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International Schools in Hong Kong

By: Brooke Chenoweth

Building a school from scratch is about more than just painting walls and bringing in furniture. We sat down with JOHN JALSEVAC, School Director at the new American School Hong Kong (ASHK), to ask him about the most important factors involved in shaping the schools of the future.

We take a look at the new kid on the block.. American School Hong Kong
We take a look at the new kid on the block.. American School Hong Kong

The day I meet John Jalsevac, the school is being run from a small, temporary office in Central, while the campus in Tai Po – a disused government school building – undergoes a major renovation. It’s a far cry from the busy hallways and classrooms where John will spend his days when the school officially opens in late August, and I can tell he’s eager to get down to the day-to-day business of running a school.

Breaking ground

John strikes me as a man who doesn’t like to sit still. In his 35-year career as an educator, he’s been involved in setting up more than one school, both in Asia and in his home country of Canada. He uses terms like “pioneer spirit” and “trailblazing”, and speaks of putting shovel to soil on a new school with something akin to reverence. While he admits that it’s often easier working in an established school, John says, “There’s something compelling about taking a block of clay and moulding it.” Before the school opens, the team is busy with the nitty-gritty – setting up everything from the website to the curriculum, and it’s a process that John appears to revel in.

After 12 years in Hong Kong, he believes the international school system here offers a superior education, thanks mostly to a diverse range of ideologies and practices brought to the city from around the world. This is something he hopes to harness and further develop at ASHK. “With a new school there’s no predetermined way of doing things, no legacy issues,” he says. “We have an opportunity to establish routines and practices based on the knowledge and experience of the staff – we’re able to capitalise on best practice and we can pick and choose the things that we have seen work.”

John believes that hiring the right teachers is one of the most important steps in starting a new school. “Parents send their children to a particular school because of the culture of that school, and that is formed by the teachers,” he says. The “top-tier” teaching staff at ASHK are predominantly North American, with a cross-section of expertise. For many of them, Hong Kong is a new frontier, and they will each need their own pioneering spirit as they work to build the school – from the classrooms to the community.

Holistic approach

The curriculum has a number of elements that make it unique in Hong Kong, and it offers more than just literacy and numeracy. As well as the Mandarin programme and a robust set of extra-curricular activities, the students will have opportunities to be involved in national and international competitions – academic and sporting. Using the American Common Core (a set of standards that allows teachers to articulate and measure what they want children to be achieving at each grade level), with a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) focus, and giving students the option of the IB diploma in their final years, the aim is to foster critically thinking problem-solvers who are well equipped for both university and life beyond school. There will also be a focus on personal development, with community-based projects encouraging collaboration, social responsibility and creativity in the students from an early age.

John promises that learning at ASHK will be exciting and fun. He also envisages a school community that feels like a family. With an active and engaged team of staff, as well as strong home-school partnerships, students will feel like they belong. The key to this, John says, is positive discipline – catching kids doing good things – and being an active presence in the school. “There’s a lot to be said for management by walking around. Being present, respectful and engaged is critical for fostering that sense of community, and it can come from something as simple as greeting kids as they get off the bus in the morning.”

With an expected enrolment of 100 to 150 students from Kindergarten to Grade 6 in their first year of operation, the first group of students to start in 2016 can be guaranteed a lot of personal attention and a lot of support. There’s still work to do to reach the K-12 capacity of 1,000 students, but that means that as the school grows each year there is a wonderful opportunity for the students to be involved in building the ASHK community. And I suspect it won’t be long before they’re also blazing trails.

John Jalsevac
John Jalsevac

About Esol Education

ASHK is operated by Esol Education, an international education organisation that has established and operated international American schools worldwide for 40 years. Currently, 11,000 students attend Esol’s nine schools across three continents. Esol’s 2015 graduates now attend leading universities such as Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Toronto, and the London School of Economics.

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