Hong Kong to get another American school this year, in Tai Po district

The venture, Dubai-based Esol Education’s first in East Asia, will operate a kindergarten and elementary, middle and high schools, and teach Common Core, International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programmes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 4:00am

Another elite international school will open in Hong Kong in September, joining the ranks of foreign operators Harrow and Nord Anglia, which have opened schools in the city in the past four years. The American School Hong Kong (ASHK) will occupy two former school buildings in Tai Po, which are being overhauled for the new tenants.

The school will be run by Esol Education, a Dubai-based group set up by Walid Abushakra in 1976. A Lebanese civil engineer who found his calling in education, he has built up a network of international schools in the Middle East and Mediterranean countries. The Hong Kong school will be Esol Education’s first in East Asia.


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Given the scarcity of American-style schools in Hong Kong, ASHK will be a welcome option for parents considering universities in the US for their children.

The elementary- and middle-school sections of ASHK will follow a curriculum in line with the Common Core standards, an academic benchmark adopted by states in the US to gauge student progress at successive stages of their development. The senior school will offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme and Advanced Placement (AP) – an American college-preparatory curriculum.

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Esol sees its ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers as its greatest strength, says group regional director Bassam Abushakra, the founder’s son.

Currently, its nine international schools employ more than 1,000 teachers , and new staff join the network each year. A team of senior educators is already in place preparing for the Hong Kong school’s opening, and more are being recruited, Abushakra says.

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The school director, an experienced educator in the US system, will be announced ahead of the first semester.

In its first year, ASHK will enrol 200 students up to the elementary level. There will be three classes in the kindergarten section, two classes each in grades 1 and 2, and one class each in grades 3 to 6. Each class will have about 20 students.

Learning Chinese will be mandatory at elementary level. Students can choose to learn the traditional characters used in Hong Kong, but lessons will be conducted in Putonghua rather than Cantonese.

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be adopted as a benchmark for student achievement in the sciences.

Like many top schools in the US northeast, ASHK is accredited with the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and will adopt the Common Core standards used by the state of New York, which are among the country’s most challenging.

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Although it will be guided by these attainment goals, the school aims to maintain flexibility in preparing students for the AP and IB, Abushakra says. The elementary curriculum will take an inquiry-based and cross-disciplinary approach, similar to the IB Primary Years Programme.

The focus of teaching will be on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) education, which values the arts as much as the sciences.

ASHK is not obliged to subject students to Common Core standardised testing, which has been controversial in the US. However, three tests based on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) system will be administered annually to track students’ progress.

The school’s goal is to produce well-rounded students who will not only excel in examinations but also think broadly and holistically, connecting different areas of knowledge, Abushakra says.

“We will focus on project work and use real-life events as discussion points. For example, through Volkswagen’s recent lawsuit over fraud, we can teach concepts like honesty, credibility, as well as topics in environmental science.”

When its first batch of sixth-graders graduates next year, ASHK will add classes in grades 7 and 8. From 2018, another grade will be added each year until there are classes up to grade 12, the last year of high school.

By 2021, the school is expected to reach its capacity of about 950 students, with 550 in elementary and middle school and 400 in high school.

About 80 per cent of places will be allocated to foreign passport holders – including Cantonese speakers with foreign citizenship ; the remaining places will go to local students.

Information sessions held in the past two months have attracted hundreds of parents, about 65 per cent of them expatriates. Many parents from China have made inquiries at the school, with some expressing interest in purchasing property in Tai Po to facilitate their children’s enrolment.

A rolling admissions process has already begun for the first intakes, consisting of an interview for kindergarten applicants and additional MAP-based tests of English and mathematics for elementary school applicants. Director of admissions Mary Ewing has received more than 100 applications.

We value the energy, work ethic and widespread knowledge of English here. We believe Hong Kong is not only a gateway to China but to all of Asia.
Bassam Abushakra

The main criterion for acceptance is that students should be able to tackle the school’s rigorous curriculum, Abushakra says. But rather than picking only the most gifted, he hopes to draw a wide range of students to the school.

“We value ourselves by the progress individual students make,” he says. “If our students are all brilliant when they come and do well, it doesn’t say much about the value we add as educators.”

Company and family debentures (set at HK$600,000 for individuals and HK$3 million for companies) will not be compulsory, but academically qualified students nominated by debenture holders will have priority in admissions.

Debenture payments will be used to offset the HK$120 million spent to overhaul and outfit the school buildings to international standards, and replace all the pipework following the scare last summer about lead contamination of the water supply at several schools.

Abushakra says Esol chose Hong Kong over centres such as Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore as the location for its first school in the region because of the dynamism of the city’s education and business landscape.

“Hong Kong is a leading hub in Asia and has a high-quality international school system. It is cosmopolitan, diverse, and efficient, and we value the energy, work ethic and widespread knowledge of English here,” he says. “We believe Hong Kong is not only a gateway to China but to all of Asia.”