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Twenty-four middle-schoolers from South Korea are in Howard County this month trying to improve their English and learn more about American culture during the fourth annual Summer Cultural Exchange Program.

The students have been taking rigorous classes at Bonnie Branch Middle School, where they spend five days a week in a five-hour English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class. They work on reading, writing, listening and pronunciation. Korean is not spoken in the class. This year there has been more of an emphasis on writing. As a result, two additional hours of instruction were added, said organizer Min Kim, the Howard County school system's coordinator of equity assurance and international, student and family services.

The experience is not cheap. Kim estimates that the trip costs each student up to $6,000. But parents in South Korea believe the program is worth it. In Korea, mastery of English can determine a promotion, the type of college a student attends or the chances of international travel.

"Anecdotally we hear that this is the opportunity that helps [the Korean students] feel confident speaking English," Kim said. "Their parents are very happy about that."

The three-week program mixes classroom instruction and field trips. Last week the students went on a treasure hunt in old Ellicott City. They also visited BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. This week the students are scheduled to tour the Johns Hopkins University campus. The students have also taken tours of the police station and fire department, which are not permitted in South Korea, Kim said.

"We have a really good experience with the kids," Kim said. "We know they will be sorry to leave."

The Korean Embassy and the Washington Youth Foundation picked Howard County as the site for the program because of the area's growing Korean population, its top-rated school system and suburban atmosphere. Howard County's reputation in Korea has grown through Web sites that promote the county, articles in Korean newspapers and word-of-mouth endorsements, according to Hyung-chul Choi, education director for the Korean Embassy.

Howard County beat out Fairfax County, Va., despite having a smaller Korean population because parents in Korea want their children to learn all they can about American culture, Choi said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun three years ago.

South Korean students aren't the only ones participating in an exchange this summer. Four Howard County educators - two administrators and two teachers - visited South Korea this summer for professional development. The educators - Adrianne Kaufman, principal at Reservoir High, Rick Wilson, principal at Folly Quarter Middle, Misty Thompson, ESOL teacher at Hollifield Station Elementary, and Samantha Wilson, a Spanish teacher at Centennial High - learned more about the South Korean teaching style and education model. The trip was funded by the South Korean school system that the group visited.

"Next year they would like to invite four more teachers and two administrators," Kim said.

"Eventually we'll have our students visit them," Kim added.

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