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Choosing the Right School: Facts to Check

May, 2011
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sh-mama-1sI am not an international school parent; not even married yet. But, I surely spend more time and am more actively involved in international schools in China than most expatriate parents. This is not because of my job as the editor of LittleStar Magazine, but really because I like schools and I like international schools the most.

The first time I knew about international schools was in 2003 when I was still a reporter at China Daily and was invited to attend an international school event. I was deeply impressed with the multi-cultural student body and the inspirational teaching and joyful learning experience on campus. I said to myself: If I were able to attend such a school, I must be able to run for the presidency!

Well, this might not be the same thought shared by many families who send their children to international schools nowadays. But one thing is for sure: all families want to send their children to the “BEST” school possible!

So, here comes the question: how to choose the right school for your child?

Three years ago, I met Dr. Michael Thompson at Shanghai American School and did an interview with him on a similar topic about school selection. Dr. Thompson has ever worked at more than 500 different schools in the USA and abroad.

Dr. Thompson said: “Choosing a school for your child is different from almost any other kind of choice you will ever make in your life. It is certainly more complicated than buying a house, choosing a job and perhaps even harder than choosing a spouse! Why is it so hard? Because you are trying to find a setting that will nurture your child’s sense of safety, confidence, and ability to learn long before your child’s brain has matured, before his temperament and identity are completely formed, and before his academic interests and strengths have fully developed. In short, when you pick a school you are trying to predict the future, and no one I know is one hundred percent accurate at that.

The best you can do is to use your values and your intuition to pick a learning environment for your child and then evaluate whether it is working well on an ongoing basis as they grow up. Does he/she gain in confidence as they move from Kindergarten to First Grade? Is he/she excited about learning? Are they becoming more persevering and curious, or are they becoming bored or easily demoralized? Do they like their teacher? Do they feel safe and do they have friends? In my book, The Pressured Child, I wrote that you can assess whether a child is doing well in school by whether he or she feels: 1) connected to adults and other children, 2) is recognized for their skills and talents, and 3) is developing a sense of mastery in academics, the arts and in sports. If a child feels connected, recognized and is developing their skills, then you should not switch them to another school.”

Simply speaking: To choose a school, choose “The Great Fit” for your children. However, the process of finding a school with such a great fit is never easy.

I have noticed through the years that some parents are taking shortcuts in school selection: listening to friends or colleagues, with the help of relocation services or HR representatives, or searching online before they actually arrive in China. Some parents are doing a better job with personal visits to ensure that the quality of education and the warmness of the community extend beyond the glossy pages of the brochures. 

With over 40 international schools and kindergartens in Shanghai (40 listed in LittleStar Magazine alone), I believe it is more responsible for the family to sit down together and check through the whole list of schools to find out the school which they believe will be the strongest fit for the child’s academic and social needs, as well as for the family as a whole.

A written list of criteria will be helpful, and below are my thoughts on common issues that should possibly be on your check list.


* Location; Location; Location.

Most parents would like to send their children to a school that is close to their home, especially when their children are little and they are still new to China. This can give the parents a sense of closeness to their children and also safety. Usually, relocation services will give similar recommendations when they introduce you to your new neighborhood in Shanghai.

Luckily, almost all the big schools in Shanghai have two or more campuses respectively in Puxi and Pudong. And most kindergartens or elementary schools are not set up in a remote area.

My argument here is: Is it really necessary to be CLOSE to home? Children will be staying in the classroom with their teachers most of the day, and then they get back home on a school bus. Is there a major difference if the school is half-an-hour’s drive away or 10 minutes’ walk from home?

Children grow up quickly. One day, they will leave for university and be away from home. Perhaps, choosing a school that is not very close to home may help the children to closer to their peers and teachers and be more independent.

I don’t think this is a decisive factor in school selection.


* School Systems

Other than international schools, expat families also have the choice of “national” schools, bilingual schools, international divisions of a local school and purely local Chinese schools. Of course most expat children attend international schools.

The “national schools” here refer to schools like the French School Shanghai, German School Shanghai, Shanghai Japanese School and Shanghai Korean School. They may also have a mixed student body; but they all use their own national curriculum and the teaching language is not English.

