If knowledge is power, Monica Majors helps you stay informed on which Saigon school to choose.
When I was asked to look into Saigon South International School (SSIS) for an article, I couldn’t help but think a teacher, parent or at least someone who loves the company of children would be better suited. As I perused the website I thought back on my own elementary and high school experiences. While I was not part of the mass-market public schooling system much of America uses, I certainly am not a product of any private institution. Figuring I’d encounter a bunch of entitled parents, teachers and students along this journey I was startled when I read, “SSIS is owned by the Phu My Hung Corporation but operates as a not-for-profit entity within the company.” The pessimist in me hesitated, but the optimist within prevailed and booked a tour of the school’s grounds.
On one of Saigon’s quintessential sunny days I arrived at SSIS in D7. A six-hectare green behemoth within the city; grassy lawns and playing grounds seemed to stretch for days. Students finished eating their lunches in the breeze and peppy cheers reverberated off the brick buildings. I had arrived just before Spring Break, and a campus-wide sports day was already underway. Children chased one another to the large sports complex, oozing laughter and excitement. As one of their bags brushed against me they turned to apologize politely, each engaging in genuine eye contact, and I was taken aback at how present they were at such a young age only moments before their school tether was to be unleashed for vacation.
K-12 Curriculum Director Tina Fossgreen found me in my alarmed state, my arrival seamlessly alerted through the school’s very attentive security team. We spoke briefly, but clearly, on the school’s evolution since opening in 1997. For example, they recently moved every student and teacher onto the Apple computer 1:1 programme, the school going so far as to keep Vietnam’s only three Apple Distinguished Educators on staff. An elaborate makerspace setup in both the elementary and high school buildings is the foundation for a large push in robotics and computer sciences, beginning in fourth grade. SSIS is among a few select schools in Vietnam that offer Python programming language and the International Baccalaureate (IB) in computer sciences. A full drama programme already exists, and the school will offer an IB class in the 2016-17 school year with an intimate enrolment of less than 10 students. All this is made possible because the teachers and curriculum directors must justify such expenses only to themselves and parents. “We have a small board of directors who are, of course, interested to know that we’re making the right financial decisions. We don’t have shareholders, so that’s where it stops. We have the freedom to bring in new equipment and programmes that will have both immediate and sustainable benefits to the students. Money is reinvested into the school, and that includes professional development for the teachers.” Tina’s passion emanated through her words, and as we parted ways she headed off to support her daughter’s swim meet. It was the first time I had seen an educator with so much personally invested. Next I spoke with Head of School Mark Iver Sylte, ready to get to the bottom of how SSIS’s not-for-profit system in one of the world’s most profitable industries.
“Let me go ahead and dispel any misconceptions you may have about our not-for-profit business model,” he began by reading my mind. “We are a protected entity, which means that all tuition and fees stay within the school. So there is a myth within the community that enrolment should be cheaper because profits are not given out to shareholders.” Here I jumped in with the age-old adage (and a governing principle of mine), “But you get what you pay for.”
“Exactly! In order to attract real talent you need to pay for it,” Mark affirmed. Approximately 70% of teachers at SSIS have master’s degrees, and the school is only a few marks behind the international benchmark of 25% annual teacher retention. In fact, 67% of the budget goes into staffing, with a large chunk of that set aside for professional development.
First-year Teacher at SSIS Vaughan Swart came from the Canadian public school system and speaks volumes about now working in a not-for-profit school. “The program that has helped me most is our professional development (PD) programme. We are given a budget to help pay our expenses for out-of-school PD to improve the educational pedagogy we can present to our students and constantly improve our practices.” ES Grade 1 Teacher Allison Ruttger goes one step further, saying she will only consider working in not-for-profit education centres. She cites the commitment to a student-centric environment that is conducive once the business model element of the schooling system is eliminated. Makes sense to me, and as Mark continued to educate me on the way things work I began to realize that education as SSIS is the real-deal, and focuses on what is best for the students. Albeit sometimes this appears in ways they may not yet appreciate.
Both Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes are offered in the high school curriculum; unique in that SSIS has only 350 students compared with a usual 500+ at other schools offering the same. “We offer education to children, not a programme to family,” Mark affirmed, furthering the notion that he leads a private, independent school that is in the business of running with their own decisions. The investment is clear, and 2015 they received the “Best Facilities Award” from the Ministry of Education. “Although I like to think of this more as a ‘best investment’ award,” Mark highlighted before I headed out to see more of the spectacular grounds.
I looked in on a first grade class and was instantly amazed at the level of confidence each student exuded while reading. The elementary school has both a literacy and math coach, and I was witnessing the results of the year’s work dedicated to better meeting the needs of remedial readers. This included poring over reading data and learning new methods in addressing the diversity in how remedial readers learn.
Afterwards Allison spoke to me with such great passion that I knew she is one of those teachers whose efforts stay with children forever. “Our literacy coach spent many mornings in my classroom during reading time, modeling specific teaching techniques and explaining them to me in detail. Whenever she worked with me, I felt I had her complete attention as she patiently answered all of my questions. Because of her, I have never felt more capable as a reading teacher. The impact on the children was undeniable and very visible as we led them to become capable readers. The mental investment from coach to teacher to student was very tangible. The children needed me, and I needed the coach. I receive emails from the parents of these students all the time, and they are so thrilled that their children can read now. It’s so rewarding.”
With all this information in hand Jack-of-all-things-digital Jeff Nesmith walked me past a very busy makerspace; an AV room with green screen I would have loved to live in while at school; a 3D printer, on which I’m pretty sure the savvy kids were trying to figure out how to create a cheese burger (yes please!); a very inviting playground, calling at me even now (never grow up!); and lush grass that seemed to extend for days on soccer pitches and playgrounds. Suffice to say, I was thoroughly impressed, and would confidently enroll my young ones here. It’s a bit early for that though, unless they accept cats.