Kate Davies pays American School Hong Kong a visit

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Kate Davies takes a tour in the newly-established American School Hong Kong.

Principal John Jalsevac is not afraid of a new beginning. He’s been a part of kick-starting three schools; Canada-based Mary Ward Secondary School, Mission Hills International School in Shenzhen and now the American School in Tai Po.

“There’s a sense of a pioneer spirit in building a new school. You’re all here for the first time. It’s like you’ve got a block of clay that you can mould in any way you like. It’s really special.”

His latest venture is most definitely in its infancy, complete with freshly painted white walls, brand new furniture and floors of empty classrooms. The classrooms that are used, are filled with smiling,┬áconfident young children, welcoming teachers and walls peppered with multicoloured learning apparatus and students’ work.

Principal Jalsevac’s office is tucked away at the end of the administrative wing of the school and yet we can still hear the sounds of children laughing and jostling in the playground.

“We opened in September 2016 with 106 students,” he begins, “Kindergarten to Grade Six.”

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He goes on to explain that they only moved into the building from an office in Central just two months before that; the building itself is not new, it was built in the early nineties. When the Education Board granted the location for the American School, Principal Jalsevac and his team had the existing building retrofitted. They kept the footprint of the original school but everything has been refurbished with new floors, ceilings, walls, plumbing, electrical and millwork. It’s designed to accommodate one thousand students with six floors of classrooms and specialty classrooms, an elementary library, a cafeteria plus a covered and an open playground. Their brand new state-of-the-art gymnasium is now open and plans for a swimming pool are being discussed. The 150-million-dollar revamp is still ongoing but the remaining work is done during school holidays so as not to disturb classes.

While “new” remains the overriding feeling here, the school is owned by the world’s largest operator of International American Schools, ESOL (Education Services Overseas Limited), American School Hong Kong is its newest addition and its first foray into Southeast Asia. So far the 106 attending students are spread over two kindergarten classes (which begin at approximately 5 years old) and one class per grade from one (age 6) through to grade six (age 11). In the next academic year, they will be opening their doors and new classrooms to Grade Seven and Eight, which will complete the American School’s Middle School. Finally the High School will be added a year later with Grade 9.

“Our enrollment this [academic] year was 106 and our target was 100. Next year we are projecting 250 students and we are well on the way to getting that.” Principal Jalsevac is clearly confident that, now the school is open and people are coming to see for themselves what they are creating, enrolment numbers will rise, but he’s been here before and is aware of the challenges. “You’ve got to work hard as a new school, because the established schools have earned the reputations they enjoy.” He is aware that many parents will choose an established school over a new one and this is part of the challenge. “I’m familiar with best practice. I know what good schools look like but that doesn’t mean in [the parents’]eyes that in only months [of being open] we have been able to demonstrate that we are a highly selective, top-tier school.”

Their aim as set out in the brochure is ‘To deliver a rigorous curriculum, focused on developing well-rounded, motivated, open-minded and thoughtful global citizens.’ To do this, they have chosen to use the US Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards for the Elementary and Middle Schools while the High School will teach the International Baccalaureate or IB Diploma programme.

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They intend to teach the material by following the ‘STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) approach where teaching is done through units of enquiry, in groups, where topics across subjects intersect. The idea is to approach teaching in a way that reflects the world and the workplace that students will graduate into. Principal Jalsevac explains that mathematics, art, science, engineering and technology do not exist in silos in real life nor do we work only in isolation in the workplace, so it makes sense to teach children to work in groups and learn these subjects in conjunction with one another. “We chose not to do the Primary Years Programme (the International Baccalaureate’s answer to Elementary and Middle School education) which has a lot of similarities to STEAM in that students are engaged in units of inquiry.

“We guide them through essential questions [but] we don’t spoon feed them. We get them to develop ownership and responsibility for their education.”

The curriculum is just one part of the holistic education principal Jalsevac is intent on giving his students. He sees academic excellence as larger than marks and performance but inclusive of social, physical and creative development.

That in turn goes hand in hand with extra-curricular activities that cater not just for sports and arts but service learning, leadership and next generation science. At the base of all this for him though is a sense of community. “It’s the old ‘school spirit’ thing and I don’t think it’s hokey. I think it’s really important.”

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As I speak to him he is hours away from flying out to recruit new teachers. For him, his staff need to operate ‘In Loco Parentis’, which basically translates to ‘how a good parent would in absence of a parent’ and when hiring new staff, he actively looks for that in addition to qualifications. “I never apologise for having high expectations and standards in a school. There’s a huge body of evidence that says schools should have several things; strong teachers, outstanding leadership, but high expectations and high standards are always on top.”

For a man with a long ‘to do’ list Principal Jalsevac is very calm. It becomes clear to me that he views this challenge as a kind of a privilege where he thinks of this as a fantastic opportunity and that not every educator gets to do this, which is a sentiment he tries to impress on his staff. “I think we go backward and forwards as staff thinking there’s some hardship because everything we do is new.” Despite this, it’s clear he’s ready to forge forward, “Even with all of that” he smiles, I wouldn’t trade it for a minute”.

School Report
Established: 2016
Class size: 23
Curriculum: KG1 teacher + 1 EA for 18 students, G1-2: 1 teacher + 1 EA for no more than 20 students, G3-8: 24 students max
Fees 2016/2017: See website for details
Non refundable capital levy: HK$20000
Address: 6 Ma Chung Road, Tai po, New Territories
Tel: 3919 4111

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