Manila Interational Schools: part I

As the expatriate community in Metro Manila continues to expand, many of the better known International Schools are bursting at the seams, waiting lists are growing longer and parents are struggling to find places for their children. So I have been exploring beyond the obvious choices and have compiled a list of international schools available to expatriate  – and local – families, talking with staff and parents as to what makes their particular school a good choice.

MGIS.5My first stop was the Mahatma Gandhi International School (MGIS) in Pasig, just round the corner from Nomads Sports Club, where I was greeted in the entrance hall by this message from Gandhi’s own lips painted on the wall: ‘In a gentle way you can shake the world.’

Despite it’s name, MGIS is not specifically an Indian school, it has quite simply been named for a wise man, recognized by the world for his high ideals and his vision of peace and universal brotherhood.

The new Headmistress. Rebecca Warren is a vibrant, intelligent, committed young English woman, boundlessly enthusiastic about developing Mahatma Gandhi in every area: curriculum, structure, staffing and facilities, not to mention expanding the student population by thirty percent.

Soon after arriving at the school, Ms Warren made a detailed analysis of the schools strengths and areas for improvement. Having gained the support of the Board for further development, she is jumping into a hefty planning schedule with glee.

MGIS currently has 138 students with a maximum capacity of about 220, from kindergarten to year 12. Even with such small numbers, the school has a full range of specialist staff with which to provide a quality and a very personal education. The children learn Mandarin from kindergarten and there are the seeds of a Stephanie Alexander style kitchen garden in the grounds.

Rebecca knows all her students, introducing them confidently as we walk the corridors. The children I chat with all agree that the smaller class sizes are great and the school has a warm, family feel to it. No pack mentality here: staff and students all interact, and parents too: a flagging PTA was revived last year with Rebecca’s full support and encouragement.

“The kids here feel happy and safe,” Ms. Warren tells me. Many senior students run lunchtime clubs for the younger students and sports teams cross year groups to build numbers for full teams. There are also many individual sports, such as  fencing, tae kwon do and archery – the archery coach is a former Olympic silver medalist.

Four percent of students with special educational needs are in the full time Learning Support Program at MGIS, and there are several more in mainstream classes, who receive extra time for dyslexia or other learning challenges.

Gayle, Australian mother of three,  enrolled all her children at MGIS in 2010. Her older son Remy is fifteen and has Downs Syndrome, and although he is high functioning and used to mainstream schools in Australia, Gayle found other international schools in Manila did not have the teachers to support special education programs for him. Advice from home was that this move would be too hard and she shouldn’t come. Gayle ignored the advice, determined to keep her family together, and went to work to find an acceptable international school that would be happy to take Remy. Purely special needs schools were not an option as Gayle wanted her children to be at the same school. Mahatma Gandhi International School ticked the boxes.

MGIS.6It hasn’t always been easy, she admitted. Her daughter found the move difficult and Gayle and her husband have had to work hard with MGIS to create a program for Remy that she feels gets the best out of him. “It has been a learning process,” she explained, “for the staff to understand our expectations.” But she feels now that they were lucky to have found MGIS. Remy loves the school, and their younger son, Cassidy, aged 10, is blissful at MGIS, and has a starring role in the school’s sports program, which Gayle feels has been wonderful for his confidence. “It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles [of larger schools],” she told me, “but it does have the benefits of a small school with international level education.” And Gayle is obviously delighted with the new Headmistress, her leadership qualities and her vision for the school.

International School Manila (ISM) is one of the best known options for expatriates in Manila, but I wanted to take a look beyond the website.

bearcat-logo-300x2863High School Principle, Bill Brown, is a friendly, assured New Zealander. Prior to his appointment at ISM, Bill spent eleven years at Jakarta International School, where he watched ISM ‘rise from the ashes’ as the school relocated from downtown Makati to a purpose built campus in the Fort in 2001. David Toze was employed as the new Superintendent about the same time as the new school opened its gates, and Bill says he has been leading huge improvements in structure and discipline ever since.

Mr. Brown describes how ISM was once perceived as a private Filipino school, and there is still a strong core of local students. This has the benefit of providing a sense of continuity that many international schools lack, where the student turnover is more fluid. This also means the local culture has a strong presence, recognized by an annual Filipiniana Day. Bill is also very aware of the positive student culture at the school, which has a good reputation for diversity and tolerance.

ISM really broadens horizons, he says. Expatriate children acquire a wider vision of the world by default, but he feels ISM takes this global vision to new heights. With more than 70 nationalities amongst the students and faculty (with names I can’t even pronounce, like Kyrgyz Republic) he believes there is true international-mindedness amongst both staff and students.