The “national” school systems will guarantee a smooth transition for children if the family needs to move back to their home country. That’s why more and more international schools are undertaking IB programs, which ensure easy transition of students to an IB school in another country as the family moves on.

International divisions emerged as a way to offer choice for expat families and the educational needs for their children. The international divisions are set up on the same campus of the local school, but are run by a different team of administrators, teachers and staff. Their service and activities are similar to international schools, but the core is not as developed as an international school.

A local school could be a brave and good choice especially for those who want to stay long-term in China. In an international metropolis like Shanghai, the education standards are quite high in local schools. Children will surely excel academically if they study hard.

Parents should be prepared that in local Chinese schools there will be a huge amount of homework each day, less social activities, less parent involvement in the school (usually there are no parent organizations like the PTA in a local school).


* Teachers and the Staff

No matter what school your children attend, they will spend most of the school day with their teacher. If they don’t get along, what can you expect to hear when you ask "how is school?"

Teachers and t staff are the real humans behind the school. The quality and quantity of the teachers in the school are very important. A good teacher can always think of ways to make learning exciting for the child even if the curriculum is average. A good curriculum could end up going nowhere if the teacher is average and inexperienced. Do the teachers and the principal seem engaged and eager to teach? Are they teaching the core subjects, and offering extracurricular activities that will give your child a well-rounded middle school experience?

Remember to check on the teaching assistants too. Their roles in the class should not be just as a translator or an ayi. Quality TAs will surely help make the teaching more effective.

Other than qualifications and teaching experience, teacher turnover rates and teaching training are truly important factors to consider. If the teaching staff turnover is unreasonably high, there must be an unpleasant reason behind this.

Also look at the principal’s background. A great principal can really make a school. They are the soul of the school and their character or style is sometimes that of the school. A strong, inspiring leader can set the tone for a positive experience, where teachers and students work well and effectively together. Try to check out the school at a time when you can watch the principal in action – take note of how the students act around them. Do they greet the principal, or shy away? See how the principal greets students. Does the faculty seem comfortable with the principal – and, are the staff engaged and happy to be there?


* Student Body.

An international school usually has a student body (and also teaching staff) of mixed nationalities. For example, Shanghai Community International School has students representing 51 nationalities; Shanghai American School and Yew Chung International School of Shanghai have a student body of over 40 nationalities.

A mixed nationality environment is one of the biggest benefits of an international school, as it offers a great opportunity for the kids to learn from each other and learn from each culture. This helps them to be respectful of the differences exist among them.

However, if a school has a predominant student group in the student body, the school is probably catering more for that student body in areas of service, programs, activities and even teaching.


* School Size and Class Size

A popular thought is that small children go to small schools while big children go to big schools. The fact is: it takes many years and a lot of resources for the school to grow into a big school; and big schools usually have more resources and funding to make sure they recruit the best teachers for the best curriculum and use the leading-edge technologies.

Does a gig schools also mean less attention on the child? Not exactly. In many big international schools in Shanghai, they have separate facilities especially for the younger children. For example, Shanghai Community International School has independent campuses for their ECE kids in Pudong and Puxi.

What does matter is the class size: a teacher has only two eyes; if one class sits more than 20 or 30 students (common in Chinese schools), there is no guarantee your child will receive enough attention or care in the class.


* Languages Taught

English is usually the teaching language of all international schools and kindergartens, while Chinese is taught on a daily basis at many schools nowadays as China becomes the world’s leading economy. There is an obvious need to learn the Chinese language.

Local Chinese schools have the most influential and emerging language environment for students to learn Chinese, Bilingual schools are the next best, where the curriculum is conducted in 50% English and 50% Chinese.

For other “Mother Tongue” languages, such as Dutch, French, German and Spanish, only a few big international schools offer these classes, such as the Shanghai Rego International School and Shanghai Livingston American School.


* School History

The past 5 years have witnessed a drastic increase in international schools and kindergartens. For example, the number of international schools in Beijing has tripled since we launched LittleStar Magazine in July 2005.

From one perspective, you can see what it means for a school to have a long history of nearly 100 years like Shanghai American School or to be newcomer in the international school scene with a newly completed campus or newly recruited faculty team.

