The name Pagoda may not ring a bell to those outside English education, but among English hagwon, it has made its name as a prestigious institution.
Founded in 1969 in front of the Pagoda park in Jongno, the Pagoda Academy has evolved from one of the first English tutoring institutions to one of the biggest private education companies in this country.
Pagoda currently runs 14 branches with more than 1,000 employees, and its foreign language courses now include English, Chinese and Japanese for pre-schoolers through to adults, attracting some 600,000 students a year.
Sitting in a meeting room at its 15-story landmark building in central Seoul, Park Kyung-sil, the president of Pagoda Education Group, said the company was now focused on expanding not only its branches but also support to local communities.
“Helping people is my main management philosophy,” Park said in an interview with The Korea Herald. She believes being part of the local community also helps boost the company’s brand.
“I’ve been working for so long on building our reputation, because it is crucial in this business,” she said. “And helping local community is not just something we should do, but have to because it’s part of education.”
Pagoda has been supporting children from low-income families since 2002, and has organized sporting events, including a national tennis competition for college students.
Most recently, Pagoda Group has started offering English tutoring to North Korean refugees in South Korea.
“I came across a person who helps the refugees by chance, and heard from him that most refugees from the North didn’t have a chance to learn English. So I said I could help with that.”
The company, she added, currently covers tuition costs for two language courses for 100 refugees each month.
“We also organize since last year a speech contest to help build their confidence in speaking, and we’re looking to expand more support to them,” she said.
Park, 57, admitted that she had no experience in running a business when she first helped her husband set up the Pagoda Academy.
But she stepped in to take control of the company while her husband took time off due to health issues.
Park, who used play volleyball in high school and majored in physical education in college, didn’t have a good resume for running an education business.
But she has proved herself by taking a bold approach, introducing for the first time native-speaking English tutoring and online-English tutoring here, to establish Pagoda as the leading English institution.
And in 1994, she decided to incorporate the business as Pagoda Academy to form a business structure.
“It was one of the toughest decisions I made, but I think it was the best decision I made. Many small businesses, particularly hagwon, overlook forming a legal business structure as many think it makes life more complex, but I think it helps companies to grow,” she said.
Park is currently involved in a wide range of community work, most of it voluntary, and also since last year has been heading the Korea Association of Hagwon.
As the first female president of the association representing more than 50,000 private institutions, Park admitted that she was under enormous pressure due to the education policy of the upcoming government.
President-elect Park Geun-hye aims to curb private education costs that add to swelling household debt by limiting private cram institutions while enhancing public schools.
“It’s true that the private education industry has expanded at a rapid pace over the past decade, but it also shows that public education failed to meet the different needs of parents and students,” she said.
“I met both president candidates in person during their election campaign,” Park added, “And I told (president-elect Park) it’s not right to disregard all private learning as bad education.”
Some may think weakening private institutions will bring more power to public school, but the Pagoda group chief insisted that public education versus private education is a false dichotomy.
“Education is not a seesaw, it’s not like if private education goes down, public education goes up. If you suppress it by force, it will only worsen the situation,” she said.
Park claimed that the current asymmetrical education structure can be overcome by diversifying the ways in which private education is delivered, such as providing vouchers to low-income families for private tuition.
It is becoming increasingly common for Koreans to send their children to an English kindergarten, in a belief that learning the language during their early years is crucial.
“I’m against the idea of teaching a child English before even they learn Korean. Parents should remember that language is not something that is learnt by rote, you should create an environment that they can learn it willingly and naturally.”
Park emphasized that as the world has become a global village, the importance of communication skills has escalated into all levels of society.
“I strongly believe that language is something for a lifelong learning as in this global community, it’s important to have global communication skills, and Pagoda aims to lead the way in helping people to do that,” she added.
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org