The American International School of Budapest (AISB) is a private and independent co-educational English-language day school located on a large campus in Nagykovácsi, some 15kms northeast of Budapest. As recruitment season gets under way for the next academic year The Budapest Times spoke with AISB Director Ray Holliday about the advantages of attending international schools, AISB’s prospects at a time of economic crisis and about his seven years at the head of the school.
AISB marks 40 years this year, making it presumably the oldest still existing international school in Budapest. At the time it was set up for US embassy families. Presumably the mix is now more “international” than “American”?
Very much so. The school started in 1973 in a flat on the Pest side of the river with about a dozen students and remained a school which operated under the auspices of the US Embassy until November 1998. Up until then there was definitely a high percentage of American students.
The opening up of Hungary from 1989 onwards increased investment in Hungary and many expats came into the country. Accession to the EU in 2004 further impacted the nature of the school. What we have now is a student population where the Americans and the Hungarians are the two highest percentages, about 20 per cent each, with the rest made up of students from some 54 other countries including 9 per cent from South Korea, 8 per cent from China, 4 per cent from the Netherlands, 3 per cent from the UK, 3 per cent Israeli, etc. So we do have a very strong international perspective compared to our beginnings.
You describe yourself as offering an international curriculum based upon the best practices of American pedagogy. What does that mean in practice?
The American pedagogy is based on hands-on learning, where the emphasis is on creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and the use of technology tools as a way of learning. In several European cultures the basis has been on learning by memory and reproduction of facts learned by heart. The American approach is based on critical thinking and students using their knowledge to solve a new situation. That can be quite a different approach.
In terms of what the students actually learn, many of the subjects are the same in elementary and middle school as one would find in a Hungarian curriculum.
In the high school, we prepare students for two qualifications. All students prepare the American High School Diploma, which is based on an internally assessed performance in all the subjects in grades 9-12. Students attain AISB credits in the different subjects they do in 11th and 12th grade.
We also prepare students for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. The IB diploma is a broad based curriculum consisting of six different subjects which are completed in grades 11 and 12. Students passing IB courses are given AISB credit for these courses as well. IB courses are externally assessed and recognised in most countries as being a university entrance qualification. Around 66 per cent of our students complete the IB diploma. Depending on their personal university needs or their English language abilities another 25 per cent prepare a number of the IB certificates.
How does the school handle the challenge of dealing with a student body that is made up of different nationalities, with different English abilities and expectations of what a school should deliver?
70 per cent of our students are non-mother tongue English speakers with varied levels of ability in English and as part of our policy we accept students without any English right up to 6th grade. The language support is through the English as an Additional Language (EAL) programme, where a specialist teacher attached to each grade works with the students in small groups for 30 per cent of the time. In the main class the teacher and other children also help out those students. This creates an environment where children’s English ability rapidly increases. It’s a successful model in many international schools. The number of students in class is also important. Maximum class size in elementary and middle school is 18, and substantially reduced numbers in EAL groups.
Has the economic crisis affected your enrolment?
No. We currently have 865 students. The history of this school shows only one year during which there was a decline in enrolment, and this coincided with the opening of the Japanese school. There has been a small growth every year. This falls in line with what is happening in international schools throughout the world where there has been growth in spite of the global financial crisis.
When I came seven years ago I was given the task of leading AISB through the construction of a new elementary school so that we could unify the school on one campus. We developed the blueprint for this campus for a 1,000 student school, with the expectation that we would be aiming for 900 students by 2015.
We are continuously growing and all the signs are that we will increase again next year. We’ve now started to hit a new problem with waiting lists in two or three grades, and other grades reaching maximum capacity.
What does AISB have to offer over Budapest’s other international schools to expat and Hungarian parents looking to send their children to a non-Hungarian school?
We give what we could call a holistic approach to education, not just academic but also a physical and emotional programme. We have an excellent student-teacher ratio and a very strong success in the IB. The programmes for students – for example our hands-on learning approach, critical thinking and the technology that we integrate – really provide education for the 21st century. We also have very much a student-centred approach, tailored to each student depending on his/her language needs and abilities.
We have extensive facilities on a 13.1 hectare site. We have three soccer fields, a six-lane athletics track, a swimming pool, a theatre, a black box, several science labs, art rooms, music rooms, drama and dance areas. So it’s an impressive campus.
We have an excellent after school activities programme where students in all divisions have a wide choice of activities. For students in middle and high school we are part of the CEESA Competitions (Central and Eastern European Schools’ Association) within which we have many sports and activities (soccer, athletics, basketball, cross-country drama, music meets, Mathcounts).
I have also heard that community service is part of the mix…
Yes. Our students are also involved in service-learning programs which include a refugee centre and a school for the partially sighted in Budapest as well as orphanages in Budapest and Romania. This service learning concept is very important. We aim to have our students make a strong contribution to society. All will go on to be leaders in their chosen activity, because that’s the nature of international schools.
However, we also want them to develop a real, deep-seated sense of service learning so that, when they go out into the world as young adults they will take with them this understanding and will actively try to make the world a better place within their sphere of influence. For me, this concept makes a tremendous impact on young people.
Looking back on your almost seven years as Director of AISB, what are you most proud of?
There are many things. When I joined this school I was given the remit of consolidating the school onto one campus, developing the mission, vision and values of the school and developing the school’s first strategic plan. I am delighted with the way that the school has developed in terms of educational programmes, of what we offer students and of this dual development of the academic programmes with a service-learning component. It is the answer to the two key parts of our mission which are encompassed in the words global citizenship and academic excellence. However, I must emphasise that it’s a team effort. The sense of being part of a team is absolutely essential for the success of the school and I’m happy to have been able to help generate and implement this concept of the power of group thinking and group action.