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Foreign school has bilingual advantage

Update: June, 10/2013 - 10:34
Mark Fenwick
It is possible to give children quality education with greater exposure while not loosing touch with their native language or culture. Mark Fenwick, head of the Canadian International School system in Viet Nam, tells Viet Nam News reporter Thu Ngan

What were the factors that influenced your decision to come to Viet Nam?

This was an opportunity to be part of a new school being developed in Viet Nam, so that was an attraction. The inclusive philosophy of the school to provide an international quality education to both national and foreign students was also very exciting. As a school leader, I am still a teacher at heart and the students here in Viet Nam are a delight to teach.

My wife, who is teaching English as a Second Language at the school, loves the students here and their supportive parents. And then of course there is the adventure of living and travelling in Southeast Asia, especially Viet Nam.

What are your expansion plans for Viet Nam?

Viet Nam has a thriving, dynamic economy and more parents now have the financial resources to consider choices in education for their children. We know how committed our parents are to ensuring that their children will acquire an international education that will make them global citizens with 21st century learning skills. The Vietnamese people are friendly, welcoming, generous and helpful. In my three years here it has been a wonderful country in which to work, live and travel.

CIS in Viet Nam has two locations. One in Phu My Hung and one in Binh Chanh District, enrolling 1,300 students from 30 nations and territories.

Our modern campus in Phu My Hung will house all programmes in state-of-the-art facilities in 2013, including a sports arena and aquatics complex. We expect our enrolment will grow to 2,500 students over the next three years. We are making plans to open a second location of the international program in Ha Noi and launching a Viet Nam - Canada Boarding School (VCBS) in HCMC this September.

What are the advantages of studying in a foreign school in Viet Nam compared to studying abroad?

Our students have been learning in a multi-cultural, international environment, so it has not been a homogeneous, one-culture environment. While maintaining their commitment to their own culture and heritage when living and studying in Viet Nam, students will have some exposure to other ways to look and think about things. They are going to have an awareness of expectations and standards that they will have to meet when they study abroad.

We have a partnership with the District School Board of Niagara, so our students who are applying to go international already have a process and a support network set up both here in Viet Nam and in Canada.

How would you respond to concerns that studying in an international school distances children from their Vietnamese roots, even to the extent of losing proficiency in their mother tongue?

Our system is doing something to address this concern and to provide parents with real choices. The decision to study in an international school is a really important decision for a family to make. I think it really begins with the ultimate goal that the families have for their children. And it also begins with the respect for culture and heritage. All families obviously want their children to be absolutely fluent in their mother tongue and to have a real knowledge and respect for their own culture and history.

In our bilingual program (BCIS), students are going to spend approximately 50 per cent of their day in their native language in a variety of subject areas so that when they graduate, they have met the requirements of the department of education for a Vietnamese diploma, which is granted by the Ministry of Education and Training. The other half will be spent in developing a high level of fluency in English that will allow them to graduate as bilingual students and to have some choices about where they might apply for post-secondary education.

In our international program (CIS), it's English all day with one exception. If you're a Vietnamese student, you'll study Vietnamese language and culture for 40 minutes every day. And if you are a foreign student, you would study French. So the decision about which program is most appropriate depends really on a family's decision about their son or daughter's fluency and knowledge of their own language and culture and at what point if any is a transition to the international program appropriate.

Because we have the two programs in the same system, parents can make the transition from one program to the other quite easily.

In the current years, international schools have been mushrooming in Viet Nam. However, there are reports that not many of them can really reach international standards. What would be your advice to Vietnamese parents about choosing a suitable school for their children?

Visit the school and tour the facilities, observe classes in action, talk with a teacher at the grade level for your child, meet with the principal, ask other parents about the experience their children are having both in and out of the classroom. People, program, facilities, in that order.

The teachers' relationship with the students is critical for them to be excited about and engaged in their own learning. At the same time, we know the teachers are also nurturing relationships between and among students. You know, we often say in education, the school and even the classroom is like family. It is an exaggeration but it's intended to make a point about developing a sense of community in any learning environment. This is really critical for kids to feel valued and to feel really that they are having some success in what they're learning.

What role do you see foreign schools playing in Vietnamese education? What are the pitfalls that should be avoided, in your opinion?

Foreign schools are playing a role at a couple of levels. At a family level, they are providing parents with choices and opportunities that possibly the public system cannot provide right now because it is a developing, complex national system and change takes time. Secondly, the participation of educators from around the world provides good opportunities for conversation and dialogue with educators here in Viet Nam.

I was part of an education panel last year, and the majority of presenters on it were well respected educators here in Viet Nam. We recognise that we have something to learn from one another. No particular educational system has all the answers. And we're all at different places in a continuum of learning from one another, so it really is a global conversation. I see international education here in Viet Nam as a catalyst for the development of quality education whether it's public or private, whether it's international or national because there's a new version of international schools that are more inclusive of the national population, it's no longer just for foreigners.

How can Viet Nam manage foreign educational institutions in the country? How can the Government facilitate their activities and what should it do to prevent possible problems? In my limited experience, respectful partnerships and collaborative, legal agreements based on best practices are essential to ensure accountability, transparency and excellence.

As an example, at our school, because of the agreement with the education ministry here in Viet Nam, we are committed to having 40 minutes every day of Vietnamese language and culture, and in the secondary program, the high school students are required to complete three full courses in Vietnamese as well to complete our diploma requirements. — VNS

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