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School Choices – Be Prepared

March, 2013
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Although there are now more than 40 international schools and kindergartens in Beijing and Tianjin, plus several bilingual schools and a few international divisions within local Chinese schools, with more expatriates coming into Beijing and staying longer, the need for good international schools and quality education services is growing stronger. This means choosing the right school for your children is becoming an ever more challenging issue.
Families should do their homework before choosing a school for their children.
tk-orstromLittleStar is happy to talk to TK Ostrom, Admissions Director of the International School of Beijing to share her insights into the admissions process and advice on finding the right school. TK has over 20 years of professional experience in events management, marketing, and school admissions. During the last five years in the Office of Admissions at Shanghai American School, she has coordinated and aligned the admissions criteria to better serve the school’s two campuses containing more than 3,000 students.


LittleStar: Applications are required by almost every school. How important is it to prepare an “outstanding” application? What does the school admissions really look at in the student’s application?

TK:The admission process is important because it is the gateway to an exceptional education. We realize that many families find this process complicated; however, most schools are trying to simplify the process but still get enough information to make the right admissions decision.

Here are some of the key elements schools might be looking for:
1.   Native Language
2.   Language Spoken at Home 
3.   Educational Language
4.   Current and Previous School’s Report Cards
5.   Educational Needs and Assessments
6.   Confidential Teacher Recommendations
Schools want to create the most effective processes to support the acceptance and placement of the student. Most schools want to sustain some academic diversity and be able to meet the needs of all accepted students.

LittleStar: From last year’s survey compiled by LittleStar, we learned that each family would visit at least 3 schools before making a final decision. What things should families seriously consider during a school visit? 

TK: It’s important for families to find the right school culture that fits their family needs. They need to walk the halls, talk to the teachers and see what it’s like to be in a classroom. You want to find a school that excites and motivates your child and meets their academic expectations and more. The school should be an extension of their family and should be a community that will support their family values and their child’s educational needs.

A school’s admissions office is there to help them with this process. Admissions should give them informational tours and access to the school so they can make an informed decision.

LittleStar: How should a family prepare for the school interview? What kind of questions should the parents ask?

TK: Child interviews are not part of every school’s process. What the school is trying to do is get a whole picture of a child and look at information from a variety of different sources. What an interview can provide is an insight to get to know the child and for the child to get to know school. The school wants to know that the family is in line with its mission and vision and approach to education. Schools also pay attention to a parent’s evaluation of their child. The schools are looking for honest, candid responses.

LittleStar: Standardized testing is also required at many schools. What is the main purpose of such testing and how should the students prepare for it?

TK: We evaluate student applications in a number of ways. For example, we consider language skills, including the language spoken at home and how many years the student has been in an English-language curriculum.  Additionally, we evaluate the other schools the student has attended and what type of curriculum has been taught. This gives us a good idea of whether the child will need to be assessed.

There are a vast number of diverse academic programs and standards that exist within school programs, which might limit the opportunities to compare the academic ability of applicants from one school who are applying to other schools. An assessment is intended to provide a common measure for evaluating the abilities of these students seeking admission to our school, their educational background or experience, and to assess the possible success of these students.
Using an assessment promotes standardization in a school’s admission process, which ensures a more reliable admissions process keyed to a student’s academic success in school.

LittleStar: We notice that some families, especially Asian families, prefer to choose a school where their children stay from kindergarten to high school. Do you think that it is a good idea for students to stay in one school for their entire careers? Or do you agree with the idea of "Small children in a small school; big children in a big school"?

TK:I think one challenge is that international schools are like a micro-world where many countries and cultures are represented and where children can gain amazing international exposure through their education. Thus it might be important for these international schools to provide ways to sustain a wide variety of other cultures, customs and traditions in the school. The children who grow up in these schools then develop a sustainable familiarity, but with a very wide sampling of world culture.

The hardest part for families is figuring out what’s best for each child. And if you have multiple children, one school might not be best for all of them.

LittleStar: Many schools offer a sibling discount. What are the advantages and disadvantages of sending siblings to the same school?

TK: Most international schools try to keep the children together, which promotes a community feeling within the school. Aside from the obvious logistical advantages of having all the children in the family attending the same school (a single journey to school, same academic school calendar) for such young children the emotional disruption of being sent to a different school from their older brother or sister might be a deciding factor for the families.

Some schools offer sibling priority, which is important with the growth of schools in Beijing. The number of spaces available in certain grades is limited and depends on attrition [Reduction in a school's student population as a result of transfers or dropouts]. Many schools in Beijing are full in the higher grades; thus families need to consider applying to the best schools when their children are still quite young to ensure they will have a seat in the best schools when they are older.

LittleStar: Each year, there will be new schools opening in Beijing and Shanghai. What is the major difference between an established school and a newly opened school? What conditions might make a newer school favorable for some children? 

TK: Families will need to review their school options to determine the differences and choose the school that best fits their children’s educational needs. Word of mouth is also important and might play a critical role as parents seek to better understand a school’s cultural and educational differences. It’s important for families to find the right fit for their children. 

Most established schools offer extensive programs and vast educational opportunities to expand their students’ passion for learning; they have a proven record and have educational systems and philosophies firmly in place. Thus, new schools will have to compete with the established schools to attract top-tier teachers and administrators.
Again, the best advice for families is to do their homework before choosing any school. The best sources of information include websites, academic profiles and annual reports.
Parents should make every effort to be sure that a school is financially secure. They should review the school’s accreditations, and they should understand and support a school’s educational philosophies, missions and visions.
With more expatriates coming into Beijing and Shanghai and staying longer, there will be a need for more good international schools. However, it’s going to take time for these new schools to establish their credibility and worth.

LittleStar: Having a child assigned to a waiting list is never good news for the families. What do you suggest families do if they really want to a child to enter a school?

TK: There are many local or long-term expatriate children in international schools who are staying longer at one school. Thus there is less turnover than in previous years. For this reason, it’s important to apply early and be patient.

Usually by the beginning of May, most schools know which students will return in the fall. This will allow students to move off the waiting list or wait pool into an available seat. There are always a few more seats that open up over the summer, and mid-year offers another opportunity for enrollment. In addition, if you have multiple children, most schools have sibling priorities. However, some families do have to split their children between schools until a seat is available.
Non-English speakers usually have the most difficulty enrolling; seats for these students are limited in English-medium schools, and priority is given to native English speakers. However, the degree to which such a priority has an impact depends on each school’s admissions criteria.


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