Sprout it from the rooftop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


It's simply called Green School (without 'the'). The name, imposed over stylised bamboo shoots on its logo, even links the two words together. Nestled in rainforest beside a burbling river in Bali, this is an international school with a difference. Its main campus building, dubbed the Bamboo Cathedral, is made almost entirely of palm thatch and bamboo, but it houses a library, computer room, art and other facilities that any good international school would have.

I've brought my children to attend one of its green camps. After I say goodbye to them, Ben Macrory, the school's head of communications, shows me round. He has conducted 1,600 tours since the school opened in 2008, and the practice shows: he talks quickly, and packs each sentence with information ranging from the expected (the school started with 90 students and now has 250) to the esoteric (the giant bamboos foundations are treated with a boric acid solution to protect them from termites and powder-post beetles; the school also employs a full-time bamboo carver).

Much of his introduction, however, pays homage to the school's founders, Canadian entrepreneur John Hardy and his wife Cynthia, who moved to Bali in the '70s and made their fortune in making high-end jewellery, primarily silver and gems. At its peak, the company had 800 workers and was one of the largest employers on the island. The Hardys sold their business just before the 2008 economic crisis and set up the school on an idyllic spot midway between Denpasar and Ubud as a way to 'give back' to Bali. Their vision was to build a progressive school that would draw on the lessons of nature and the marketplace to educate children to become creative global citizens.

John Hardy wanted to make the school fully sustainable. When he couldn't find expertise in bamboo architecture that he wanted in Bali, he hired a German architect who had been working the rainforest of Colombia, and then established a company, P.T. Bamboo Pure, to build and furnish the school.

The school boasts a stream of initiatives that would impress any environmentally minded parent, including an organic garden where the children grow their own vegetables and a biogas facility that turns manure into methane for power generation. Electricity also comes from 108 solar panels, sponsored by French renewable-energy developer Akuo, and the company is funding small hydro-electric systems that are expected to be operational within a few months.

Conor McMullan, the school's Green Camp manager, concedes it does get noisy in the classrooms when heavy rain falls on the thatched palm roofs, but students are used to it. Their computers are put away in an airtight cabinet every evening, but humidity does take a toll, so there are plans to develop a solar-powered air-conditioned room to house the equipment most sensitive to the elements.

Not surprisingly, the Green School curriculum is couched in an environmental context, but Macrory says they don't neglect traditional subjects. Administrators had been considering whether to apply for International Baccalaureate accreditation, but eventually decided against it. Instead, the learning programme is a mix of major standards that Macrory calls a 'green Bacc'.

Students at high school level use the Cambridge international programme, which gives them the option of sitting for IGCSE and A-Level exams. However, learning manager Alan Wagstaff is steering the school towards a student-centred approach that connects academic learning to the natural world as much as possible through integrated themes.

There's no shortage of idealism among staff, parents and students, Macrory says, 'but at the end of the day, there is the pragmatic core: give the students a good education'.

Teachers and students come from all over. The eight students in the boarding programme come from Jakarta, Singapore, New Zealand, India and the United States. There are also 18 students, mostly Balinese, who are in the scholarship programme for Indonesian children.

With annual fees ranging from US$6,000 at the kindergarten level, to US$12,000 for senior school, the tuition costs are on par with international schools in Hong Kong. Even so, Macrory says they are only close to breaking even financially. Money-makers such as the Green Camps that are held throughout the year help cover costs. There are weekend family camps, customised camps for school groups, and week-long holiday camps, where children get to plant rice in the surrounding paddies, make chocolate using cocoa straight from the pod, and learn Balinese martial arts.

The school has drawn plenty of international attention, and among the celebrity donors and supporters are illusionist David Copperfield, entrepreneur Richard Branson and fashion designer Donna Karan, who sponsors three students from Bali.

Parents who enrol their children here tend to have less conventional perspectives, too, Macrory says. 'Many are creative types: spiritual pilgrims, healers, consultants, writers - those who can do business with a laptop and a cellphone.'

Asher Yaron, an American who moved to Bali two years ago to set up a coffee business, is a typical Green School parent.

'Mainstream schools teach their students to think inside the box. In fact, they are boxes. Green School is not like that,' he says. 'We're challenging everything.'

Yaron has a daughter in Grade Two and seems satisfied with her education: '[Mainstream] schools are teaching children how to work for companies. At Green School, the students are learning about entrepreneurship. You won't find the old paradigm here.'

The typical Friday afternoon assembly I attended involved performances by all grades. The grade threes made a mandala of flower petals, and then took turns telling a story they had written using the Indonesian shadow puppets they had made in art class, combined with sun salutations and other yoga moves.

But anyone who thought this was all too far out for a 'real' school saw the grade five students stick to a more conventional theme by acting out their own skit on ancient Rome.

The school has an active green committee made up of staff, parents, local representatives and Hardy, himself. Together, they have launched a variety of sustainability projects that may eventually prove to be money-makers. But for now, they provide an inspiring learning environment. For instance, it is working with the Begawan Foundation on an endangered bird breeding programme, and its mud-wrestling arena is designed to be the cultural incubator for a Balinese martial art called Mepantigan.

McMullan says they hope the Green School model will one day become a standard for education that can be adapted to any climatic region or environment anywhere. It's a good dream. I hope my own children - OK, my grandchildren - can learn to live it, too.