A School Outside of School: Gwangju’s Oreum Education Space

Written by Anastasia Traynin
Photographs courtesy of Oreum
Interpretation by Park Min

While still working at Hanbitt High School, on a weekend in May 2015, I attended a Gwangju indie music concert on a rooftop in Dongmyeong-dong for the first time. This was not just any rooftop and not just any music venue. Down below the roof, on the third floor of the building, three teachers were running Oreum Education Space. This is one of the ten Gwangju youth alternative schools that are part of the city-based network called Teenagers Outside School Support Center. At the concert afterparty, I mixed with some familiar faces, people connected with Gwangju education and other social movements. I continued to come back to Oreum for concerts and other gatherings.

In the summer of 2016, a few months after I began working at Gwangju International Center, I got an unexpected call from Oreum’s full-time music teacher, local musician Park Soyoung. She asked if I would teach a two-hour English class there once a week. That is how, from the fall of that year, I started teaching Tuesday mornings at my second alternative school teaching assignment, finishing at the end of 2017.

Though I had alternative education experience before, this was on a much smaller scale: throughout my time there, there were a total of five to nine high school-age students coming to class on any given day, with new students enrolling during the spring, fall, and winter semesters. They came from all over Gwangju and its outskirts, some transferring from other alternative schools, regular public schools, or from homeschooling. On the third floor, there was one classroom, a kitchen for cooking shared meals, a dining room that doubled as a lounge, separate lounge rooms, and a teacher’s office. The basement of the building was a space for music rehearsal, recording, and performances.

Graduation at Oreum.

Overall, the school has a focus on music, arts, literature, and philosophy, varying slightly depending on students’ interests. There are no exams, or in-depth university or career preparation. Oreum is a place where students interact organically with their teachers: three full-time staff and once-a-week contract instructors, such as myself. While they study basic subjects, such as math, history, Korean, and English, as well as art, music, dance, theater, and philosophy, the subjects themselves are not important. What matters most is that students learn from the real lives of their teachers as individuals.

Recently, as the school prepares for a move across town and I prepare for a move across the country, I decided to sit down with Oreum’s head teacher Kang Kyung-pil.Kang is a graduate of Chonnam National University’s Philosophy Department and a well-known education activist in town, running a regular radio podcast on education issues.

“Although all alternative schools are different, in the case of Oreum, the teachers are doing what they as individuals best know how to do,” Kang explained. “They are using their own personal talents, while in regular schools, teachers are assigned to do this or that, like a mosaic of different things. For other teachers in the regular system, they are just educating. It’s about changing your talent into making a living, rather than living with what you’ve learned. At Oreum, it is not so much about the subject, but also the life that the teacher leads and how it affects them. We don’t know whether that is good or bad, but I think it is a different format of education.”

From a philosopher’s perspective, Kang continues to view the education system issue as a key to understanding Korean society. While the Teenagers Outside School Center officially started in Hwajeong-dong in 2011, Oreum opened in 2009, with Kang having the idea from the previous year. He found that at the time, there was a total of 70,000 students nationwide and 2,000 locally in Gwangju and Jeollanamdo who were not officially attending school.

“It was necessary to have something for these students, which was not available in Gwangju,” Kang said. “I was interested, and really wondering why so many students suddenly left school. But there was no one answering this question in detail. Basically the answers were ‘they couldn’t adapt to the school system’ or ‘they went abroad.’”

As many insiders and outsiders, including temporary native English teachers, can attest to, the Korean education system is often rigid and competitive, not allowing for much deviation from the normal routine of lectures, rote memorization, and test-taking. However, this was not always the case. For those growing up in earlier generations, school wasn’t systematically available. People were desperate for a set standard, which has brought us to the current nearly universal public school enrollment, low dropout rate, and college entrance level of over eighty percent. However, despite all that success on paper, there are still gaps to fill.

So the question in Kang’s mind was, “Now that everything is set, why are students still leaving school?” He saw that the main problem is the education system not accepting much diversity. “While meeting these students, I thought about this problem. Everybody has different ideas, but no one is trying to understand exactly why this is happening in the society. So I started from that interest.”

As reported in the January 2014 Gwangju News, the establishment of standardized education in Korea eventually gave rise to an alternative school movement in the late 1990s, with a few hundred such schools now operating nationwide. While there are a number of schools registered under a local office of education, many of them are unregistered, stand-alone, often residential, and often based in the countryside. Outside of Seoul and Gwangju, there does not seem to be a dedicated city-based network.

Whether or not they are registered or connected to a support center, each school operates in its own way. Despite the diversity, Kang points out that the Ministry of Education and the local education offices are eager to observe and recognize the overall alternative school trend, and to somehow absorb it into the general education system.