Parents can also look at this matter from the other angle: how much has the school accomplished during these years of growth? If it doesn’t grow bigger or better in certain areas, this could be something to check further.


* Shifting Schools

It is rare to see a child staying in one international school from kindergarten to high school. I did interview one such student, but only once. Shanghai mama Sherry told me her children have changed schools three times during the past six years living in Shanghai. They were first sent to an international school, then moved into the international division of a renowned local Chinese school and now go to another international school.

The reasons are different: changing of teachers at a school; too much homework and too little time for family and social activities, etc.

The world is changing fast. To be able to be flexible and adaptable to the new changes and move forward is a good thing for the future.

Shifting schools will build a child’s sense of adaptability. Some different experiences might be more beneficial than one longer one. You can minimize the risk of shifting schools if you know what types of schools you are looking for. You have to understand your child very well.

Don’t be afraid to change schools if it isn’t working for your child. Remember to ask one question when your son or daughter is home: How’s School?


* The Child’s Choice

The decision is ultimately the parent’s decision. But it is the kid who goes to the school. So, it is important that your child has a say in school selection, especially for older children.

Be careful about your little ones. If your child has an observational play date at a school and falls in love with the well-stocked costume corner, it’s tempting to give in when you hear, "Mommy, I want to go here!" 

But with children this young, parents would do well to set aside the need to please their soon-to-be preschooler and make an educated decision; one that takes into account what they know about their child and what they’ve learned about the school.


* A Back-up Plan

Good and popular schools might have a waiting list and strict entrance exams. Be sure to have a back-up plan in case the school you choose doesn’t work out. Narrow your list to two or three schools and enroll your child in your top-choice school if you can. But also find out if there are slots available and what enrollment procedures there are at your back-up schools. That way, if things don’t go well for your child at her new school, you can move her quickly without starting the process all over again.

Dan-2I totally agree with Daniel Eschtruth, Director of Admissions and Marketing at Shanghai Community International School, that at least 60 per cent of the expat children coming to Shanghai would be very successful in any one of the international schools here. The school wants to be full of students who are willing and happy to be at the school.

Choosing a school is about finding the perfect match between your child and the school. There is abundant information in LittleStar Magazine as well as out there in the community about the schools here. Educate yourself about your children, about what each school is like and what you really look for. This will help you to make the right choice of school for your children.


By Xing Yangjian

With interviews with Daniel Eschtruth, Director of Admissions and Marketing at Shanghai Community International Schools and Sherry, mother of three in Shanghai.

The article is just a personal view on school selection; you can reach the author for further discussions via email at xingyangjian@gmail.com


A Quick Search:

- What is the oldest international school in China?

Shanghai American School, established in 1912.

- Which schools have been established for more than ten years?

Shanghai American School, Shanghai Community International School, Shanghai Singapore International School, Concordia International School, French School Shanghai, German School Shanghai, Rainbow Bridge International School, Tiny Tots International Pre-school and Kindergarten, Shanghai High School International Division.

- Which international schools have the most campuses in Shanghai?

Yew Chung International School of Shanghai and Shanghai Community International School. Each has four campuses, with 2 campuses in Pudong and the other 2 in Hongqiao, Puxi.

- Which international schools have over 1000 students?

Shanghai American School; Yew Chung International School of Shanghai; The British International School, Shanghai; Shanghai Community International School; Shanghai Singapore International School; Dulwich College Shanghai; Concordia International School Shanghai; Shanghai United International School; French School Shanghai; German School Shanghai

- Which international schools offer IB programs?

Shanghai American School; Yew Chung International School of Shanghai; Shanghai Rego International School; Shanghai Singapore International School; Shanghai Community International School; Dulwich College Shanghai; The British International School, Shanghai; Western International School of Shanghai; Shanghai United International School

- Which schools are using the “British Schools” system?

Dulwich College Shanghai; Shanghai Rego International School; The British International School, Shanghai

- Which international kindergartens offer Montessori education? 

Montessori School of Shanghai; Shanghai Montessori Kindergarten; Weihai Kindergarten  

- Which international schools provide a boarding service? 

YK Pao School; Shanghai Fudan-Vanke Experimental Private School

- Which school has baseball fields and a baseball team in Shanghai?

Shanghai American School



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