In 1993, Australia’s then Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, opened Ho Chi Minh City’s first international school called the Ho Chi Minh City International Grammar School. It heralded the beginning of an era for foreign education in Vietnam.
The catalyst for the school’s existence had come after its eventual founder, Chris Dawe, had overheard businessmen talking at the bar of the now long-gone Floating Hotel on the Saigon River. The men complained that they couldn’t attract business talent to Ho Chi Minh City because there was no foreign education available for children.
Dawe went to work and before long a school was opened which grew quickly to over 1,000 students across two campuses. In 1997, the school was renamed the International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) and moved to its current location in District 2. It was also granted approval to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma programme.
The IB Diploma is used for benchmarking students against other students and schools when they apply to higher education institutions around the world. Regarded as being excellent preparation for university studies, it correlates well with academic success.
Fast forward to 2017 and the 20th anniversary of the school’s renaming to ISHCMC. Now an average of 60 senior students a year go on to gain entry into top universities worldwide.
In the last five years, ISHCMC students have gone on to study at Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. Others have been accepted into leading universities in the UK, Canada, Australia, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore.
According to ISHCMC’s head of school, Adrian Watts, the pathway to university is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but is personalised and requires buy-in from the school, the parents and the child.
“ISHCMC isn’t just about ensuring it has full classrooms,” says Watts. “We check to see if children are ready for our learning environment. Are they ready for the IB Diploma? Is it what the family wants? Can the child succeed?”
Creating a Culture of Achievement
ISHCMC has invested heavily in its infrastructure, technology and pedagogy to keep up to date with the latest in educational innovation, including another new campus in District 2 which will be completed later this year.
Although ISHCMC’s beginnings were humble, the school has kept up with a steady stream of quality assurance measures and has met its developmental goals.
In 2008, ISHCMC received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a respected association in the US that provides educational accreditation; this goes along with its accreditation to offer the IB Diploma. In 2011, it joined the Cognita Schools Group, a body that owns and operates a growing list of over 60 independent schools worldwide.
As a result, students remain at the centre of the learning experience at ISHCMC. According to Watts, highly qualified and experienced teachers maintain a constructivist learning environment. “It develops the skills students need to solve problems now,” he says. “It also supports them in their lifelong pursuits long after they’ve left ISHCMC’s classrooms.”
He adds: “ISHCMC produces students who have been equipped with the skills and citizenship required to achieve in the globalised environment they will inherit.”
Indeed the society that the current crop of Early Explorers at ISHCMC — the students in their primary years of schooling — will inherent once they graduate will be vastly different from what it is now, given the pace of change. Competition for university places and jobs will be even fiercer, and those without the requisite knowledge and skills risk being left behind. In 2016, graduating ISHCMC IB Diploma students averaged 34 points while the global average of more than 1 million IB Diploma students in 143 countries was 30.7.
Health and Well-Being
Apart from the innovative curriculum offered by ISHCMC, the health and well-being of its students remains paramount. According to Watts, all students are encouraged to participate in mindfulness exercises for 10 minutes per day “with the latest research telling us that daily participation in mindfulness exercises is great for building well-rounded people.”
He adds: “Our students have been observed to learn more effectively and think more clearly because they are better able to focus their energy on tasks at hand, which bodes well for academic success.”
Food options at ISHCMC have also been overhauled with the expert advice of a Michelin star chef. Now the campus has its own morning fruit bar, healthy Japanese and Western food options, taco and baguette stands, and quick-to-go healthy snacks for increasingly time-poor students who need refuelling throughout the day.
“Cognita Schools Group is on a growth track and the opening of the second ISHCMC campus is part of this journey,” says Michael Drake, CEO Cognita Asia. “The collaboration between architects, academic research and our teacher-leaders provides the spark that ensures the children in our care have the very best modern learning environments. This builds the foundation necessary for strong academics.”
Over 20 years on, it is hard to imagine that the origins of ISHCMC can be traced back to a floating hotel on the Saigon River. Like the hotel, gone are the days of desks in rows and students being spoon-fed knowledge by teachers at the front of the class. This has been replaced by open-plan learning spaces, brainstorming sessions and the latest in learning technology. What will the next 20 years bring?