Rebecca Simpson takes a tour
It seems I have found what many parents may consider the holy grail of international primary schools in Hong Kong – a very small and authentic community school with creativity at the core, sharing an impressive campus and the facilities of a school ten times its size. ‘Impossible!’ I hear your cry. But it’s real, I’ve been there and there’s even an artist-inresidence working with the kids on a schoolwide creative project. Here’s the real score – there’s no debenture. The Japanese International School (JIS) is a one form entry only school, meaning there is one small class of 25 students for each year level. This village-sized Primary School in Tai Po offers the Primary Years Programme (PYP), and is led by a PYP trainer and experienced long-term Hong Kong educator, Mr. Simon Walton. Principal Walton leads a happy student body and a passionate, close-knit teaching staff with a kindness and patience that is unique in our bustling and overstimulated city.
A small school with big ideas
With a maximum capacity of a mere 170 children, JIS is a very small international school by Hong Kong standards. “We are a one form entry only school, which makes for a very nice and cosy community”, says Walton. “It’s ideal for parents who don’t want their child in a facility of 900 kids, but prefer to be in a school where everybody is on a first name basis”.
“Wild visitors occasionally infiltrate the school playground from the neighbouring country park”
That sense of authentic community is prevalent as he walks through the school, greeting each and every child by name. We’re stopped along our tour to receive an update from the Student Council as they cleverly deal with a change in lunchtime sports plans. These are confident, resourceful and polite students. “My mandate with the JIS staff is that relationships count”, explains Walton. “We are a small school with big ideas – there’s nothing we can’t do. Over the past few years we’ve taken the nucleus of a very small international school, and nurtured our positive values to grow into a unique school that is now on the map”.
Facilities galore nestled at the edge of a country park
Surrounded by lush greenery, JIS is located in a beautiful setting. Wild visitors occasionally infiltrate the school playground from the neighbouring country park so the school has an official protocol for students when they find a monkey in the playground. Pretty cool stuff if you’re 10 years old. While the thought of a monkey stealing morning tea isn’t exactly heart-warming, it’s a welcome alternative to the concrete jungles which surround many Hong Kong schools. “We are an authentic community school but we are not compromised by having to be in a small building tucked away somewhere”, says Walton. “We’re in a building that has every facility that a proper international school should have, and more, because we have a shared campus with twenty square kilometres of country park across the road. If we want to put on a drama performance we have a lovely auditorium; we have a pool, a field and a gym. We’ve got all the bells and whistles”. So how does such a small school find themselves swimming in such impressive facilities? The Japanese Ministry of Education supplies education for Japanese nationals living overseas, and there are currently four Japanese schools in Hong Kong. The JIS Tai Po campus is the most recent to be allocated by the Hong Kong government (1997) and built by the Japanese Ministry of Education. When the land was allocated for the school, the Japanese Ministry of Education also agreed to host an international school and so JIS Tai Po was born alongside the traditional Japanese primary school on the same campus. While the schools are remarkably different in their approach to education, they are graced with the same world-class facilities.
Leading with creativity
Creativity is at the core of JIS and a personal passion of Principal Walton. The school hosts an annual artist-in-residence who works with the children on a creative arts project. “We run a yearly artist-in-residence program – the arts is huge on my agenda”, says Walton. “In the past we’ve had artists that did sculpture, typography and calligraphy. This year, we have Jacqueline Nilsen, who started the ‘Paint the Music’ movement in Hong Kong. Put simply, she plays music to kids and invites them to let go and paint, to explore their mood and their own creativity. Using this approach, Jacqueline is working with the students on a personalised furniture project”. The arts in all their forms are embraced by the school, with authors visiting for the Hong Kong Children’s Literary Festival and the P6 class hosting a ‘Poetry Café’ event on the morning after my visit. Not only do the students enjoy this creative approach to learning, but the class teachers are also on board. “We’ve been doing the PYP longer than most schools and we do it very well”, explains Walton. “The staff are here because of the type of school that it is. We have positive and like-minded staff, they work in an environment where resourcing, space and support is probably second-to-none.” JIS also offers a huge extracurricular program that covers martial arts, dance, drama, computers, maths, music, an array of sports and more; arranged by a company offshoot of the main school – Sports International Services Ltd.
A conscious and caring community
Like all PYP schools, JIS is committed to teaching students about the importance of community. Understanding this sense of community, and the students’ role in helping others, plays out very practically at the school. JIS has an established history with a less fortunate school in rural China: Guojiashan Friendship Primary School, in Gansu Province. Each new school year, the children inherit an obligation to work with the students in China and help them with facilities and funds. This is a legacy and connection they are very proud of. JIS teachers visit Guojiashan School and liaise with a Hong Kong-based charity to identify their most pressing needs. “We’ve rebuilt the school bit by bit”, says Walton, who has visited the school on numerous occasions. “The children are very supportive of the school, they organise crazy hair days, popcorn days and other sponsored events to raise money.” What is unique and very appealing about JIS is the chance for student-initiated action. Each student has the opportunity to address the school assembly and share the stories of their home countries and regions. Two student siblings who previously lived in Fiji shared the news of the Fiji typhoon and how it had affected their friends. These types of personal interactions among the entire student body are encouraged and happen naturally as part of life at JIS.
One concern for parents interested in this school would be placement for secondary school. JIS is, however, a feeder school into International College Hong Kong (ICHK). The team at JIS were an active part of the creation of ICHK and the schools retain an innate link. For those looking at alternative secondary schools, the team at JIS work with parents to help with the admissions process at other schools too.