The Exhilaration of Overseas Leadership

Former U.S. superintendents find directing international schools is a chance to influence child development minus the ties that bind by Gilbert C. Brown

The quip by Gross, now a regional education officer of the State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools, was echoed in other ways by Sherry Miller, who spent six years as superintendent of the 1,000-student School District 1 West in Ranchester, Wyo., covering 1,400 square miles with five school buildings.


After she assumed the top administrative post at the Maya School in Guatemala in August 1999, Miller says for the first time in her professional life, “I felt I was part of something much bigger — the world!”

SherryMillerSherry Miller (third from left), formerly the top administrator at the Maya School in Guatemala, with students in Tecpán, Guatemala.

Choosing an international lifestyle alongside motivated parents and fellow educators has added a zest to her leadership work that is becoming harder to experience back in the states, she adds. “There’s a spirit of looking for adventure and making the world a better place, of being an ambassador for whatever country of which you are a citizen — all of us together!”

Independent Operations
Other expatriates now heading American international schools use terms such as “exhilaration” and “a sense of freedom” to capture their positive overseas experiences.

“Making the transition was exhilarating and challenging,” says Mary Seppala, who formerly worked as superintendent of the Lee-Tyringham School District in Lee County, Mass. She now heads the Munich International School in Germany, which enrolls 1,270 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

“It was refreshing to enter an international school organization that clearly articulated holistic education as a value when, at that time, No Child Left Behind was interpreted to mean No Superintendent Left Standing! My board and community (in Munich) provided me the resources to support the high-quality education we all desired,” Seppala adds. “Getting into international education allowed me to make the shift from superintendent back to instructional leader.”

EdwardGreeneEd Greene, once a magnet school principal in Chattanooga, Tenn., directs the International School of Amsterdam.

Ed Greene, head of the International School of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, says independence is the word that comes to mind immediately when comparing his leadership activities abroad with those in U.S. public schools. He was a district supervisor of languages and a principal of a magnet high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., as well as the executive director of Louisiana State University’s Laboratory School.

“I felt a sense of freedom knowing that the problems I faced as the leader of my school were of our own making and could be solved with our own resources,” Greene explains. “In the U.S., I was bracketed between well-intended, poorly-constructed programs such as NCLB and the oft-abused value-added assessment movement. I am painfully aware of the privilege we overseas educators in independent international schools enjoy beyond the cold reach of such movements.”

Opportunities Vary
More than 500 independent, community-founded, owned and governed nonprofit American international schools are operating in almost every country on the world map. Established by Americans, host-country citizens and other international residents, these schools have existed since the latter part of the 19th century, although most were founded as American interests spread in the aftermath of World War II. New ones continue to appear, most frequently now on the Asian continent.

Founded on the model of the U.S. public school, most are governed by a school board of trustees elected by the parents whose children are enrolled. Almost all are incorporated in the country in which they are located. Many also have U.S. incorporation status as nonprofit educational institutions.

The American international schools vary in size as well as in curricula. The smallest of these community-type schools have a few dozen students or even fewer — Kolkata, India, with seven students this year, is the tiniest. Others small operations are in Reykjavik, Iceland (37 students); Monrovia, Liberia (40); and Libreville, Gabon (50). The largest American schools are Singapore International School (3,800 students); Shanghai American School in China (2,900); and Hong Kong International School (2,640).

Tuition is the main source of income. Very few schools have outside support or endowments from which operating funds may be drawn. They depend on tuition generated by enrollment. Budgets must fit locally generated sources. About 190 of these schools receive minor support as sponsored schools of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Overseas Schools, but State Department support is less than 2 percent of these schools’ operating budgets.

These independent schools are not allied with the Department of Defense Education Activity’s worldwide military dependent school system. One of the DoDEA’s schools, in Bahrain, is a hybrid in its governing structure, similar to independent American schools enrolling international students.

English Prevails
Most American international schools are accredited by the U.S. accrediting commissions, including the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Middle States Association, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Other international accrediting associations also evaluate these schools, such as the Council of International Schools. Many of the American-type schools, particularly in the American republics but elsewhere as well, are recognized and accredited by the host country’s ministry of education as being the equivalent of any national school. These schools are binational, as well as bilingual and bicultural.

American international schools also can be found in every English-speaking nation, including Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, Liberia, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Parents seek the education these schools have to offer, wherever the school may be found, for much more than just English language development.

English is the principal language of instruction. However, the flexibility of the curricula blends the best of the United States with that of the host and other nations. Couple this with the independence of each school to respond directly to parent and student needs — a hallmark that has attracted families to enroll children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren over the generations.

Many schools offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme and the College Entrance Examination Board’s Advanced Placement Programme. Some also subscribe to the IB’s Primary Years Program and to its Middle Years Programme. Although accurate statistics are not available, a safe estimate would be that more than 90 percent of international school graduates go on to university education, but not all in the United States. Nonetheless, almost all schools have counselors who assist students with college admissions, including finding scholarship support.

