Rebecca Simpson visits Hong Kong’s only Adventist private school.
Nestled on a shared campus in Sai Kung is Hong Kong’s only private Adventist school, Hong Kong Adventist Academy (HKAA). Opened in 2011, the school is led by a veteran Hong Kong educator and offers its 130 pupils a values-based education. Students learn via the Griggs program and the first HKAA graduate is due to finish school in the summer of 2017. HKAA is still finding its feet but it could be the beginning of something special for the Adventist community in Asia.
Leveraging the Adventist network
The Adventist community supports, and is supported by, a network of learning and community institutions in Hong Kong. These include two hospitals and the Sam Yuk schools which are partly government funded. HKAA is unique in this ecosystem as it is entirely funded by school fees with the support of the Adventist community.
HKAA shares a spacious campus with Hong Kong Adventist College, a private program affiliated with Andrews University, the flagship university of the Adventist Church. This affords students the opportunity to join the campus in reception and continue on to finish their tertiary studies in the same place.
However, as many parents know, not all students are interested in continuing their education in Hong Kong; most want to fly the nest and head overseas. With this in mind, graduating HKAA students are issued with the Griggs Diploma which is recognised by Maryland State and opens up opportunities at universities in Europe and America.
Dr. Frank Tam, Principal at HKAA, explains that the system is similar to that taught at the American International School: students are awarded an SAT score and a GPA. “The first HKAA batch graduates next summer – with one student. She came to the school from Costa Rica, she has a very good GPA and her English is at the 7.5 level already. She is ready to go to a UK university. I hope she will apply to a top university.” Dr. Tam has high academic hopes for HKAA students and explains that the school plans to help them with university applications.
While the school offers an Adventist education, it also accepts non-Adventist students. “We accept students of all faiths, even those with no religious background,” says Dr. Tam. “We call this a mission school, meaning we use the school as a means of spreading gospel to the students. However, we don’t do it in an indoctrinating way. We have a solid religious curriculum. In elementary school we tell bible stories and sing songs in religion classes. In middle school we do what’s called value education – how to apply and understand values in life. In high school we have ethics – how Christian values can be applied in life.”
A small community with plans for growth
HKAA opened in 2011 and remains a small and growing community that offers an all-through education. In 2015/16 the student body was 130 students and for the 2016/17 school year that number is jumping to 170.
As of last month, a newly renovated separate building houses the reception students. The school has capacity for 300 children in 31 classrooms and now offers places in all school years, except the final year. The school is working towards a 10-year plan to have a full school with two classes per year level.
Students come from all over the world to attend HKAA, including a large population of Korean children, many Japanese and USA students, and some from Australia and Central and Southern America. 40 percent of students are from local Hong Kong or Mainland Chinese families. This means the playground language swings between English and Mandarin.
Experience at the helm
Dr. Frank Tam joined HKAA as principal in 2014 and has brought with him an extensive wealth of knowledge about education in Hong Kong. Some families may remember Dr. Tam from his time as principal at Sam Yuk Secondary School in Tai Po. A passionate teacher of teachers, he also taught teacher training at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and continues to lead night classes there.
Since he started in 2014, Dr. Tam has completed the sizeable task of shifting the school from a local curriculum to an international, inquiry-based curriculum. “This is a dream school for me. I have the opportunity to run the school according to my vision and I have a group of people who are very supportive.”
His vision and dedication have seen him successfully shift not only the curriculum, but also the perception of parents at the school, most of whom have become very supportive of the new approach. “I have made these changes over two years. Parents have been very supportive. Only one student has left.”
A caring, international teaching body Dr. Tam leads a team of over 20 teachers. “The majority come from North America”, he says. We recruit via the church’s North American website.” The website serves as an international job posting board that attracts teachers from all over the globe. This small community of teachers lives on campus alongside the students, forming a close bond and a home away from home for boarders. Dr. Tam speaks with kind regard for his teaching staff and the learning environment they create. “They are really committed Christians and are willing to make friends with students and help them personally.”
Boarding option for secondary students
HKAA offers a boarding option for secondary students aged 12 and above, “We have a dormitory with 140 places. This allows us to bond with those whose parents aren’t always present in Hong Kong,” says Dr. Tam. Boarders live on campus in a facility adjacent to the HKAA building. Dorms are separated by gender, with HKAA students sharing the premises with Hong Kong Adventist College boarders.
“Most of the students, when they enter the dormitory, are in high school – grade seven or secondary one. We have a lot of students from the mainland who have to stay in the dormitory because their parents aren’t in Hong Kong,” explains Dr. Tam as he gives an insight into the life of boarders at HKAA.
The school offers two types of boarding – five days for those who live in Hong Kong and seven days for international students whose parents are not Hong Kong-based.
A traditional, modest student life
The excesses of Hong Kong’s consumerist culture are discouraged at HKAA in favour of a simpler and more traditional approach to school life, “We are a simple school, we don’t encourage children to play with expensive toys or wear make up,” explains Dr. Tam. He states there are no expensive toys, no phones and no jewellery allowed at the school.
Instead, there’s a focus on reading real books, not iPads or Kindles. “We have a focus on reading – we encourage children to read a lot of books,” says Dr. Tam. He recommends about two hours a day of reading: 30 minutes at home and 90 minutes at school. The school library offers a spacious place for students to enjoy a good book – each book is personally read by school staff before being placed on the shelf for students.
When asked about the homework load, Dr. Tam shares, “They do have homework – maybe an hour’s worth. For middle school and up it would be two hours. We have a reasonable amount of homework that is not very stressful for our students.”
Exploring the world and its challenges
Beyond HKAA’s green campus lies the world at large, and students are encouraged to explore beyond the walls of the school. Students from all levels of the school go on regular field trips and special focus days off campus.
Dr. Tam shares, “We have field trips three times a year. The next one is planned to Ocean Park. Students have an environmental day where they spend half a day on the beach, helping with a beach clean up and playing games. We also have a recreation day and sports day.”
Senior students are encouraged to explore further afield with an overseas trip. “We host mission trips overseas to help with different projects. Next year the students are going to Thailand for the ‘Keep Girls Safe’ project which explores the issue of human trafficking in Southeast Asia,” shares Dr. Tam. During the nine-day trip the school will collaborate with ADRA Thailand – a relief agency operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.