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Making a Difference

Looking through a window into a classroom of about 20 preschool children, Anne Sawyer points to a 3-year-old boy washing a window. “His job this morning is to make sure the windows are clean, and he mustn’t leave any streaks on the glass,” she explained. In the school corridor, two four-year old boys had carefully laid out 1,000 golden beads and were busy placing numbered markers at correct positions along the chain of beads. One of the boys looked up at us for a few seconds, before getting back to finding the right position for his marker. “Two hundred and seventy-two, 273, 274, 275,” he counted then carefully placed his marker numbered 275 next to the bead he had just counted.

Amazingly, the boys in the corridor had been left on their own to complete the assignment, albeit with the teacher keeping an eye on them through the window. For the other 3- to 5-year-old children inside the classroom, they were completely absorbed in their activities.

This is the Montessori method of education, which was developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, who opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) in 1907. Her philosophy was to give children hands-on, structured activities that develop their sense of independence and responsibility in the classroom. which is why all activities are very hands on,” explained KarinAnn.

“Between the ages of 2 and 5 they are like little spongesand want to learn by experiencing and by doing. After 5 theirbrains change and their cognitive development is more likeadults.” Anne and Karin co-founded The International Montessori School 11 years ago after failing to find a suitable preschool for their own children. It quickly outgrew its original homeand they took the bold step to rent the former Hong KongConstruction Association’s school in Tin Hau.

The school wrote to the Government to provide a permanent site to accommodate the growing number of applicants for many years but without success. Last year, the school sought the Chamber’s help to lobby Government on its behalf. In the recent International School Allocation Exercise, it was awarded a permanent school expansion site in Stanley.

“This outcome could not have been possible without the Chamber’s support, and we are very grateful for your efforts in advocating a permanent site for our school,” Anne told Chamber CEO Shirley Yuen during a visit to the school

“Education is a key issue for many businesses trying to bring in talent from overseas. Relieving the shortage of international school places for foreign families coming to Hong Kong is an urgent matter and we are very pleased to see that the Government is taking concrete steps to address the issue,” Shirley said.

The school’s founders are aiming to open the new Stanley campus in August. “We have over 800 children are on our waiting list and historically we have had to turn away three quarters of applicants,” Karin explained. “The Stanley campus will allow us to provide over 700 new international school places.” The Stanley campus will follow the same formula for success as existing IMS schools, and provide places for children aged 3 to 12. All preschool classes have a mix of children of different ages. The idea is the slightly older children enjoy helping the younger children, which gives them self-esteem and encourages them to always make sure they are smarter than the younger students. The younger children see their older classmates completing tasks and try to emulate them.

“For example, if a child asks the teacher how to spell a word, the teacher might say: ‘you know what, Mary is very good at spelling, why don’t you ask if she knows’?” explained Anne. All teachers go through Montessori teacher training programmes, and both Anne and Karin are confident they will be able to hire enough teachers for the new campus, which will open in stages. It is a daunting challenge, as every class has two teachers: one is a native English speaker, and one is a native Mandarin speaker.

By immersing children in both languages from a young age, they very quickly grasp the second language. For children who have arrived recently in Hong Kong, extra lessons can be arranged to help their proficiency and confidence with their new language.

“We plan to focus all our energy on making sure all our new teachers and classrooms are well prepared for the coming term,” Anne said. “We are very excited about this development, and really must thank HKGCC and the Education Bureau who have been fantastic.”

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