The End of South Korea’s Rural Schools

Every Wednesday I teach at what must be one of the smallest public schools in South Korea: Anpyeong Middle School, home to just seven students.

Seven students. That’s two 7th graders, three 8th graders, and two 9th graders.

The school is set to close next year. Its closing represents the end of an era in South Korean public education, which is now dominated by urban magnet schools and private academies (hagwons).

The South Korean countryside’s been losing relevance (and people and jobs) for decades now, as Seoul and other major cities became the country’s dominant political and economic hubs. In the face of dwindling enrollment numbers, it’s a miracle that this one small school has stayed open.

How has Anpyeong Middle School held out for so long?

The first thing you’ll notice about Anpyeong Middle School is that it doesn’t look like a small school, at least not from the outside. It’s no one-room schoolhouse — it’s a prominent, three-story building.

Inside, there are about a dozen classrooms, most of which have been converted into dedicated hobby rooms. There is a billiards room, a ping pong room (with three tables), a room for playing mini-golf, and an art room. Out back, there are two tennis courts and a golf practice range.

My English classroom holds similar signs of excess: a big-screen TV, a projector, my own desktop computer, and a printer. Miscellaneous English-language textbooks and DVDs (including some Hollywood favorites like Taken) line the bookshelves. (According to its website, the school has a grand total of 56 computers.)

Art room at Anpyeong Middle School
Fine art room at Anpyeong Middle School

The school’s facilities imply a budget much, much larger than what should be justified by its seven students. At first glance this school’s existence seems like a tremendous waste of money and resources.

In 2012, the Gyeongbuk Office of Education — the body that oversees schools in Gyeongsangbuk-do — reached a similar conclusion and mandated a new set of regulations aimed at consolidating small rural schools. They decided to shut down schools like Anpyeong, and, in their place, build a smaller number of new magnet schools for the displaced students.

Anpyeong’s replacement school will be in Bian, South Korea, a similar-sized town of 2,600 people about forty-five minutes away. Because of the commute, the students from Anpyeong will have to live in dormitories.

Construction is set to finish later this year, which is why it has taken until now for Anpyeong Middle School to close. Classes at the new school in Bian will begin in 2016.

Up until now, maintaining small schools like Anpyeong has been a point of pride for local communities and a matter of convenience for students.

The elderly residents of Anpyeong literally grew up with the school, which was founded in 1952. It is the only symbol of youth in a blighted, aging town. For the few student-age residents that remain, having a local school means they can still live at home and do not have to deal with a long daily commute.

"Downtown” Anpyeong, Korea
“Downtown” Anpyeong, Korea

Anpyeong is not the only small agricultural town with its own school in the area. The county has ten other similar rural middle schools, eight of which have fewer than 40 students each. The smallest, Tabri Girls Middle School, has only three students, one per grade.

A school in each town may have made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when most of these schools were being built, but they don’t make as much sense today. In 1955, for example, Anpyeong Middle School graduated 117 students (its first graduating class). Today, that number has shrunk to just two students per year.

While the numbers tell one story about a town and school in decline, anecdotes from teachers and students at Anpyeong Middle School tell a richer story about the value of rural schools.

Anpyeong Middle School has 14 faculty on staff: one principal, nine teachers, and four administrators. There are literally twice as many faculty members as students.

There are two reasons why teachers end up at Anpyeong. Either they’re getting close to retirement and want an easy post, or they’re fresh out of teaching college and it’s their first assigned school.

One of the young teachers there, who falls into the latter category, spoke of how frustrating it can be to teach there. She sometimes feels like she’s losing out on her prime years of teaching experience. During teacher training, she learned — and was hoping to put into practice — teaching techniques designed for a class of 30 students, not two or three.

Kim Yujin, the English teacher at Anpyeong Middle Schoo
Kim Yujin, the English teacher at Anpyeong Middle School

From my experience, teaching at Anpyeong feels like tutoring at a private academy, not a public school. There are no desks, for example; I sit together with my students at a shared round table.

The personalized attention students receive in this learning environment offsets the lack of attention the students find at home.

For most of the students at Anpyeong Middle School, parents are absent. When I asked a co-teacher why parents choose to send their kids to Anpyeong, she told me about how most students’ “family backgrounds are bad.”

One girl in 8th grade, for example, has no parents and lives with her grandparents. Another student, a 9th grade boy, has no mother and does not face much pressure at home to excel academically.

He views his time in middle school as a relaxed break from the stresses of home life, a comfortable place where he can play the guitar and float through classes without studying that much. His plan’s already been set for him: He will go to a technical high school next year for vocational training, and from there start working to support his single-parent household.

Some parents see Anpyeong Middle School as an easier route to a prestigious high school for their children. High school admission in South Korea is based more on class ranking than on grades. If it’s only you and one other person in your class, it’s easy to be ranked number one.

At Anpyeong, students will be top-ranked without the intensive regimen of after-school private academies and late-night studying.

The students seem generally happy at Anpyeong Middle School. They’re friendly with each other in a very brotherly and sisterly way. They’re like family — the kind of big happy family that they don’t necessarily have at home.

A photo from the 2015 graduation ceremony at Anpyeong Middle Schoo
A photo from the 2015 graduation ceremony at Anpyeong Middle School

The family feel and guarantee of personalized attention gives these small rural schools their biggest advantage over their more urban counterparts. The schools know that.

In an open letter on the school’s website, the principal of Anpyeong Middle School, Lee Chang Song, reminds readers of the benefits of a small-scale learning environment:

“Many countryside schools are struggling today due to low enrollment. Despite the difficulties, every one of our staff strives to inspire our students through teaching. Since we have a small number of students, we can maintain a close relationship with students in all aspects of our education.”

His words ring true with what I’ve seen. The teachers, though frustrated at times, do care deeply about the students’ educations. These voices tend to get lost in the official narrative about rural education told by the Gyeongbuk Office of Education — located in Daegu, one of South Korea’s largest cities — that cost justifies everything and small schools no longer matter.

In a country where power and authority is disproportionately concentrated in large urban centers, it is reassuring to see a public institution like Anpyeong Middle School that actually cares about people on the fringes.

I am sad to see Anpyeong Middle School go. The building went up in the last stretches of the Korean War, and with the opening of its doors seemed to symbolize education and opportunity for the masses. This is your ticket out. It held true to that idea, almost to a fault.

Anpyeong Middle School’s closing is long overdue, but we should all take a moment to appreciate the era that’s closing with it.

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Karl Schutz taught in South Korea on a Fulbright scholarship. His writing can be found at medium.com/@karlschutz.