Though the 15-member delegation representing several provinces in South Korea came to Howard County yesterday to learn more about teachers unions, they also left with impressions about high school life in America.
A tour of Centennial High School -- where roughly 25 percent of the student body is Asian-American and a stellar reputation has brought many Korean families to the school -- gave the visitors a glimpse of educational opportunities in Howard County.
They tried to understand the details of class scheduling and asked questions about science projects and curriculum. They also marveled at the Ellicott City school's vast athletic fields.
It was the first visit to Howard for the Korean educators, who in previous years have toured schools in Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County.
"Howard County is very rich in academic achievement," said Kiwon Jang, educational counselor at the Korean Embassy in Washington, one of two representatives accompanying the delegation. "The visitors have a special interest in teachers unions but also in the U.S. education system."
The visitors began their nearly four-hour visit at the Department of Education building in Ellicott City, where they met with several central office administrators and were briefed on the intricacies of the nearly 48,000-student school system -- of which more than 3,000 are Korean-American students.
The school system's relationship with teachers and its union -- the Howard County Education Association -- was of particular interest to the Korean educators, who peppered general counsel Mark Blom with questions about contract negotiations and teachers' rights.
The Korean government legalized teachers unions five years ago; before that, many teachers were fired for trying to organize, said Choi Ha Young, who works for the teachers association division in the Korean Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development.
It has been a period of "trial and error" for the Korean education system, she said.
The meeting was as much about cultural exchange as sharing information. With the school system's translators on hand, both English and Korean were spoken. Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin greeted the group in Korean -- "Anyong Haseyo" or "How are you?"
And gifts were exchanged. Cousin received a music box that played a traditional Korean folk song, and the Korean educators left with school system souvenir mugs and canvas bags.
"All we learned here will be of great assistance back home," said Jung Bong Sup, director of policy development and coordination for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, whose comments were translated by Min Kim, Howard's special assistant for equity assurance.
The visit ended at Centennial High School, where Principal Scott Pfeifer led the Korean educators on a quick tour of the school's classrooms, its media center, a science lab, its athletic fields and the auditorium.
Pfeifer offered insight into how a typical Howard County high school operates, explaining how students switch from one classroom to another, Centennial's four-shift lunch schedule and the need for four portable classrooms to accommodate its 1,620-student population.
"I think they got so much out of this," said Young-Chan Han, Howard schools' ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Family Outreach specialist. "Hopefully, it'll open more doors for other foreign dignitaries."