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(Yonhap Feature) Small school highlights challenges in rural communities

All News 09:00 March 09, 2016

By Kim Kwang-tae

YANGGAM, South Korea, March 9 (Yonhap) -- A small school nestled in the idyllic farming village in northwestern South Korea appears desolate on a recent cold morning.

The only things in the immediate surroundings are rice paddies with a mountain looming in the background.

Yet, an air of liveliness soon prevailed as dozens of students started fine-tuning their musical instruments ahead of a commencement ceremony at a small auditorium in Sachang Primary School.

The ceremony was for only six students -- one boy and five girls -- a sign that illustrates the demographic decline in rural communities in South Korea.

South Korea went through a rapid industrialization in the 1970s and '80s following the devastations of the 1950-53 Korean War, triggering an exodus of young people to Seoul from rural areas in search of opportunities.

Lee Chan-haeng, an 80-year-old who is one of several community elders invited to the ceremony and has lived near the school for most of his life, recalled there were about 60 students in one class when he was in primary school.

"The number of students has dropped as young people moved out of rural areas to find jobs in cities," Lee said after attending the ceremony at the school, about 50 kilometers south of Seoul.

The population of the village of Yanggam where the Sachang School is located stood at 4,247 as of January, compared with 5,600 in 1986, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Of the total, children aged from 8 to 13 -- the eligible age for a primary school -- stood at just 118, or 2.7 percent. In stark contrast, people over 50 reached 2,284, or more than half of the local population.

Yanggam village highlights challenges South Korea has been grappling with for years: an exodus of young people from the countryside coupled with a declining number of babies being born.

"The biggest problem behind the declining population in rural areas is low fertility," said Kim Hee-dong, who has served as a deputy principal of Choungryong Elementary School in Osan. Kim's school saw only four students graduate last month. Kim was actually transferred to another school due to lack of students.

The number of primary school students in South Korea came to more than 2.71 million in 2015, down from the peak of more than 5.8 million in 1971, according to statistics of the Education Ministry posted on its website.

Sachang Primary School is a case in point. In 1973, a total of 111 students graduated from the school. That was the highest number of graduates since the school was established in 1940s.

Fast forward to 2016.

On Feb. 18, only six students received graduation certificates at the small auditorium attended by little over 30 junior students as well as some parents and local residents.

Kim Eun-seo, one of the six students, said she was satisfied with the small number of classmates as they became closer as friends and there was no bullying.

Still, Kim Tae-soon, who graduated from the primary school in 1968 along with more than 80 peers, said he feels a sense of loneliness when he visits his alma mater.

"When I was a student, my fellow classmates played in the schoolyard, but now there are few children," the 61-year-old member of the school steering committee said after attending the commencement ceremony.

The schoolyard was deserted. No passersby would think the ceremony even took place if a bright pink placard had not been hung at the school's entrance to greet visitors coming to the event.

Lee Byoung-chil, the principal of the primary school, said in order to breathe new life into the school, he created an orchestra for students in 2014. He said the orchestra helped foster character education and had the added bonus of attracting students.

The educator said forming an orchestra was a particular challenge in a school where almost all the students have neither heard the names of musical instruments nor read musical notes.

He said a cultural foundation in Hwaseong provided a conductor and other music professionals to the school under an incubator program meant to support cultural education to children in rural areas.

Lee's efforts seem to be paying off.

All students at the school can play the violin, the cello as well as other instruments.

"At first, I thought I could not play the clarinet as I could not read music, but it was a rewarding experience that I am good at playing it now," said Won Gyu-ri, another of the six graduates. "We practiced a lot so we could harmonize."

The commencement ceremony ended as the students, including the six graduates, were playing Variations on Pachelbel's Canon, Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and Shostakovich waltz No. 2 as well other popular pieces.

"When I first heard the student's version of Pachelbel's Canon, I thought they had no hope," said Kim Jun-ho, an Italian-educated conductor who has been in charge of the school orchestra since last year.

"Now, I am very happy and the students are really cool."

Lee's emphasis on the school orchestra has proven to be effective in attracting students from nearby cities.

Recently, 14 students have transferred to Sachang Primary School for the March semester, mostly driven by the free-of-charge music program.

Still, five senior students left Lee's school and were transferred to another school in a nearby city where they can attend cram schools as their parents want their children to focus on their studies, not music.

Lee said attracting students from other areas is a way to keep his school afloat.

"What scares me the most is students opting to transfer out of my school," the principal said. "The most important matter is keeping classes open."


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