US Educator Found Inspiration in Korean School

An American educator who has founded schools thriving in one of the poorest inner-city areas of the US credits the inspiration he drew from his experience with a Korean school for the success of his own schools.

“One of the big values I took away from Korea is that even though the Korean education system is one of the best in the world, nobody here thinks that the Korean education system is good enough and nobody is satisfied with being one of the best countries in the world,” said Seth Andrew.

Andrews, 31, founded Democracy Prep which now operates six campuses in Harlem that has used the Korean model of education to boost the achievements of students in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. Democracy Prep, which uses a lottery-based admission system and offers free tuition, gets over 5,000 applications each year.

“The belief that you can do better” is the philosophy that drives Andrews’ school. But the inspiration to follow the Korean model came from the respect he felt after spending a half year teaching English a decade ago at Dong-sung Middle School in rural Cheonan in South Chungcheong province. The attitude he observed in the principal and faculty of that school left a deep impression on Andrews.

“They welcomed me to their community with open arms, took me out to meals and made me feel like family,” he said.

He was awed by a school environment in which teachers are treated with reverence in sharp contrast to the disrespect suffered by teachers in many US schools, especially in poorer inner-city areas. That experience inspired him to found Democracy Prepatory Charter School in Harlem in 2005.

Students are required to spend more hours on schoolwork than the average New York City student. What’s more, they are required to learn Korean as a second language. Learning a foreign language, Andrews believes, will help the school’s low-income students with their college applications. The concept has caught the attention of local lawmakers and parents, allowing it to expand to six campuses from kindergarten to the high-school level, with plans to add two campuses a year.

Andrew presented a video clip of his students — none of whom are Korean — sending a greeting in Korean to the attendees of the international educational conference in Seoul at which Andrews was a speaker. He was addressing 500 educators attending the first International Conference on Educational Media 2012 at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry Friday. Other panelists included the superintendent of education of the city of Daejeon in central Korea and educators from Finland and Singapore.

Andrews was wearing a bright yellow cap and matching yellow tie which is the color of the 2B pencil and New York City school buses and cabs, he told JoongAng Daily. Embossed on the back of the cap are the words “change the world”. The cap can be earned by students at Democracy Prep by making a contribution to the school or society that can “change the world.”

“It’s an honor for our students to earn a hat,” said Andrews. “About half our students have it.” Testifying in front of the City Council, doing community service or leading a project are some ways students have earned the cap.

Andrews gave a cap to Principal Yoo Jae-heung of the Cheonan Dongsung Middle School.

“He has helped to change the world for my students,” Andrews explained. “He helped me; I was his student.”

“Mr. Andrew is a legend in our school though he stayed just a little over half a year,” said Yoo.

Andrew is currently trying to bring 40 juniors from his high school to Korea.

“We have many people who are interested in hosting us and working with the students once we are in Korea,” he said.

Andrew is on a 10-day trip to Korea with his wife. In his speech he was critical of the US educational system, pointing out that only half of its 15 million low-income students graduate from high school.