Green Shoots International School: Standing Out From the Crowd

In 1924 the world’s first international school opened its doors to students in Geneva to serve the newly formed League of Nations. It was another 23 years before the second, this time serving the League’s successor, the United Nations, did the same in New York. The peace and prosperity brought by these global institutions helped fuel exponential growth in international travel and business and, subsequently, a thriving international school industry. Last year, the International School Consultancy estimated that there are now almost 10,000 English-medium schools around the world educating over nine million children and drawing almost US$50 billion in tuition fees. In this increasingly crowded field, it can be difficult to stand out, but one tenacious little school in central Vietnam is doing just that.

Green Shoots International School, the ‘barefoot school by the beach’, was formed in 2012 by Catherine McKinley, who has lived and worked in Vietnam for 20 years. A passion for her children’s education combined with a desire to see them grow amidst the beauty and tranquility of the historic seaside town of Hoi An as she build the school around a single core tenet: Respect. She and her leadership team know that the best way for children to discover a love of learning for life is by first learning to love and respect themselves and then add an understanding of the equal importance of respect for others and for our world.

Green Shoots is living proof that, given the right opportunities, children can become happy, mindful and creative thinkers committed to the betterment of the world around them. Indeed, the school’s focus on student welfare is so entrenched that a recent survey found an astounding 100% of parents and 97% of students believe it is a friendly and welcoming place to learn.

This unique school also emphasises sustainability, which is written into its strategic planning process and permeates not only the classroom but every aspect of operation from staff development and financial management to resource use and menu creation. Students learn through actions such as judging their appetite before filling their plate and upcycling classroom waste that sustainable living extends far beyond reusing paper and carrying a tote bag. They learn that it filters into all aspects of our lives, both individually and as a society.

Catherine and her inaugural principal, Sue Ryan, believe passionately in the need for mankind to limit it resource use and ensure that there is ‘enough for all for now and forever’ and these two pioneering women know firsthand how resources can be used sparingly to reach a long-term sustainable goal: In this era of multi-million dollar investment in schools, Green Shoots breathed its first breath on the back of a mere $50,000, Catherine’s entire personal savings, which the pair used to rent and equip their first building and hire their first staff.

Because Green Shoots does not yet have external investors it has been able to develop as Catherine, Sue, and Green Shoots’ current Head of School, Dave Porter, believe best suits the needs of its stakeholders – students – without also having to consider the needs of shareholders. This freedom was invaluable during its start-up phase as the school has formed its unique identity, and now makes it an attractive prospect for investors seeking something fresh and exciting in this jostling global marketplace.

From its humble beginnings (the school opened its doors with two kindergarten classes and only a dozen children), Green Shoots now educates over 100 students from 2 to 16 years old using the British National and Cambridge curricula. Unique in this part of Vietnam, it also offers a bilingual French programme that supports first-language French speakers as they maintain their mother tongue and build English language skills with an international perspective. Foreign-language French together with First and Foreign-language Vietnamese are also offered, as are specialist music, art, sport and drama classes. The school has highly qualified Special Education, counselling and English language support staff on its team to ensure that all enrolled students benefit fully from the unique Green Shoots learning experience.

Green Shoots focuses on quality across the board, not only in curriculum and learning, but also in areas such as staff and student wellbeing, sustainable professional and commercial practice, and student and community support services. It is constantly treading the path of improvement and seeking ways to measure its progress against international standards. The school was assessed and approved for membership of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) in 2015 and a year later became an accredited member of, and registered exam centre for, Cambridge International Assessment Education (CIE). It is currently under consideration for membership of the Council of International Schools (CIS) and expects to join this worldwide standard-setting body in 2019.

Always punching above its featherweight size, Green Shoots pushes on with new ideas and new connections. It has attracted visiting professionals from around the world and built a network of international partner organizations. In 2015 students attended the Global Issues Network (GIN) meeting in Bali and this summer a new cohort will take part in an exchange project with students from Sweden. Its students raise funds for local child-centered charities and its Earth Ambassadors advocate for sustainable practice by local businesses. The Extra Curricular Programme offers children attending the school and in the wider community the chance to try new activities, such as martial arts and Japanese folk dancing, and to pursue their passions with like minded friends, in classes like robotics and yoga.

Green Shoots’ staff of nearly 50 professionals includes 18 expatriate faculty members with an average of 15 years’ experience each. All are fully certified practitioners and over half hold postgraduate qualifications. They are aided by a team of Vietnamese classroom assistants, most of whom also hold teaching qualifications. Extremely high staff retention levels demonstrate the strong commitment faculty members feel toward this distinctive little school and their commitment, coupled with Green Shoots’ experienced and inspirational leadership (Dave brought with him three decades of school leadership experience and a host of energising ideas), offers a high level of continuity for students and their families.

The value of that teaching continuity and leadership commitment is borne out in the school’s academic results. Charlotte, who graduated in 2017 and is now completing her International Baccalaureate (IB) in Ho Chi Minh City, left Green Shoots having won the highest IGCSE score in Vietnam in the study of Environmental Management. Nestor, who will graduate this summer, sat his German Foreign Language IGCSE exam a year earlier than necessary and still came away with a similar ‘Best in Country’ award from Cambridge.

As a young school, Green Shoots has few alumni, but those who have completed their IGCSE exams here are already continuing their education in the US, Australia, Thailand, Japan and the UK. This year’s graduates will add Malaysia and Canada to that list. Two former students, Theo and Kai, won scholarship-supported places at prestigious United World Colleges where they are now studying their International Baccalaureate amid scholars from around the world. By navigating the rigorous selection procedure that the colleges use, these students proved that they are not only worthy scholars but also possess an international mindset and strong ethical centre. Charlotte’s schooling at Green Shoots, and her experience as a Third Culture Kid in Hoi An, was transformed into a TED-X talk that she delivered last year before the acclaimed film producer, Lord David Puttnam.

All of this magic currently happens in a higgledy piggledy complex of converted residential buildings nestled among the lanes of Hoi An, which combine to make a campus comprising eight separate buildings and a variety of hands-on, creative outside play and sporting spaces. Light and airy classrooms are complemented by specialist rooms for Art, Music, French, Learning Support, EAL, ICT and a library.

But Catherine and her team are not content to stop here. They are confident that Green Shoots can and will be central Vietnam’s premier international school, and with that goal in mind have developed plans for a much larger sustainable campus between Hoi An and Da Nang that will offer a standard of educational infrastructure not yet available in the central region. Once built, it will greatly increase Green Shoots’ ability to meet the needs of the region’s fast-growing expatriate and middle-class Vietnamese community whilst also expanding its range of services.

Looking back on all that they have learned in the seven years since Green Shoots’ birth, these energetic and driven educators know they still have a lot to do. But like the children they nurture, they are committed to the idea of learning for life and looking forward to the next stage of their young community’s growth.

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