Money, lots of it, shapes Chinese ‘expat’ schools

Stowe Sprague’s children, Martha, Nathan and Leah, in front of the International School of Beijing. They attended this school for three years while the family lived in China. The school for British students is across the street.  - Contributed Photo
Stowe Sprague’s children, Martha, Nathan and Leah, in front of the International School of Beijing. They attended this school for three years while the family lived in China. The school for British students is across the street.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

When you pull up to the International School of Beijing (ISB), out in the suburbs among the gated villa compounds for mostly expats, you are in awe of the massive series of blocks; like Chinese modern architecture, it intends to impress with scope, rather than beauty. The orientation speaker jokes it can be seen along with the Great Wall from space (both can’t).

When we arrived in sweaty August 2009, it was a relief as a mom to see this huge, secure building, built mostly with American materials to last, and equipped with everything possible to take care of my kids seven hours a day. This was an oasis in the rapid urban turmoil that is Beijing.

And paradise it did seem compared to West Mercer’s three quick lunch shifts in the gym and the Mercer Island School District’s shrinking budget. Both ISB and MISD have roughly the same student population, albeit ISB houses them all in one long complex. ISB has four gyms, a swimming pool and two massive cafeterias, and last summer during its annual construction binge, it extended one to eliminate a lunch shift (and increase class schedule flexibility).

The two libraries (for K-8, 9-12) are bigger than Mercer Island’s library, but also for good reason: it is used by families — no foreign library beyond these gates. ISB has a 600-person theatre, a black box and music studio rooms; the arts wing will be expanded according to the original plans. These plans were scaled back when first built, not because of funding, but because the Chinese government didn’t want the building to be too massive, and more importantly by forcing a change on a rich foreigner, saved face as the ultimate decision-maker in the land.

But a school is not just concrete. My first impression was the freedom from stress — lack of financial worry and penny-pinching — that seemed to buoy every school employee. Teachers and administrators seemed more relaxed. And there is no lack of them. Teachers had 18-22 kids in a class, plus an ayi to settle Jimmy’s lunch card, staple artwork to a wall, and help out with lessons in the younger grades. The school is spic-and-span thanks to an army of cleaning ayis. Principals and vice principals (for all three levels) have secretaries plus assistants. Each of the 76 school buses has a driver and an ayi/bus monitor.

ISB has costs that are foreign to Mercer Island schools. Security is huge. Students attend security assemblies and are told to add the security chief’s phone number to their cell phones: call 24-7 anywhere in China. Drivers and ayis (all families employ help) are given IDs. The school is ringed with security gates and guards. Unbeknownst to many, ISB is the designated “bunker destination” for Americans and Canadians (the British and Europeans are to go to the massive British School across the street), if Beijing politically implodes. ISB has its own food and water supply for that emergency situation.

And the air. When pollution levels (2.5 micron particles) hit 270 (in comparison, Seattle is under 5), recess and all sports are entirely cancelled. Despite IQ air purifiers everywhere, the view down the hallway can be hazy. Recess was cancelled one out of four days last year. During the summer construction binge, domes were constructed over the tennis court/playground and sports field.

Although labor is cheap, the price to maintain western standards is not. Tuition tops a good Seattle private school, but mostly this is paid by expats’ companies. What does money buy? The value of small class size vs. good teacher can be debated, but I clearly saw that help and fewer kids mean less stress for teachers and more time devoted to each pupil. It doesn’t negate the effects of a bad teacher, but it boosts a good one. Like humans in general, quality and personal dedication to teaching one’s best can vary.

One Achilles heel of international schools is the 2-for-1 hiring decision reality: typically, the school hires two teaching spouses and it is a fluke that both are equally stellar. Money in order not to worry about resources is good, but too much can be a distraction. Often, enrichments — visiting drummers from South Africa! A writer from the United States! A field trip to Shanghai! — are a flurry of learning opportunities but don’t necessarily advance curriculum or the mission of a 21st century education.

A lean budget can mean a pared down focus.

Stowe Sprague, a writer, along with her husband and children, returned to Mercer Island in July.


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