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Inverting conventional wisdom, Korean leader lauds city school

Last month, students from Democracy Prep Charter High School were honored guests at Seondeok High School and Dong Seong Middle School in South Korea. Today, they honored a guest of their own: Kim Hwang-Sik, South Korea’s prime minister.

Kim met with school leaders; spoke with the students; and hobnobbed with Congressman Charles Rangel, who supported the exchange trip, during Kim’s brief stop at the school this afternoon. He was in New York City to visit the United Nations as part of a tour of North America.

All students at Democracy Prep High School study Korean, and last month, three dozen of them traveled to South Korea to see the country up close. They visited the schools, toured Buddhist temples, and stayed in the homes of South Korean families.

One student told Kim that the trip had brought the Korean culture she had studied at school to life for her. “Now I want to travel more and … see things with my own true eyes,” she said.

Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew told Kim that American education leaders often point to South Korea and Finland as two countries whose students far outpace students in the United States. Korea, he said, is the more instructive example of educational excellence because of its economic history.

“I think we have more to learn from Korea because our students have to go from poverty to prosperity” as Korea did, Andrew said. “In Finland, they have always had prosperity.”

But Kim said Korea could also learn a lot from some of the traits that Democracy Prep aims to instill in its students.

“The values of discipline, responsibility, enthusiasm, accountability, and maturity,” he said, listing the qualities in English before switching back to Korean — “I believe these are the values that we need to import to Korea and take back to the education system in Korea.”

While attainment and academic skills are high in South Korea, even the country’s own leaders say that the education system promotes rote learning at the cost of creativity and critical thinking. Schools have long focused on preparing students for a single high-stakes test, the national university entrance exam, and the pursuit of high scores led South Koreans to spend 2 percent of the country’s GDP on private tutoring in 2010, according to a Time Magazine report. Now, reforms are underway to diversify the national curriculum and allow universities to consider more than just test scores when selecting students.

At Democracy Prep today, Andrew gave Kim a baseball cap in the school’s trademark yellow, and students presented him with a number of other gifts. The delegation from South Korea delivered gifts of its own: Samsung printers for each of the school’s two Korean teachers.