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Free after-school classes light up hope for N.K. kids

Dec. 17, 2013 - 20:16 By Lee Hyun-jeong
Students from North Korea study with Jennifer Jackson (left) and Shirlen Hardeo (right) at the Kuensaem School in Gangnam-gu, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

A dozen kids rush into an old building in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, after school. They are cheerful, as if they are about to play, but only a stack of books and a few teachers await them.

The elementary school and middle school kids come to the Kuensaem School to study with volunteer tutors from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day. The students share one thing in common: They are all from North Korea.

The Kuensaem School is a free after-school program created and supported by volunteers to assist children from North Korea, who have difficulty in following the South Korean school curriculum.

Originally starting as a small study group in 2008, the program changed into an after-school program the following year with a curriculum designed by parents of the kids and a few helpers. About 20 children visit on weekdays to study Korean, math and English and more students come in on Saturdays to learn from foreign volunteers.

“The younger the kids are, the faster they learn and adapt to Korean school. I believe their social adjustment to Korea would be easier if they can match Korea’s average level,” Ahn Myung-suk, the main sponsor and volunteer coordinator, told The Korea Herald.

After meeting North Korean refugees by chance, Ahn and her husband saw their difficulties in finding jobs and decided to help them. They later expanded their activities to education, and helped set up the Kuensaem School.

While the kids work on the school curriculum on weekdays with Korean volunteers, the Saturday program is more challenging but entertaining as they spend time with foreign tutors.

Jennifer Jackson, 25, from Alabama, U.S., joined the Kuensaem School in September last year after seeing an advertisement. While she teaches at a public elementary school on weekdays, Jackson spends Saturdays at the after school program.

“I definitely see the changes. They have become more open-minded and more confident in speaking English. Their attitude has become better as well,” Jackson said.

Ham Guk-sung, a 12-year-old boy, is one beneficiary of the after-school program. Landing in South Korea in 2011 with his mother from Jeongju, North Pyeongan Province, Ham had a hard time in the new environment at first. But with Kuesaem’s help since last year, he began to enjoy the school life.

“It is very helpful and fun. Tutors help preview school studies and prepare for tests,” said Ham.

“Communicating with foreigners was hard at first but now I’m used to it. And we have become much closer as we see each other every week.”

He is the only student at his school who got full marks on the latest school exam.

Ham’s psychological changes were also noticeable.

“He was melancholy at first but now he’s very cheerful and talkative. He didn’t talked much before,” said Kuensaem principal Kwon Young-sook, who also escaped from the oppressive regime in 2001 with her child.

Jackson organized the Saturday curriculum with other volunteers last summer to accelerate kids’ learning. While they teach with textbooks during the first half of the day, they play cards and do team activities during the second. They started to record students’ performances to better inform future tutors about each student’s characteristics.

They also required tutors to come at least twice a month to build a rapport with the students. Keeping the number of tutors and pupils nearly equal at about 15 or 20, the volunteers pursue one-on-one teaching as much as possible for the Saturday classes.

Shirlen Hardeo, a 29-year-old English lecturer at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, helped make the new, improved plan. For her, teaching North Korean kids is more than just volunteering.

“My teaching ability has improved tremendously. The mood and stress here is always different in ways that a stranger can’t expect. So I get to learn how to react to the changeable mood here,” Hardeo said.

“For foreign volunteers, when we travel or live in a foreign country, we don’t want to just take advantage of opportunities. We want to give back. And volunteering is also a great opportunity to learn about the country.”

By Lee Hyun-jeong (