By Channy Lee
Thirty years ago, Generations Christian Education (GCE) opened its first school, Small World Christian Kindergarten, to eight students and two teachers. In 2015, Island Christian Academy (ICA) – the newest and fourth school operated by Generations Christian Education – has come to embrace 330 students and 46 staff members. Housed in the historic site of a former YMCA youth hostel, the school at Bridges Street in Sheung Wan is a scene of persistent growth.
“We started with Small World [Christian Kindergarten]. It was a dream about investing in the next generation. It was a dream I personally had,” says Gail Maidment, the Executive Director of GCE. Following Small World, the education group expanded to another kindergarten and a primary school in 2011, Norwegian International School (NIS). The previous sponsors of the school were departing Hong Kong, and the board approached GCE to head their school.
Unlike NIS, Island Christian Academy was GCE’s own initiative. Before establishing a partnership with the Chinese YMCA, an independent initiative meant that new teaching staff were to be recruited and a new curriculum had to be formulated from scratch. The new school was a product of 18 months of planning and research, followed by finding the right site and renovating the space.
ICA has seen substantial growth in its physical size and student population since its opening three years ago, and the school continues to grow. The most recent development is the availability of rooftop space, which is now authorized for use as school space. The school hall has also been newly painted with the school logo. Meanwhile, the school of 90 students in 2013 expanded into a school of 330 students.
“What we’ve been told by educators coming in is that Island Christian Academy has a ‘growth mindset’; our students continue to grow, and our school continues to grow,” says Debbie Middleton, the principal of ICA. Both the principal and the executive director agree that evident growth of its students is what has kept the teaching staff going.
Growth of students
Middleton and Maidment describe future graduates of ICA as true global citizens of the 21st century. The profile of a true global citizen as envisioned by the heads of school is one with a growth mindset. Equipping them with the ability to think outside the box and to be a part of the globalized world, they aim to prepare their students for the future.
With the objective of developing true global citizens, adopting the right curriculum for the school was of foremost importance in planning for ICA. “We knew the curriculum we wanted,” Maidment explains, “We wanted to make it truly international, and with past experiences, we knew the international curriculum that children would gain the most out of.”
Their choice of a foundational curriculum was the International Primary Curriculum (IPC), which focuses on developing academics, international mindedness and personal learning abilities. It stands as the overarching structure for the school’s curriculum and defines the ways in which subjects should be taught, while parts of subject-specific curricula including mathematics from Australia and UK National English with a Biblical worldview integrate into topics taught.
As a part of IPC, students are taught principles and mechanisms of ‘learning’ itself. The curriculum guides students in staying conscious of exactly what they are learning, what skills they have acquired and how they learn best by letting them identify their own skills, understanding and knowledge after every unit. With the comprehensive understanding of the process of learning, students naturally begin to help each other in the process for a synergetic effect. “Children can take responsibility for their own learning journey this way. They start to see how they can learn together,” Maidment points out.
In teaching how learning should be done, Middleton also stresses on the importance of not being afraid of failure in the learning process. The mindset is especially pertinent in Chinese culture that stigmatizes failure, according to the principal. “Many parents have a hard time grasping the concept initially, but we try to instill for the kids that failure is not a failure but a part of learning. We want the kids to think, ‘I’m not able to do it yet, but I will one day.’ There is that power in ‘yet’.”
It is GCE’s philosophy that academic excellence and values formation need to be achieved simultaneously. Setting personal goals is considered to be of equal importance as setting academic goals at ICA, instigating values formation for the school’s students to grow into individuals that care. “We make values a working part of their lives,” Maidment explains. In instances where students demonstrate values such as respect or thoughtfulness, teachers acknowledge them explicitly to endorse the values they should possess and to encourage the same kind of behaviors.
Another part of becoming a caring student at ICA is learning to respect each other’s individuality, while being aware that they are a part of a bigger community. With the premise that each child is unique and that each individual’s own potential should be accounted for, the school has implemented the Individual Needs Program to assign a team of teachers to take care of individual needs while keeping them in one school community, so that they can learn to care about and help with each other’s needs. “I genuinely think that the children care for other people and they care about the world,” Maidment says.
Building a strong school community that connects parents, teachers and students is a part of the same effort. Parents are an integral part of the school as they act as helpers in classes, host school events together and maintain friendly relationships with teachers. The extended school community enables learning outside of school and academic bounds.
“Parents encourage teachers and teachers encourage parents, it forms a strong net that helps us continue to build. The students see their parents involved, seeing the links. I think there’s a really good community here, working together to provide the best education,” Maidment explains.
Still to come
As the senior class gets closer every day to reaching the end of the academic year offered by the school, its management team is actively seeking secondary school expansion opportunities so that Year 6 students can continue their studies at ICA. Whether the senior students become the first graduating class or the first Year 7 students of ICA, Maidment and Middleton anticipate the excitement in seeing the first of many cohorts to come.
Many changes have occurred since the school opened three years ago. It is now internationally recognized as a member of the Council of International Schools, and has moved one step closer to full accreditation of the IPC. With an increasing number of everything – students, nationalities, staff members, and options for extracurricular activities – physical changes to the campus need to be brought along to accommodate the larger numbers as well.
Maidment reiterates how fascinating it has been to witness how things have turned out for both Generations Christian Education and Island Christian Academy. For her, it was an actualization of her optimistic belief in what enthusiastic educators working towards the same vision can achieve. In discussing their upcoming changes and plans, Maidment says, “We had a dream to do this, we have come this far and now we really want to see the rest of our dream happen.”