Kang noted, “The movement is having an influence on the education system as a whole, but we don’t know yet if it is a positive or negative influence. They have recognized the changes and the need for diversity, so they borrowed this term ‘alternative,’ so instead of a school, they might have ‘alternative classes.’ For example, they might put in more physical movement or performance classes, but the formal method is set in the education system, while only the content is changing, so we don’t really know how that works together.”

Oreum students and teachers on a spring trip.

The issue of money is never far from the minds of those running alternative schools, as they are often dependent on government subsidies. While drawing some positive attention from the government, they are subject to threats of fund cuts when not meeting certain curriculum standards. This puts pressure on some schools to adapt or face closure by default. The eighteenth annual International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC), held in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi-do in the summer of 2014, supported Korean independent schools, with a July 31 closing press statement against bureaucratic control (see end of article for web link).

I wondered whether the government could legally shut down alternative schools. Kang explained that when Oreum opened in 2009, there was a basic social agreement that the schools could operate, under the inherent risk of subsidy cuts. In recent years, more interest has been taken in the schools, which could be good, but also leads to excessive oversight in some cases. When Kang and I met, he had just come back from a meeting on this problem and admitted that it is an ongoing difficulty.

“Any big organizing body or a big company is always trying to observe what is on the outside and have them become a part of the larger organization,” said Kang. “When I started the school, I was thinking that it would be great if maybe one-third of the management fees could be covered by government subsidies. However, at some point, I realized that up to half of the management spending is coming from the subsidy. All the alternative schools admit that they need money, but I know that once you accept money, it becomes more difficult to run our own operation, and it becomes akin to slavery in a way. Once the government puts in more money, they want to control you, and they want to know more about the administrative part and will require more paperwork.”

Knowing that the Teenagers Outside School Support Center is under the Gwangju Office of Education and holds its general recruitment meeting there each fall, I was curious about that relationship. Kang explained that while Gwangju is advanced compared to other regions, the unfortunate part is that the person in charge of the alternative education center in the main office – separate from the support center itself – changes every year, so the lack of continuity can prevent things from always running smoothly.

“By the time we have them understanding what we are doing and how our system runs, the person changes, so there is a struggle every year. It’s difficult to say whether the relationship is good or bad,” Kang commented.

As Oreum continues to grow and now prepares for operation in a new Gwangju building and neighborhood, the backgrounds and personalities of the students that enroll also change over time. There are highly introverted students, some with psychological problems and some whose parents want to improve their interpersonal relationships.

“We don’t ask the parents very much, but there are some students with poor relationships with their families or their friends,” Kang said. “There are often hopes for improved interpersonal relationships. Maybe those are improving over time, but there are other issues that we can’t help with. Once one issue is solved, something else comes up.”

Hanging Out at Oreum

Beyond the challenges of working with diverse students, Kang explained that while teachers can be trained in different educational methods, it is not as easy to re-educate individual students, as they come with a variety of experiences and the staff has limited time and resources.

Kang has a positive view of those struggling for change in the current evolving climate. He sees a disintegration of any kind of mainstream in Korean society, pointing to the elite as a “community of losers.”

“The time for change in society is now,” he says. “In accepting change, those who follow mainstream principles cannot really survive outside of them, while those who have already gone through change and chaos early on will be able to think differently and can be leaders.”

Our conversation turned even more philosophical towards the end, as Kang pointed to a pastry on a plate at the table, opining that he may see the bread and stated, “I may not be totally sure if it is a piece of bread or not, but I have to have confidence even if I’m not sure of what it might be. I think we have to look at society in that way: having confidence in recognizing something for what it is even if we are not sure.”

For the students I have taught at Oreum, I see them benefitting from a close relationship with their teachers and the freedom to pursue their own dreams. At the same time, in a general environment of control in the education system, Kang also helped me to understand that this alternative path does not come easy.

“It’s difficult to have idealism about education. There are many things not directly visible. You can’t do everything according to what you know, and you have to go into uncharted territory to explore something new, so you can’t have a clear picture of what you are doing while you are working in this area.”

As Oreum will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year, the teachers plan to meet with others in the nationwide network and exchange ideas for growth. For now, the school and others like it will continue nurturing Gwangju students.

Oreum Education Space website: www.orumedu.org
Gwangju Teenagers Outside School Support Center: http://www.flyyouth.or.kr/
IDEC reportback: http://www.educationrevolution.org/store/idec-in-korea/

For a previous story on the author’s experience at a Jeollanamdo alternative high school, see “To Be a Great Light” in the January 2014 issue of Gwangju News. For more on the students’ rights movement in Gwangju, see “Study Break” Part 1 & 2, in the respective November and December 2015 issues.

The Author
Anastasia (Ana) Traynin is the co-managing editor of Gwangju News. She has been a contributor to the magazine since fall 2013 and has been living in Gwangju since spring of that year. After teaching for three years at Hanbitt High School, she became a GIC coordinator in May 2016. She has passions for Korean social movements, alternative education, live music, languages, and writing.

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