Student Bodies
Although American citizens founded these schools, almost no international school today has a majority of U.S. citizens in its student body. The typical school enrollment is composed of students from around the globe. Parents of all nations seek these schools not solely for the English, basic language of instruction and the lingua franca of the playground, but perhaps even more so for the typical democratic structure of teaching in the American classroom with emphasis on higher-order thinking skills and self-discovery.

In large cities and capitals of countries, a higher number of children of diplomatic personnel may be enrolled, along with children of an international class of management and executive employees of multinational corporations.

Many students also are drawn from the local community. In fact, some American community schools in the American republics have student bodies composed almost entirely of host country nationals. The local students tend to remain in the school, many from kindergarten through graduation, while diplomatic and business personnel children are more mobile, even transferring from one international school to another, or returning to the United States or their home countries when their parents’ tours have terminated.

Almost all schools attempt to attract a cross-section of all socioeconomic classes by providing scholarship and other support for school fees where needed. At the moment, the two-parent family is more common, although recently these demographics have begun to reflect similar trends of single-parent families found in the United States.

The schools support each other through membership in eight regional and worldwide associations. The global organization, the Association for the Advancement of International Education, is a coordinating association whose board is composed of representatives of the regional associations.

The programs of the regional associations respond to the needs of their memberships. They provide for teacher, administrator and school board development, school interchanges, interscholastic athletics, workshops for students in leadership and the performing arts, and curriculum and material exchanges among professional staff via state-of-the-art electronic communication.

Playing Parent
But the American international school is hardly a Camelot or Shangri-la. David Ottaviano, a former superintendent in Mine Hill, Mendham and Highland Park, N.J., who now runs the American school in Bucharest, Romania, states, “I have found that managing an American school overseas requires many of the same skills as managing a school district with a few exceptions. Both have some form of school board, both require ethical, moral and charismatic leadership. However these have to be deeper.

“In the U.S., you have support services to assist you; more external supports exist for you and your employees. These supports, such as social service, are not readily available overseas, and when they are they take a different form,” Ottaviano says. “In the foreign environment, you are often the father, mother, counselor and physician for your staff. On weekends, you are making hospital visits or helping people navigate a foreign system. You become the business manager at times. You survive by your enrollment — no students, no income and no employees!”

Ottaviano, who also has run schools in Serbia, Italy and Japan, points to the pressure of the constant testing of one’s loyalty to the United States and democratic ideals. “As a most visible overseas American, you are oftentimes the first point of contact for people of other nationalities,” he says.

When the United States is not well- regarded by the local population, the school’s head often confronts problems navigating in such an environment. “It is a test of one’s values and diplomatic skills,” Ottaviano says.

Robert Werner, who heads the 850-student American School of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and formerly served in the same role in Cameroon, the Netherlands and Aruba, indicates a unique feature of many American overseas schools.

“English as a second language is a part of every classroom,” says Werner, former superintendent in New Glarus, Wis. “In compensation, these students are not seen as different or handicapped.” But when 60 percent of the student body uses English as a second language and when students may communicate in as many as 40 different languages, school leaders face an interesting challenge.

The only common language is English, and that is a saving grace. But, as was the case previously, today few American international schools have a student body composed of a majority of U.S. citizens.

Child-Centered Edge
Despite these recognized hardships, William Johnston, the head of the Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador, with previous stints in Uruguay and Brazil, switched from overseas school work to the United States for 13 years and then returned overseas in 2003 because of his disillusionment.


“In the U.S., I found that district administrators and many principals used kids and teachers as a means to career advancement as opposed to really working to do what is best for the kids,” Johnston contends.

JohnstonWilliam Johnston, a former administrator in Virginia and South Carolina, heads the Cotopaxi Academy in Quito, Ecuador.

A former assistant superintendent in Hampton, Va., and Greenville, S.C., he admits the American international schools have a great cultural advantage. They also tend to have a much stronger focus on personal development of youngsters.

“Accountability systems are broader and data-driven but self-developed and multivariate,” Johnston says. “Smaller total enrollments mean that I can get to know and work directly with both students and teachers while still driving the big picture — long-term development of the organization. Working as the head of an overseas school simply hits more of the professional positives and much fewer of the negatives.”

Or, as Ed Greene, head of the International School of Amsterdam, puts it, “We are free from the intrusions recent movements have made on school cultures that want to celebrate the creation of individualized, inquiry-based teaching and learning. In an international school, the focus is never on the median or the mean or the trend line or a scaled score — but always, unwaveringly and unapologetically, on the individual student as a human being in the process of becoming. Perhaps it is the enormous diversity of our school populations from so many different countries that forces us to think this way.”

Greene believes the rich cultures of individualism and innovation are hallmarks of an international school. “This is why so many in international education stay abroad so long — we cannot imagine having to relinquish the independence that empowers us to become the educators we have always dreamed of becoming.”

Gilbert Brown is editor of Inter Ed, the journal of the Association for the Advancement of International Education, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. E-mail: 2417gilbrown@msn.com