Last March, beijingkids spoke to milliner and mom-of-two Elisabeth Koch about the advantages and disadvantages of sending her daughter to a local school called Sweet Angel Kindergarten. Although she expressed some reservations about some aspects of the education at the time, her comments were largely upbeat. “Don’t be afraid to send your kids to a local school,” she advised. “The experience has been all positive [for us]so far.” Koch even appeared on a discussion panel about Chinese education at the beijingkids School Choice Fair in 2013.
However, her perspective on local schools – and Sweet Angel in particular – have changed over the last year. “I was on the pro-local school panel and I’m very anxious to tell everyone my opinion now, because it’s not as positive as it was” says Koch. Her daughter Bernadette van Lawick van Pabst (now 4) and son Dede (age 2) now attend Ivy Academy. We met up with Koch again to discuss the factors that led to her decision.
We also spoke to Peter Carey, an IELTS examiner for the British Council, and father of Isabelle (2 months), and Lewis (age 5). Lewis attends Sweet Angel Kindergarten, and in contrast, Carey is largely happy with the school. “Academics may not be brilliant,” he says, “but when he goes there he has fun interacting with other children.”
In the Beginning
Before Sweet Angel, Bernadette had attended Ivy Academy for one semester. “We moved away from Ivy because of cost,” says Koch. “That was really the only reason. International schools are expensive and there was a cheaper alternative.”
From the beginning, Koch had issues with communication at the local school. “I had friends call the school for me. Every time I called to try to confirm Bernadette’s start date, no one in administration had any idea that she was starting there.” However, she decided to give the school the benefit of the doubt. “I thought ‘It’s just China, it’ll be fine.’”
Although Koch was not bowled over by initial impressions, she decided to keep an open mind. “I knew it wasn’t at as high a standard [as an international school]. Bernadette kept asking to go back to Ivy, but she seemed quite happy. She wasn’t miserable.”
But the communication issues continued to mount over the 13 months that Bernadette attended Sweet Angel. “I think I got a report card back from the school three times, with one paragraph in Chinese saying ‘Bernadette’s really happy and sweet.’ The feedback had nothing to do with her progress or what she was doing.”
Carey supports Koch’s take on report cards. “Feedback on what’s going on in the classroom is quite vague,” he says. “We’ve never gotten a regular progress report.”
“I didn’t even know if they were learning ABCs,” says Koch. “She was an age where I thought: ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m sure they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.’ But when I would come home and [try to]do ABCs with her, I thought: ‘I don’t think she’s learning them.” I wondered if she was even learning basic numeracy.”
“I don’t think they learn the Roman alphabet at school,” says Carey. “I teach him that myself in the evenings. Lewis will move up to the next class in a few months, and he’ll learn to write then. He does do a lot of counting and numeracy [at Sweet Angel]however.”
Koch also did not receive a school calendar, and although the school claimed there was an academic calendar on the website, Koch’s Chinese-speaking assistant informed her it was out-of-date.
This made running a business very difficult. “I would have a whole weekend planned, and then the Friday before I’d find out Bernadette had school that weekend. They’d reply and tell me: ‘Next time we’ll do better,’ but they [never did].”
Carey found the school’s vacation schedule easier to comprehend. “Vacation information is clearly communicated; they text or phone my wife about when it’s going to be,” he says. “We know when they’ll be on or off in advance – we just look at the Chinese National Holiday calendar.”
Initially, Koch considered the possibility that language barriers were the main obstacle to communication. However, she eventually met three Chinese moms who also complained about the lack of responsiveness. Again Carey is in agreement, “You don’t get information unless you ask for it,” he says.
A decisive incident was when the school neglected to inform her directly that Bernadette had changed classes. One day, her daughter came home and said: ‘Mamma, I went to a new school today.’ When asked where she went, Bernadette answered: ‘Sweet Angel.’
“She was trying to tell me was that she was in a new class, but I didn’t realize,” says Koch. It turns out Sweet Angel had announced the change at a meeting attended only by the family’s ayi. “I found out two weeks later,” says Koch. “All through that fortnight, I was WeChatting with Bernadette’s old Chinese teacher and she never thought to mention that she wasn’t even teaching her anymore!”
Over time, she also became concerned about hygiene, teaching methods, and safety standards. “[For the two field trips that Bernadette attended,] the route from the school to the buses was along a busy road (Xindong Lu). There were only two teachers with 30 kids. They weren’t holding a rope; they just had to hold hands.” She ended up walking alongside her daughter and her classmates until they got to the bus.
Although Carey wasn’t present on the day of the school trip, he feels that staff to student ratios are in general more than adequate at the school. “In Lewis’s class there’s nothing close to 30 kids. There are only 15 kids and three teachers. It’s a good ratio of teachers to kids. If you pay international school fees you will, of course, have more supervision, but three teachers seems sufficient to me.”
Koch found the toilet facilities rudimentary. She says they consisted of “a hole in the ground” with no toilet paper provided. As a result, Bernadette is still in the process of learning how to wipe off. “It makes me feel awful that she had to go through that,” says her mom.
Carey doesn’t share Koch’s concerns. “I don’t see any problems with hygiene or safety at the school. I know they have a strict hand washing regime. I think they do those basics quite well – being tidy, washing hands – [Lewis is] good at all that stuff.”
