International Schools as Community Hubs

There is an old cautionary Chinese fable about a rather witless soldier who while crossing a river in a small boat, loses his sword over the side.  He scrambles to grab it, but acting too late…he watches in horror as it sinks out of reach to the bottom of the river. In the hopes of retrieving it later when safely on the other bank, he marks the side of the boat with a dagger to remind him of the precise spot where his prized weapon went overboard. One can only imagine the confused sadness of the solder once reaching land, who cannot fathom why despite his best care in making his mark, it no longer serves the poor fellow in guiding him back to his sword.

There is a growing awareness among leaders of international schools that in the face of accelerating change both within and outside our institutions, we must evolve quickly, and with a more open mind to new and more innovative ways of organizing and sustaining ourselves.  Yet many schools could be forgiven if they at times might be operating under the same misconception as our water borne soldier, assuming the long standing routines and operating norms that reign within our walls still serve us effectively in gauging the shifting reality around us.

The explosion in the number and diverse types of international schools in recent years has not altered the underlying reality that such institutions still generally rely on certain tried and true approaches to planning, managing and financing their organizations.  These may include long standing tuition based fee for service models, curriculum and programming concentrated almost exclusively around student performance within the classroom alone, and finally, at least in a majority of cases, interactions with the local community that remain limited to a variation of traditional student service and charitable endeavors. However, the question is not whether a continued reliance on tuition fees and classroom centered programming will remain core elements of our operating realities, but rather that they will no longer stand alone as the sole methods of financing and justifying our schools’ continued reasons for being. In essence, if we are to truly innovate and reinvent our schools, our obligations can no longer be confined to what can be academically achieved within a classroom context alone, nor may we look only to our students and their families for the resources needed to build and sustain the future sustainability we seek.

In the same way that John Dewey so long ago laid the foundations for our contemporary understanding of the entire child, it is now time to begin viewing our schools in a similarly holistic and multidimensional manner.  If for instance, we embrace the whole child, why would we not extend that same broader understanding to schools in both how they operate, and as importantly, whom they serve.  Whether it be in finding new structural and financial models, or through the creation of more ambitious and far reaching programs that before may have been seen as out of our purview, schools must now reimagine what our new boundaries of action and impact will be.

Take for instance our experience here in Quito at Academia Cotopaxi, and our work in transforming our existing on campus language center into a broad based community outreach, partnership building and student led service vehicle for change.  The newly launched ONE Institute serves our mission, expands opportunities for student learning, rejects disciplinary silos, increases revenue, builds external partnerships and breaks down boundaries between our school and our larger community.  Here we have established a ground breaking lending library that will address both the challenges of economic inequality and illiteracy in our community, while also providing authentic student leadership experience.  We now offer SAT and TOEFL test preparation services and have been certified as a TOEFL testing center.  The ONE Institute designed an entirely new corporate and business English program for companies in Quito, and we now plan to expand English training for AC parents, as well as our summer camp programming to include intensive IB academic English courses across the full spectrum of disciplines, a program available to students of both AC and other surrounding schools.

Whether like our experience at Academia Cotopaxi, a school chooses to repurpose and redirect the energies of a satellite organization already on campus, or through a new program or initiative created with a broader mission and focus in mind, schools as community hubs will need to grow into places where sustainable external partnerships are created and new opportunities for learning and revenue are realized.  The role of the school now expands and concentrates the community’s combined energies, which makes for more authentic connections and stronger families. The benefits for the school also include a more energetic curricular program, tangible hands on learning and actionable experience community problem-solving. For our institutions as a whole, rather than detached “cities on the hill,” with walls that at times separate as well as protect, international schools now become vital centers of community activity, awareness and enrichment.

The challenge before us now is to truly reimagine our schools as more than academic institutions in the time honored sense.  We must enlarge the reach and imperatives of our missions beyond the students in our classrooms, but to families; and not just to families that pay tuition, but to our communities as a whole.  In this way, we can open vast new worlds of discovery and authentic learning for our students, reach beyond our walls and into the homes and neighborhoods of our local communities, and in so doing, unlock exciting new revenue opportunities and means for sustaining our institutions.

If on the other hand, we remain committed to our most traditional and long standing assumptions about what the role of our schools should encompass, we could find ourselves marking the gunwales of our boats, only to find that our ultimate goal of better organizational health and relevance remains stubbornly out of reach.

About Trae Holland

Trae Holland is the Director of Academia Cotopaxi’s The ONE Institute, has been a leader in both the non-profit and business sectors, and has 19 years experience teaching both in the U.S. and in international schools, with a specialization in learning differentiation. You can reach his website at www.traeholland.com.
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