More Americans Marching Toward Global Learning Model
Chris Butler and her husband, both Americans, have an 8-year-old and 10-year-old enrolled at the British School of Washington, and their youngest, now 2, will start there in January.
“If the British School of Washington were a person, I would de–scribe it as a warm, simple person of high moral character, who valued intellectual development to the extent that it made them a better world citizen,” said Butler.
Butler offered a parent’s perspective on the popular D.C. private school, as well as on the larger educational enterprise it inspired, the British Schools of America — both of which are enjoying a growth spurt.
What began as the British School of Washington (BSW) in 1998 has since branched into the British Schools of America (BSA), which now has more than 2,000 students in four U.S. cities in addition to Washington: Boston, Chicago, Houston, and Charlotte, N.C. The system also has plans to eventually expand into a total of 20 cities throughout the United States.
The British model of learning is clearly attracting American attention. For instance, one student at the British School of Chicago made headlines last fall when he took a college-level Advanced Placement (AP) exam while in the eighth grade — four years early — and got a perfect score. Also raising eyebrows — though not for the same positive reasons — is the British Schools’ for-profit model, hefty tuition, and absence of financial aid or scholarships.
The financial obstacles though don’t seem to be hurting enrollment, as parents flock to the BSA model of learning and its global curriculum, which draws on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program but is based on the National Curriculum of England. To that end, all of the faculty working in the United States must be certified in the United Kingdom, so the majority of teachers are British — another plus for many Americans.
“I’ll bet you that if you ask any BSW parent to name the greatest strength of the school, their answer will be the quality of the teaching staff. Year after year my children have had happy, successful classroom experiences,” Butler said. “The strong teaching staff has been a stabilizing force during the ups and downs of the school’s changes over the past couple years.”
Those changes have primarily involved moving from BSW’s original 16th Street location to a larger building in Georgetown. “A lot of families like the interactions between the students and the teachers. They’re fantastic — very dedicated,” added Lucy Wall, director of admissions for the British School of Washington, who noted that the school provides new faculty with furnished apartments or housing allowances to help them settle in.
An American by birth, Wall also thinks families favor the school’s skills-based approach to learning, which emphasizes intellectual curiosity and enjoyment, as well as research, planning, and activities such as essay writing and cross-disciplinary projects more than “the knowledge-based American system,” which can place greater emphasis on facts and specifics.
Students— who range from age 3 to 18 — are grouped not by grades but by two-year “stages,” and there are two sites for primary and secondary education levels. The core subjects at all levels are English, math and science. Other subjects in the curriculum include art and design, history, geography, foreign languages, social and health education, citizenship, drama and music, among others.
Work is individualized and there are periodic tests that in part follow the testing system in England. Older students in particular have a lot of flexibility in building different study tracks around the required core, Wall explained. For example, from the ninth grade on, the core requirements include French and at least two sciences, while a third study program is optional, so students can select tracks such as geography, physical education and music, or Latin, history and drama.
Learning at the school is also “topic based,” that is, organized around broad themes that bring together different disciplines. “For example, the year three children, second graders, this year studied a unit on chocolate, which included an examination of ancient Mayan and Aztec culture, the ‘chemistry’ of cooking with chocolate, and rainforest issues — the animals that live there, the plants that grow there, the benefits to our planet from sustaining the rainforests, and the ecological impact of compromising the future of the South American rainforests in particular,” Butler explained.
This unique approach to learning appeals especially to international families — including many area diplomats — because it makes it easier for global children to transfer from school to school, Wall said, noting that education systems in a number of countries are based on the British model.
Currently, about half of BSW students are American, 27 percent are British, and the rest come from 40 other countries, with relatively large contingents from the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
Butler praised BSW’s international ethos. “In our first year, our first day of school there … was Sept. 11, 2001, and our children had been very confused about what was going on,” she recalled. “Many of the parents at the school are [internationally employed], so this is a particularly aware group of young children. I was very glad my son had a Muslim teacher that year, since it put a human face on Islam as they tried to make sense of such a frightening tragedy.”
Although the National Curriculum of England includes religious education, the British School of Washington does not offer religious teachings per se, but rather it tackles academic — not devotional — topics related to all religions.
The average class size is about 20 students and the school has approximately 300 pupils. Yearly tuition at the British School of Washington ranges from the nursery school’s ,440 for half a day, to ,475 per year during the final two years of high school.
As for the lack of financial aid and its possible negative impact on admissions and class diversity, Wall replied: “We do have a range of students. Some of our families are very well off, some are making a choice to invest in their children’s education, and many international companies and organizations assist employees with school costs. That includes many of the embassies, the World Bank, other international organizations. They consider education expenses to be part of the cost of relocating families.”
British School of Washington 2001 Wisconsin Ave., NW (202) 829-3700 www.britishschool.org firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.