As a designer, Koch was appalled to hear about apparent attempts to stifle the children’s creativity. “A Chinese mom told me that her son was not allowed to bring his pictures home because they were not ‘good enough.’ As a creative person, that just made me so angry; anything a child scribbles is the most beautiful thing ever to their parents” she says. It’s possible that Bernadette was subject to the same censorship, as she brought home only three drawings over the course of a year.
In Carey’s experience, however, his son particularly enjoys the creative outlets at Sweet Angel. “He especially loves the music program there. They’ve got really good drum kit and piano classes. I used to teach music in England, and I can see he’s really benefitting from the system there. Not just in the music he’s learning, but in other ways too. He’s learning how to learn, and how to pick up information. Music is one of those things which, if you do every day, you really improve at.”
The deciding factor for Koch was when she realized the school had sold her family’s contact information to advertisers. “I began receiving a lot of calls in Chinese from people selling things, and I recognized [Bernadette’s] Chinese name. They asked me, ‘Are you Bernadette’s mom?’”
“Initially I thought it was a doctor or somebody from school, as that was the only place she ever used her Chinese name. I asked my assistant to speak to the caller and she told me they were advertisers. They were selling English lessons for Chinese kids. The school had obviously sold my number together with my child’s Chinese name to companies selling child-related [products and services].”
Koch wrote the principal to say that she was taking Bernadette out of Sweet Angel, but was once again met with a combination of silence and a lack of understanding. “I got a single text message from the class teacher saying: ‘We all get spam messages.’ Yes, but never before have I received one with my daughter’s name in it.”
Another decisive moment came when Koch heard from another parent that the balloon vendors who appeared on school premises at the end of the day paid for the privilege. This, coupled with the lack of progress and feedback about Bernadette’s education, led her to conclude that Sweet Angel was run like a business rather than as a place of learning.
Carey thinks that Koch is probably right about the sale of private data, but he is philosophical. “There are sales calls. I’m pretty sure they have given out numbers to sales people,” he says. “That’s a fact of life in China. You just get used to those calls. I just put down the phone. It doesn’t really bother me any more than all the other sales calls I receive here.”
Making a Change
Ultimately, Koch and her husband decided to return Bernadette to Ivy Academy. “As soon as we enrolled, I felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted,” she says. “I’ve noticed such a difference in the progress she’s made. The first week at Ivy, I asked Bernadette if she wanted to go back to Sweet Angel. She said ‘No, no, no’ and has never said yes.”
“At Ivy, we immediately had meetings with the teachers, who wanted to know about Bernadette, her likes and dislikes. I almost cried,” she continues.
In the past, when Koch would ask Bernadette about her day at school, she answered only in terms of what she ate. At Ivy, she talks about playing outside, learning letters, planting seeds, and observing the fish in the classroom aquarium. In addition, Koch receives detailed newsletters every Friday from the head teacher about what Bernadette’s class is learning and from the campus director about the school’s focus for that week. The teachers are “great people,” there is a nurse on staff, the kids get healthy snacks, the facilities are new and varied, and the website is “super up-to-date.”
Carey admits communication styles are very different at a local school. “If you want constant updates you have to go to an expensive private school,” he says. “In our experience, if you’re proactive and ask the teachers at Sweet Angel, you get a lot of good information.”
Months after moving Bernadette to Ivy, a scandal regarding the administration of antibiotics to students without parental consent at another kindergarten prompted Koch to question her daughter about her own medical treatment at Sweet Angel. “I asked her, ‘Did you get any kind of pills or medicine? Did you get a shot?’ and she told me ‘Yes, in my hand, at the nurse’s office.’ Koch is dismayed and perturbed, as she isn’t sure what was dispensed.
Again, it seems that despite Koch’s best efforts to bridge the gap, language may play a major part in the confusion. “They contacted us about the immunization injection,” says Carey. “I think it may have been a flu shot. They also contacted us about a fluoride rinse. Each parent can choose whether their child takes part or not. We decided not to have Lewis have the shot or rinse.”
For all her disappointment in her family’s experience with a Chinese school, Koch remains guardedly optimistic that other parents can make it work. “I still think local schools are OK if you speak Chinese or have a Chinese speaker with you,” she says.
Carey has the same opinion. “All our communication is in Chinese, with Chinese staff,” he says. “It’s tough for parents to negotiate the local system if they don’t speak Chinese.”
As for Sweet Angel itself, Koch says, “I’m really disappointed in them. If you have really low expectations, it’s OK as a daycare. But if you want your child to actually learn something like basic literacy and numeracy, it’s not the right environment.”
Carey, meanwhile, is satisfied with Sweet Angel and with the local school system. “Lewis is really happy at the school. He enjoys his classes and he likes his teachers,” he says. “When Lewis graduates from Sweet Angel, we’ll send him to a local Chinese elementary school.”
“The one plus of the Chinese school is that Bernadette speaks Chinese,” says Koch. “I don’t think she’s been hurt by it at all, and it has been an interesting experiment.”
Sweet Angel Kindergarten declined to comment for this article.
Photos: Ken and Mitchell Pe Masilun