His wife Rena O’Regan, parent and teacher at ISM for seven years, agrees.  “Our kids grow up as real international kids,” she says.  Also, as so many are used to moving home regularly, she has noticed that the students here recognize how hard it can be to resettle, and seem much more accepting of differences in each other.

But the thing she loves best about ISM is that it’s cool to be sporty and smart, which is a completely different cultural ethos to many schools in Australia and New Zealand. “One of the Varsity rugby players even plays the cello” she says.

‘At ISM there are opportunities and encouragement for the kids to excel in whatever interests them,’ Bill adds. And the list of extra-curricular activities are impressive: a full sports program, robotics, film, United Nations, dance and drama. There is even talk of developing an on-line chess tournament.

Mr. Brown says that initially he planned to stay at ISM for three to four years, but ‘we saw no reason to move.’ As a parent and Headmaster, Bill is very proud of the high quality of education at ISM, which he describes as outstanding, and ‘a world class facility.’

Suzi moved to the Philippines from Sydney at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, and enrolled all her four daughters at ISM. She says she ‘couldn’t be happier’ with the school, and the girls have generally settled in well. ‘The school community has been so welcoming and informative,’ she enthuses, although she admits that the resulting numbers of emails with four children at the school can get a bit overwhelming. That aside, she is happy with all aspects of the school, especially the extensive extra curriculum options – although as the mother of four girls she has noticed that they need more dance classes. But they are also enjoying the opportunity to explore new things, she adds.

Suzi also likes the school’s community service program. A first visit to a local orphanage proved a little confronting, but she is pleased that the girls get exposed to poverty far more than would have been the case in Australia. There, schools raised money for various charities, but the kids never saw where that money ended up. here it is a real hands-on approach.

resizepic.phpThe King’s School, Manila is part of the British Schools Foundation, a network of international schools that promotes high quality British-style education from Brazil to Burma. It is the new kid on the block in Manila, but it already has a reputation for high quality, exclusive education, and they are so far filling the classrooms just by word-of-mouth.

Peter Lindsay has been Headmaster here for twelve months. A quietly spoken New Zealander, he has spent time teaching in the UK and is therefore familiar with the British system of education. I asked him what attracts families to Kings. “We are relaxed, and we have high expectations of the children’s behaviour,” he told me. When I query this apparent oxymoron, he explained that children need to know the boundaries, and then they are able to relax within the security of those boundaries.

Mr Lindsay doesn’t believe kids wake up intending to be badly behaved, they just get bored. He claims that between Kings discipline, interesting study programs and high expectations of the children, they have very few issues with bad behaviour as there is neither the time nor the inclination to be bored and misbehave.

Parents and children love the intimate class sizes and the ratio of teachers to students. Classes average fifteen children to two adults, and if the year groups grow much larger than this, the class is split in two. At the moment there are just over 90 kids from Kindergarten to year 7, and each year they will add a grade until the current year 7s make it through to A levels. And there is plenty of room for this expansion.

“We don’t try to compete with the larger international schools,” the Headmaster explained, “just with ourselves.”

I arrived on the last day of term to find Sports Day in full swing. Parents had gathered beneath a marquee on the side of the playing field, and the kids were having a 4-team tug of war. Excitement was high – and loud.

“Parents are always welcome here,” Peter tells me. The school even has an online portal where teachers can communicate with parents on a daily basis – a kind of class Facebook page. “There is lots of communication,” he says.

School events for the whole family are frequent, and always include food. Like our Filipino hosts, Mr Lindsay  firmly believes that eating together builds community. Watching the interaction between staff, parents and kids on Sports Day, it would seem Kings already has a strong sense of community.

British mum, Jo, is really pleased with the decision to send Rory and Esme to Kings. She feels that the kids settled much more easily into smaller classes – a serious consideration for one small four year old who was initially very distressed about moving from the UK.

Kings ‘has a lovely family feel’ she tells me ‘and it’s not overwhelming for the parents or the kids.’ She also believes that Kings provide a great quality education: ‘better than they would get at home.’ Any problems they anticipated were never realized, and they have found it a surprisingly easy transition. Even the journey from Makati has not proved too problematic, as they can travel to and from school in just 20-30 minutes. And ‘the school bus system seems really good too.’

Jo loves the benefits that come with smaller classes, and the interaction that occurs between the different ages in sport, in the classroom and in the canteen. ‘The whole school was involved in the school play,’ she says, ‘they loved it!’

*Adapted from an article written for ANZA News, March/April 2014. With thanks to Google for the images.

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