I attended a focus group this morning at Beijing City International School where our kids go. It was an interesting experience and offers an opportunity to spend a bit more time writing about the kids educational experience. For the kids I think they have adapted the fastest here in Beijing, the routine alone has been a big factor, jumping immediately into the process but the school itself has been a big part.
The Focus group
The school had hired a consultant to interview parents experience with the school, to gather feedback. There was myself and eight other parents with a translator. I was the only foreigner, each of the other parents was a Chinese passport holder. The consultant was an American from the states who had spent a lot of time working with international schools. The interview was 45 minutes long, a standard round robin process of question and answers. Some open ended : “What is the reason you are having your children attend BCIS?” and “What are the things that stand out about why you like BCIS” to more direct yes or no discrete questions : “On a scale of 1-10 how happy is your child attending school at BCIS?” or “On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate the quality of the teachers at BCIS?” Answering some of those questions through the blog will provide some insights into what I like about the school.
First in response to “why you are here?”. It was a revelation to me that apparently BCIS is one of the few international school that allows children of Chinese citizens to apply. The other international schools are all foreign owned and controlled and by law are not allowed to accept Chinese nationals. BCIS on the other hand was founded by a Chinese family, so it’s locally owned. YCIS is another example of this, which was founded in Hong Kong. I heard several times the other parents say that BCIS was their only choice. (After wards a parent acknowledged there were a couple of other options but that he felt BCIS was bar far the best). This explains why there are so many Chinese nationals in attendance at BCIS. The school does limit the number of local children to 25% of the student population by passport, however those that speak Chinese as a first language is much higher. For example, one parent was a Chinese national and is married to a German and her son is probably a German passport holder, so as a student he would be a native Chinese speaker but not a Chinese passport holder. And while I wished they had disclosed this during the interview/investigation process in the end it wouldn’t have been a deterrent, nor does it bother me now. Many of the parents, indicated thought that even if allowed to apply to other international schools they were happy with BCIS. Part of this is that two of the largest and best known international schools in Beijing are located in the ShunYi district which is beyond the airport past the 6th ring road way outside the city center and are integrated with “foreign compounds”. These schools are well outside the city center area. Most of them indicated they didn’t want to go that far out, which was one of the reason we didn’t consider those schools.
Another note regarding the demographic of these Chinese nationals, they have to be in the upper financial sectors of economy because they all pay for the tuition out of their own pocket, which is very expensive, especially when compared to the free education offered in Chinese public schools. Additionally most of them speak some English, if not very well and have international experience abroad or in China. Most indicated there were interested in their children having a more international experience, in having their children learn English as their second “mother tongue”. Interestingly they also focused on the fact that they wanted their children to be happy and they felt that education style at BCIS was much more focused on learning vs. just test taking and the harshness of Chinese education.
I also noticed that myself and the other parents we were often at opposite ends of the spectrum and with our different perspectives. My work was paying for my children’s schooling (as part of relocation) and they were all paying out of pocket. They felt that there was too much Chinese spoken at the school, most all of the non-teaching staff are Chinese, as you’d expect and each class has a Chinese Teaching Assistant. Where as I was happy for all the exposure to Chinese the kids got. Also several parents wanted to be sure that their children’s native language : Chinese was very strong, where as I had lower expectations, wanting an introduction and some fluency but not 100% competence. What we all valued though was the international experience that our kids were having, and the quality of the teachers and the education.
Our Experience with BCIS
As for how we ended up at BCIS? We spent time researching several other international schools and considering several factors. As previously noted we ruled out schools that were out in ShunYi, that was an experience that we weren’t interested in. We wanted to be closer to work, closer to the city center and more “in China” vs. in a foreign compound. (Not that there is anything wrong with ShunYi, just not for us). This narrowed the list down. I wasn’t too interested in the British education system, again nothing wrong with that, but I wanted something that would resonate a bit closer to what we’d come from and would return to. This really narrowed it down to BCIS and YCIS. Both were near our work and where we were hunting for housing. YCIS boasts a stronger Chinese language focus, with dual teachers speaking Chinese from grades 1-5, but for me I felt they put too much focus on testing and their facilities were a tad older and smaller. I was drawn to BCIS, for their focus on IB learning and the quality of the teacher and professionals that I met during our school tour. And the facilities were top notch, gorgeous well stocked libraries, nice swimming pools, rock climbing walls, play grounds and soccer fields. I was also impressed with their integration with technology, on my tour I saw kids making videos of their Chinese kung fu with their MacBoos as well teir use of technology to communicate. They maintain school and classroom wiki’s and the principals send weekly letters and updates.
Since actually arriving in Beijing and attending BCIS I’ve continued to be impressed. There is a great degree of passion for education and compassion for the children. You really feel that the teachers and staff care, that they love what they do and the love the children and teaching them. There is a sense of great attention to each student. When Miles had his accident I got an email from the principal, from the teacher and a follow up call from the nurse, twice! As we were discussing things today I noted how connected I feel to the school through the communications I get on a weekly (and sometimes daily basis). Miles teacher sends frequent updates and she posts photos she takes on the classroom wiki. I also read the weekly middle school principals updates, and find them insightful and informative. In the focus session and reflection now though I realize I feel less connected with Sofi’s school experience. Part of this is the natural complexity that comes from going from a single teacher in elementary school to multitude of teachers. In the states I didn’t have as much contact with Sofi and Kiah’s middle school teachers either. (Though there was one math teacher in Sofi’s middle school who wrote a weekly news letter that I always enjoyed). I hope that I can have the time to get better integrated into Sofi’s school life. I was also a bit bummed that when I had a half hour before school to wander and take photos of the kids I was unable to locate Sofi in the middle school. (This particular day their home room had a slightly different schedule and they were in a different place).
All in all, I am very very happy with BCIS, and very grateful for the opportunity they and my work are affording my children. I know this will be a world view expanding experience that will impact them for years to come.