Jina Shin, a South Korean schools budget analyst in the U.S. for three weeks of study, stood in a schoolyard among a boisterous crowd of children, teachers and parents at dismissal. The end of the school day at St. Mark's School in Catonsville is fairly typical of most in terms of noise, enthusiasm and organization.
"It is strange to see so many parents here to pick up their children," she said. "In Korea, children, even the little ones, get home by themselves."
Although she has also found American students a bit more lively in the classroom than their Korean counterparts, she has noticed more similarities than differences in the schools systems, she said.
Shin, one of 18 public school administrators visiting from Gyeonggi Province in South Korea, is visiting several Baltimore County schools while studying this month at University of Maryland, Baltimore County's English Language Institute. The visitors, who are residing with host families, expect to hone their English skills, experience American culture and observe its schools.
"Schools are closely tied to everyone's life," said Kazumi Hasegawa, international marketing director at the English Language Institute. "We help show how area schools operate from business management down to the lunch and after-school programs. Host families offer a look at American lifestyles."
The group, all women chosen by Korean officials from among 200 candidates, work in various administrative capacities for the office of education in Gyeonggi Province, the most populous province and the location of Seoul, South Korea's capital city. The provincial government funded the trip.
The study included visits to area elementary, middle and high schools and travel to New York City and Washington, where they toured the Library of Congress.
They arrived at St. Mark's, a Catholic parish elementary school, Wednesday with cameras and notebooks. After touring the building, they gathered in the library, where they had arranged to speak to staff. They met with everyone from the maintenance crew to the principal to gain an understanding of operations, administration and academics. And they had prepared questions.
"They wanted to find out about how our jobs corresponded with theirs in Korea," said Marilyn Holzman, fifth-grade teacher and host to Shin and another visitor.
Her guests impressed Holzman with the effort they put into their studies. They kept journals and e-mailed daily reports home to supervisors.
"They spent hours at the university every day and more hours on homework at night," she said. "They have done a wonderful job with English, even down to intonations."
They expressed interest in all aspects of the school. Many of them took photos of children's artwork lining the corridors and lingered in classrooms as students pursued their daily lessons.
"It was an exciting time for us, and we believe our visitors received a wealth of information to take back with them to Korea," said Mary Morrison, administrative assistant at the school. "I was touched by their polite, warm mannerisms, like clapping for all of us who spoke."
The visitors laughed softly when Gary Auer of the maintenance staff told them "working for 40 women can be demanding" and again, when a late-day announcement on the school's address system interrupted the discussion with a request that teachers empty their crammed mailboxes.
Kelly Reichardt, president of the Home/School Association, spoke about fundraisers, volunteering and family activities like a scheduled movie night.
"We are a big family and we work well together," she said.
The visitors asked about resources, financing projects, particularly in a private school, discipline, counseling, diversity and bullying, a problem that also arisen in Korean schools. The group had earlier in the day attended an official presentation on school violence.
"Korean schools are focusing on bullying, how to handle and prevent it, and the suicides it can cause," said Hasegawa.
Shin, who has worked in public school administration for 12 years, said she appreciated the opportunity to observe. "What I will take back with me is the freedom children have and how they enjoy their classes. I am also impressed with how much parents are involved.
"In Korea, like in most Asian schools, the classroom is stricter and more silent," she said.