International schools in East Asia are as local as they want to be


With families increasingly upping sticks to follow employment opportunities around the globe, international schools can provide foreign children with an education that resembles the one they left behind. And though there may be an expectation that English-speaking, U.S.-curriculum-based international schools are the same across borders, they can in fact vary greatly.

International schools are not hermetically sealed off from their surroundings. The local culture can have a huge impact on everything from the schools’ academic approach and parental involvement to community outreach. In particular, how the international school represents and interacts with the local culture plays a large role in its own overall culture.

“There are similarities between international schools all over the world, but you can certainly tell a difference depending on the region of the world, and then the country itself, and then the city that it’s in — and even the neighborhood, if in a big city,” says Erin Robinson, middle school principal at Tokyo’s Nishimachi International School and previously middle school associate principal at the Hong Kong International School.

“At HKIS, for example, finance and investment banking are such a huge part of the culture. A lot of families are in that world, so you end up in the school with this really ‘we’re really going to keep working and grinding and move move move at a very high pace’ culture. It’s a part of the school,” says Robinson, who herself was educated at international schools. “Compared to international schools in more rural parts of Africa or Asia or anywhere in the world where you have more families that are in nonprofit — in NGOs or in health care, for example — there is a completely different feel to the school culture.”

Shanghai American School offers pre-kindergarten through grade 12, with 3,300 students on two campuses in the Chinese metropolis. Although just under 50 percent of its students are U.S. passport holders, 80 percent of the students on its Puxi campus in central Shanghai and 60 percent on its Pudong campus, in the city’s east, are ethnically Asian.

“Shanghai American School, by name, you would assume would be the most diverse or American or international,” says Lucy Young, mother of two SAS students. “But on the Puxi campus, I don’t think it is.”

Kristen Valdmanis, a former teacher and mother of four who recently relocated from Tokyo to Hong Kong, sees major differences between HKIS and the American School in Japan.

“HKIS and ASIJ really don’t have that much in common despite the fact that they are both international schools that are serving an expat community. They are quite different in their approach,” she says. “I think ASIJ is more like what I envision a big Midwestern public school outside of Chicago to be. That gives students a feeling of home when in a foreign environment. But HKIS is entirely different in that there is certainly not an overwhelming American population, and it is much more international.”

In Hong Kong, the pressure to achieve in the general society bleeds into the international school.

“One of the biggest impacts is around the tutoring culture here,” says Linda Anderson, associate head of HKIS. “Parents in this culture want their children to do really well. They are prepared to do whatever they need to do in order for their students to do really well, and if that’s around getting [private] tutors, then that’s what needs to get done. It is a socioeconomic cultural issue that we do have parents who are openly concerned about their child getting into the right university and that concern begins right away in grades 1 and 2.”

Pia Sellery, a high school student at HKIS who attended school as a child in the U.S., certainly feels this pressure when she compares her experiences with those of her friends in the States.

“In America, it’s not as competitive, it’s not as intense. Because the Asian culture is integrated into the school, everything about grades has become really competitive.” she says. “Growing up in this Asian culture, you feel like you have to do well. It’s important to be smart and get good grades and study hard — it’s taken up so much of my time. I feel like I don’t have enough time to do other stuff, and it can make me really, really stressed out. On an average night, I’ll spend four to five hours on homework. It’s very debilitating sometimes.”

Pia’s mother, Katherine Winter Sellery, adds: “Those not deemed exceptional at several of the competitive H.K. international schools will not be accommodated or would be sooner pushed out.”

A consequence of such pressure is that students are not given the freedom to fail, and this concerns Anderson at HKIS.

“We have three strategic objectives for our students — creativity, collaboration and resilience — and those three require genuine failure in order to develop,” she says. “You cannot be truly creative unless you are willing to take risks and make mistakes lots and lots of times.”

The focus on academic achievement is similar at SAS. York-Chi Harder, chair of the SAS board of directors, explains that the majority of Asian parents are concerned that there is not enough homework, because they equate homework with a rigorous academic program. Further, time spent outside of the classroom on field trips and sports is sometimes not valued.

“We need to explain to parents that this is a part of the education,” Harder says.

And for those students who enroll at SAS having come from a reasonably good public school in the U.S., Harder says, “the expectations are different, and it’s definitely a shock.”

Lindsay Thierry, director of advancement at SAS, says, “There is always going to be a little bit of push and pull, and that is not necessarily bad, because we also have a chance to educate our Western parents and also maybe downgrade some expectations of our Asian families and some other families that may have a very strong tiger-mom-type focus.”

