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Elite high school opts to drop its special status

June 14,2018
Busan International Foreign Language High School will be the first of Korea’s 30 or so foreign language high schools to drop its specialized status.

The school submitted an application to the Busan Metropolitan City Office of Education on June 4, requesting a change in status from a private school specializing in foreign languages to a general education high school, though it will remain private.

“We intend to transform the school’s status in 2019,” the school said in a letter to parents last month, “and hope to invite all parents to discuss the change.”

President Moon Jae-in has been encouraging the country’s elite schools to open admissions to a broader student population by changing their status. Foreign language schools are one of those institutions. In December, the National Assembly passed Moon’s plan to allot up to 50 billion won ($46.5 million) to any school that drops its special status. There are 84 schools in the country with either the status of independent private school (46), foreign language school (31) or specialized high school (7).

As a candidate, Moon called the schools elite institutions in an education system stratified by wealth and status. He pledged to scrap the foreign language and independent private schools to “level the hierarchical structure of the high school system.”

Students currently enrolled in Busan International Foreign Language High School will continue to be taught the foreign language curriculum until they graduate. After the school’s application to drop its specialized status is processed next year, the new students will enter under the general education curriculum and second- and third-year students will continue with the old curriculum.

Parents are not happy with the initiative. In a petition on the Blue House website, a person identifying as a parent of a student at the school wrote, “We know there is this national plan to transform independent and specialized high schools into regular high schools, but no one told us that it would happen this fast. We can accept the change if it’s going to happen over a span of few years, but not like this, just months after my child started school here.” The petition has garnered nearly 5,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

From the school’s perspective, the change is inevitable given the falling number of applications to the school. Private schools like Busan International Foreign Language High School rely on tuition to survive, and the number of people applying has been dropping in recent years. The acceptance rate at the high school in Busan was 50 percent in 2014, 66.7 percent in 2015 to 90.9 percent in 2016. Last year, the school actually had fewer applicants than seats.

Other private schools are also suffering a drop in number of applicants. Last year, 208 students applied for 250 spots at Seoul Foreign Language High School. According to Jongro Haneul Education, a cram school in central Seoul, the acceptance rate for foreign language high schools nationwide rose from 43.5 percent in 2014 to 71.4 percent in 2017.

One of the reasons for the low application rate is a change to the application period enacted in December that puts private and specialized high schools on the same timeline as others. Previously, students would apply to a private or specialized high school between August and December, and if they did not get in, they could apply to a regular high school from December to February. After the change, applications for all schools will take place from December to February.

“This means that if a student applied to a foreign language school and didn’t make it, he or she will be placed in a regular high school, but only those which still have space to accept more students,” a teacher at a middle school in Seoul said.

“Say a student living in Bundang applied to Seongnam Foreign Language High School and did not get in,” said Lim Sung-ho, CEO of Jongro Haneul Education. “He or she may be placed into a high school in Yangpyeong or Gapyeong. This discourages students from applying to foreign language high schools unless they’re 100 percent sure they can get in.”

The uncertainty that follows rejection from a specialized school has led many to avoid applying to them. Busan International Foreign Language High School is banking on a general education curriculum to draw more applicants and continue operating on tuition. School leaders believe more foreign language high schools might do the same.

“It’s just Busan International Foreign Language High School for now, but more schools will think about changing their status after seeing the application numbers this year,” said Kim Kang-bae, principal of Seoul Foreign Language High School and president of an association of foreign language high school principals. “It will be harder to run schools as they are if the finances are not covered.”

BY YUN SEOK-MAN, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]