Harlem may be known as the home of soul food, but 40 Central Harlem students are about to get a taste of Seoul food.
Son Se-joo, the South Korean consul general in New York, and Rep. Charles Rangel gathered at Democracy Prep Harlem on Friday to celebrate the charter school’s upcoming trip to Korea.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am that you’re representing my great country and you’ve been given this opportunity,” Rangel, a veteran of the Korean War, told the students assembled in the schoolyard on 133rd Street near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
During the two-week trip next month, 40 students will travel Korea from coast to coast and visit the national assembly, the island of Dokdo, historical villages, and university campuses. The trip costs $80,000 and was funded by the school’s field trip budget and several donors.
The trip is an extension of the school’s approach to education, which founder and superintendent Seth Andrew adapted from the Korean education system.
Andrew described three central principles to the education model at Democracy Prep Public Schools—“respect teachers,” “effort equals success,” and “education is the highest value.”
“I was very surprised how it is possible to bring to the very advanced U.S. the Korean education system,” Son, the Korean ambassador, said.
In addition to drawing inspiration from the Korean education model, the school places the country’s language and culture at the forefront of students’ studies.
Sophomore Christopher Clarke introduced himself in Korean before talking about his excitement for the trip. “I expect to see things I’ve never seen before,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole new experience.”
Senior Jamie McCoy said she is looking forward to experiencing “a culture that has values that we learn in school.”
“I’m actually prepared to walk into Korean culture,” she said.
The students have been gearing up for the trip by learning about Korean traditional dance and Korean pop music, or K-pop, on Fridays.
Son also spoke about the significance of “Gangnam Style,” the Korean song and music video which went viral on YouTube in September. Some students cited K-pop as one of the main sources of their interest in Korean culture.
“I believe ‘Gangnam Style’ reflects the Korean interpretation of the common human value and emotion,” Son said. The song played over speakers in the schoolyard just before the press conference began.
McCoy said she values the Korean principles unique to DPPS, such as “the respect and the zero tolerance policies,” which are harsh but give the students a sense of accountability, she said.
“It made Democracy Prep a better community,” she said, adding that because of the mutual respect between the students and the teachers, “there’s a connection with your teacher.”
“In Korea, education is number one,” McCoy said. “Education is not one of those things you debate about.”
Andrew has experience teaching in Korea, where he said the community was “so committed to education as the highest value.”
“Teachers were golden,” Andrew told the crowd on Friday.
The Democracy Prep school system opened in 2006 and is made up four middle schools, one high school, and one elementary school, all in Harlem. A $9.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will allow Andrew to expand to 15 schools over the next seven years, he said.
Rangel told the students that they would be acting as “ambassadors for the United States of America” while in Korea.
“Knock them dead,” Rangel told the kids, before concluding his speech with “kamsahamnida”—a Korean “thank you.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the Department of Education’s $9.1 million grant would in part fund the trip to Korea. In fact, the grant will fund the school’s expansion over the next seven years, while the school’s field trip fund and private donors funded the $80,000 trip. Spectator regrets the error.