The outside culture can also play a role in teacher assessments and compensation. At HKIS, Anderson explains how teachers face a rigorous evaluation based on a detailed set of criteria.

“It’s a very different paradigm for educators who are more used to a step system where you breathe and survive another year and you go up on the salary scale,” she says. “There are many who would say we have brought in the business ethic that drives Hong Kong. We reflect probably more closely the financial and business nature of Hong Kong, as the largest percentage of any one group of parents is from the finance world at the moment.

“These values are a big part of the local culture, but there is a tension within the education community that these are not the values we want to inculcate,” Anderson says, referring to the school’s roots in the Lutheran faith.

While the academic pressure may not be as intense at international schools in Japan, the local culture does play a role at its international schools. In Japan, PTA involvement is considered mandatory and tends to be very demanding of parents’ time.

“At ASIJ, there is a lot more responsibility for the parents who organize things because basically even though it’s a school event, it’s on us to make it happen,” one Japanese parent with children at ASIJ and formerly at HKIS said, on condition her name not be published. “At HKIS, of course a lot of parents volunteer, but the food or finding the venue, a lot of times you would just outsource it. The school has the budget to get the caterer. But at ASIJ there is a lower budget.

“I think that at ASIJ, more than being American, the Japanese side is a stronger influence. For example, seniority is practiced in the PTA, meaning how many years they have been there. At HKIS that didn’t really exist. HKIS is a little more opportunistic. In that way, it is more American.”

Regarding the curriculum, while some international schools require learning the local language, others do not. This practice influences not only who comes to the school, but also the realities of how much interaction students can have with the local community.

At Nishimachi International School, for example, Japanese class is a daily requirement and is offered in 10 different levels. This may be in part because Nishimachi was founded in 1949 by a Japanese national, the late Tane Matsukata, whereas many international schools are associated with a particular nationality or Western religious order.

Wendy Kobayashi, co-chair of the Nishimachi Parent Association’s Cross Cultural Committee, describes the annual traditional o-mochitsuki, or rice pounding, festivities that involve the entire school community. In fourth grade, Nishimachi students stay at the school’s second property in Kazuno, Gunma Prefecture, and visit with friends at its sister school, a local school in Kurohone.

Like they would at a local Japanese school, in Kazuno the Nishimachi students are responsible for meal preparation, cleaning up and general housekeeping. As fifth-graders the following year, Nishimachi students return to Kazuno to plant rice with their Kurohone friends in a field in front of their school. As sixth-graders, they return to Kazuno to harvest the rice to bring back to the school and use in the January o-mochitsuki celebration. The daylong celebration itself begins at 7 a.m., complete with traditional shishi-mai performers dressed as lions to bring good fortune for the new year and parents clad in kimono.

“All members of our community — students, parents and staff — join together to transform the rice into tasty o-mochi,” explains Kobayashi.

And the notion of giving back to the community through community service, a value deeply entrenched in Western education, can reflect the local culture within the ethos of the international school.

On the subject of students’ commitment to the recovery in Tohoku after the March 11, 2011, tsunami, Anjana Pursnani, president of the Parents’ Association at Tokyo’s all-girls International School of the Sacred Heart, insists: “About March 11, it’s not just talk. There is a slideshow, they sell calendars that are made by the people of Tohoku, there are teachers who are consistently involved in rebuilding parts of the region.

“There is a lot of reverence for the culture,” says Pursnani, referring to Japanese culture. “It makes the girls feel like they are a part of this, that they aren’t these transient children — ‘you don’t worry about it, it’s not your country’ — it’s not like that. They talk about it.”

To be sure, though, to a local resident attending an international school for the first time, the school culture can be perceived as entirely foreign, with little to no traces of the local culture to be seen.

“There was very little that I picked up on in my school that I felt was particularly Japanese,” says Mayuka Kowaguchi, a graduate of St. Maur International School in Yokohama. “So for example, while we may have had ramen once or twice a month for our cafeteria lunch, it was mainly otherwise more Western food, and I was more amazed by the sloppy Joes that were served for lunch, because I had never experienced anything like that anywhere outside of my school.”

And though it is often taken for granted that food is an accessible bridge between cultures, it can pose a challenge too, says Harder, reflecting on one of her earlier experiences at SAS: “Never have a bake sale at a predominantly Asian school where people don’t have ovens, let alone bake! Food donations go over far better.”

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp