With the weak economy resulting in fewer families coming to Japan, international schools here are exploring new ways to attract students.
It’s a challenge that’s difficult enough for schools in the main urban centers, so spare a thought for those in smaller cities. Since arriving at Hiroshima International School (HIS) 18 months ago, principal Mark Exton has been on a mission to raise both student numbers and the school’s profile.
Exton’s proactive attitude is paying off. It led to an opportunity to host the Think Global School (TGS), the world’s only traveling boarding school, whose high school students are currently here for their spring term.
HIS opened in 1962 and grew when the Ford Motor Co. moved into the city after forming a partnership with Mazda in the late 1970s. After Ford left several years ago, however, the student roll began shrinking and for a while it was unclear if the school would be sustainable.
“Fortunately for us, another company chose Hiroshima as the base for its Japanese operations and numbers have stabilized again,” Exton says. “The employees and their families have said how much they enjoy the beautiful city and the relaxed lifestyle, which is definitely something Hiroshima has over bigger cities in Japan.”
Exton also recognizes the importance of reaching out to the local population to promote the benefits of an international-school education. HIS offers the highly regarded International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years (up to fifth grade) and Diploma (11th and 12th grades) programs, together with its own international program, which runs from sixth to 10th grade. The nonprofit foundation behind the IB was set up in 1968 to offer an internationally recognized educational standard combining the best practices from around the world. This mandate is starting to win over parents in Japan who are looking for something more than just English for their children.
“Japanese families cite the creativity and critical thinking skills promoted by the IB as two major reasons for wanting to send their children here,” Exton says. “It isn’t just about learning in English; it is about providing Japanese children with the skills to forge a career in the global market when they leave HIS.”
Exton says it is entirely possible for children initially educated in the Japanese system to switch over and excel in an English-only learning environment if they make the change by the start of middle school (sixth or seventh grade).
The Education Ministry has begun to extol the merits of the IB and recently announced plans to roll out a dual-language (Japanese and English) program throughout the country in the coming years.
“I’m curious to see how Japan will implement this, as they’ll need to move from a system that tends to emphasize a single, correct perspective to something entirely different,” Exton says. “It isn’t simply introducing a similar kind of content with more international flavor. The IB is an entirely different way of learning and thinking about things.”
The current student body at HIS is more or less divided equally among the children of families on expat assignments in Japan; “local” internationals, such as children from mixed marriages; and those with two Japanese parents.
Exton says the relatively small student body fosters a sense of family: “The kids here look after each other, and the relationships are almost siblinglike. They don’t stratify into grade levels as would happen at larger schools.”
The familial feeling extends to the staff, who typically teach across several grades.
“Our teachers get to know the students in depth as they work with them throughout the children’s time at HIS,” Exton says.
Ironically, the school’s size and the fact there was plenty of available space for extra students was a major factor for TGS in picking Hiroshima as its base this semester. Founded in 2010 by Joann McPike, a photographer and philanthropist from New Zealand, the nonprofit, nondenominational institution is also accredited as an IB World School. TGS aims to provide a multicultural learning environment, its staff and students spending each semester in a different country.
“We have IB final exams coming up for our senior students in May, so we needed to be in the northern hemisphere this semester. We’ve already spent time in China and Thailand, and Japan was a natural choice for our next Asian destination,” explains TGS Head of School Alun Cooper who, like Exton, hails from Britain. He says many of the students cited a desire to experience life in Japan, while the ease of obtaining visas was another attraction. “Japan is remarkably open in terms of its visa requirements for people like us.”
Cooper says the original plan was to try and link up with an international school in the Kanto area to serve as a Japanese host, but finding one with ample room proved problematic.
“It was around this time that Mark contacted me out of the blue,” Cooper says. “We had worked together previously at an international school in Egypt, but until then I hadn’t known he was in Japan. HIS had space for us and everything fell into place.”
The concept of moving a large group of high school students and their teachers around the world sounds like a daunting task. Since admitting its first intake of students in 2010, TGS has spent time in every continent except Antarctica. At three countries per academic year (one each in the spring and fall semesters plus a two-week intermission in a third country) Japan becomes the 12th location for those graduating at the end of this semester.
The school was born out of McPike’s desire to provide a holistic learning environment for her son, currently a 12th grader at TGS. While maintaining their IB studies, students delve into the history, art and language of their host countries, developing an awareness of various social issues and appreciation for different cultures at the same time.
TGS operates as an independent boarding school, backed by an endowment fund, which is used to provide money for scholarships. There are currently 44 students from around the world enrolled with TGS. As might be expected, it takes a special kind of young person to thrive in such a transient educational environment.
“Not only do they need to be resilient and have the ability to adapt quickly to new settings, they must also be self starters who can stay on top of their studies even as we move around,” Cooper says. “The overwhelming majority of the kids initiated the application process themselves. We don’t advertise via traditional avenues. The kids find out about us through social media or the website and are excited at what we can offer them. And then they get their parents on board.”
Currently, there are no students from Japan enrolled at TGS. Cooper says this is hardly surprising as Japan has a reputation for a more conservative approach to education, which may not gel with what’s on offer at TGS. He expects this will gradually change as the IB becomes better established and understood here in the coming decades.
Although each school maintains its own curriculum and schedule, being in such close proximity has afforded plenty of opportunities for HIS and TGS students to interact.
“In many of our prior locations, we’ve been based next to the host school rather than actually inside it, due to space restrictions,” Cooper says. “HIS has been wonderful, as the students can really get together and we’re taking part in all the actives they are planning.”
TGS has also been enjoying the hospitality offered by the community at large in Hiroshima. Cooper and his staff have been comfortable allowing small groups of students to explore the city for themselves.
“In addition to local sights, we’ve taken students on weekend trips to other area of Japan, and Hiroshima feels like this friendly home base we can return to,” he says.
A number of joint projects have been planned this semester to introduce both the hosts and guests to Hiroshima’s history and international significance as a center for world peace. Ninth and 10th graders will be studying “Barefoot Gen,” the English version of Keiji Nakazawa’s manga series “Hadashi no Gen,” which is based on the author’s childhood experiences as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Later in the semester, they will perform a dramatized version of the story on stage. As a lead up to this, Nakazawa’s widow, Misayo, visited the school to talk about her late husband’s work, an event that was well-received by the students.
Exton says hosting TGS has helped his school tap into its city’s legacy, as they study about life in Hiroshima.
“TGS’s visit has been a catalyst for us to take a deeper look at local culture,” he says. “As an international school with a large percentage of Japanese students, this is particularly relevant for HIS.”
There are plans to send a joint team of HIS and TGS students to Seoul in May for the Model United Nations, where student delegates will have the chance to participate in various U.N. committees.
The senior classes from both schools will graduate together in Hiroshima. This will be a particularly poignant moment for TGS staff as their first cohort of graduates moves on to the next stage of their lives.
“There will be a measure of judgment of how well we’ve done and how the whole experience has impacted on our students,” Cooper says.
Come fall, TGS will be off to New Zealand. Exton hopes that the experience of hosting international visitors will leave HIS students and staff with a heightened awareness of their place in the global community. Today Hiroshima, tomorrow the world.
For information on Hiroshima International School, visit www.hiroshima-is.ac.jp. For information on Think Global School, visit thinkglobalschool.org. Send comments on this topic and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.