each Small School's purpose and they are able to move around on their own two feet. The Welfare School does volunteer work at nursing homes; the Ecology School dyes cloths using natural materials; the Physical School plays squash; the Nature School goes hiking; the Music School performs an ensemble. Because this is an authorized school, some restrictions exist on the curriculum. According to the Vice-principal Kwang-Je Ahn, this school must follow educational curriculum designated by the government. Approximately 80% of the school's curriculum is government mandated. About 20% of the courses consist of various specialized subjects, such as cooking, baking, playing in bands, making clothes, farming, vocal training, and pottery. Classes can be set up when students request. This shows that the opinions of individuals are respected, and students can study voluntarily based on their interests. YNO listened to some remarks from the students at Dalgubul High School.
Interview] Dalgubul High School, 3rd grade, Seong-Han Song
Q. What activities have you done up till now?
A. I have been working as a human rights reporter for National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Daegu Regional Office, and I also announce for a music program at Sungseo Community FM.
Q. What do you think the strong points of the school are?
A. Students' opinions are generally ignored in regular schools, but in my school, we hold a meeting even if agendas are trivial. Students and teachers can be in mutually beneficial relationships. I also developed an interest in ecology through the ecology class which isn't available at regular schools in the city.
Interview] Graduate Student, Ye-Seul Choe
Q. What do you think the strong points of the school are?
A. We can study areas of concern in a free atmosphere, not an oppressive one, so it makes school life creative and active. Because students live in a dormitory, and the number of students are about 40 in each grade, our relationships are very close like a family. In Dalgubul, teachers are mentors who give advice wisely, not as commanders. However, the casual atmosphere can cause slackness, so individuals' mental attitudes and willpower are extremely important.
Geumsan Gandhi School
Placed under Mt. Jinak, the Province of Chungcheongnam-do, Geumsan Gandhi School is an unauthorized school, so it has a flexible curriculum. It has some striking programs like internship activities, college visits, and career fairs. Programs like these do not exist in regular schools. During internship activities, students can meet professionals who work in areas they are interested in. They interview them, acquire information, and experience about that career. In high school first grade, a long march through national land is carried out. An unconstrained curriculum doesn't mean "No Tests." As alternative measures, there are midterm presentations and final presentations. In this school, "Gandhi Culture," there are cultural night events including invited lecturers, and performances which are held once a week. Furthermore, students should submit a graduation thesis before graduation. These are mostly related to students' future career paths.
What do Alternative Schools have in Common?
Not just these two schools, but most alternative schools have something in common. First of all, they regard individual's freedom and autonomy as being very important. Second, students can select a course of study that best fits their interest. Third, alternative schools give more weight to socialization than knowledge. Moreover, they promote small schools and emphasize communal spirit. Through communal life, students can learn the wisdom of solicitude and compromise, and develop their own culture. Alternative schools are meaningful educational venues, and they serve as models for a new educational path.
Drawbacks and Improvements
Nevertheless, alternative education is not a Utopia. Like any new venture there are some growing pains. First of all, presented as alternatives for public education, some alternative schools are becoming aristocratic schools. They provide a few smart students with a unique education. Entrance rates are increasing and the numbers of schools are also increasing. In case of the Iwoo School, it boasts a high acceptance rate to prominent universities, so the competition to enter that school is becoming more intense. The tuition at these schools is pricier than regular schools, and during admission evaluation, previous school records are major factors. This runs counter to the original purpose of the schools which was to remove the competition created by entrance exams. In order to make an education that builds upright character and fosters a place for action, many groups as well as schools should endeavor to return to their main purpose. Second, schools need truly earnest teachers. Teachers are public servants, so most of them just perform the work assigned to them and do not like to address basic educational systems and problems. The executive director of Dalgubul High school Hyo-duk Nam said, "An exemplary teacher relies on passion and determination, not just their ability. Teachers always have to think about how to support students, and not overestimate themselves. Furthermore, it is significant to continue to find new ways of doing things, and not to be content with their present situation. Teachers also need to sacrifice in order to stand by their students' side first." The vice-principal Kwang-Je Ahn said, "We need teachers who can see students' various sides positively, who have warm hearts to share students' troubles and pain together, who have flexible attitudes to live together although everyone is different, and who can devote their passion to a life of teaching and learning." Especially in the case of alternative schools, zealous and ardent teachers are needed. Third, there is a lack of social awareness about alternative schools. In the past, most alternative schools accepted maladjusted adolescents and troublemakers, so negative recognition and prejudices have been left behind. Relating to this matter, Mr. Nam said, "If finding how to develop each adolescent's talent means breaking with standardized education, the word 'alternative' becomes a real alternative attempt at a solution, I believe." Alternative schools have a short history. The first alternative school is approximately 10 years old, and over two thirds of the schools are less than 5 years old. Currently, awareness of alternative education is not where it needs to be, but they are becoming more common. The biggest problems are related to financial affairs. An unauthorized schools' curriculum is much more flexible and more free than authorized schools, but they don't receive government aid. While authorized schools are stable financially, it is feared that they can lose their original purpose, and become locked into the framework of the traditional system. A teacher at Geumsan Gandhi School, Hae-Won Jeong said, "Financial problems are the biggest dilemma, and although we need government aid, we would not like to be interfered with in our educational courses." On the other hand, the vice-principal of Dalgubul Highschool Kwang-Je Ahn said, "We receive considerable financial support from the government, but at the same time, we are placed under government control. We need human and material resources for secure operations, but this aid sometimes comes with restrictions when we attempt new educational methods." It is better to switch over from unauthorized schools to authorized schools if governments alleviate conditions for financial aid, and alternative schools accept these modified conditions.
The fact that alternative education tries to foster creative, independent talented individuals is of great significance. Alternative schools should make up for what public education lacks and help society to realize the genuine value of education. Moreover, they have to strive to create self-regulating operations and not stray from their primary aims. Hopefully alternative schools will be able to realize the true meaning of alternative given the present educational circumstances and their unique and distinctive education will be in incorporated into public schools.