Collaborating to overcome geographic isolation
Being situated in the south of the South Island hasn’t stopped James Hargest College from developing a robust international programme.
Invercargill’s James Hargest College Principal Andy Wood says they are committed to enabling their somewhat isolated students to become global citizens.
Attracting international students to the bottom of the South Island is a challenge, he says, but it means every student is valued – not only for the financial contribution they make to the school but the social and cultural benefits they bring.
“Southland is less multicultural than other parts of New Zealand, so having international students in the school is important to ensure our Kiwi kids are exposed to a range of cultures they would not otherwise interact with.”
Andy says any school intending to grow an international cohort needs to look beyond the financial benefits and focus on what else the students can bring to the school. “If you’re not committed to that then you shouldn’t be in this game at all. It takes far too much energy just to do it for the money.
“Once you get your programme right, then you mix in the business model. If you only focus on the financial aspects, then you miss the soul, the heart of the programme. It can’t be just about being a cash cow for the school.”
It’s a business
While the cultural benefits should be the reason why schools have international students, it still needs to be run as a business, says Andy, requiring skills that might take principals out of their comfort zone.
He’s taken a proactive approach, having their programme peer-reviewed to identify opportunities for improvement. More rigorous analysis of cost inputs was one of the recommendations.
They have identified all line costs associated with recruiting, teaching and hosting their international cohort. They looked at the costs by activity and the cost of recruitment per region. Last year they spent about $40,000 which more than normal because it included the startup costs of developing the German market.
He estimates between 40 per cent to 50 per cent of tuition fees are returned as profit to the school.
But it’s difficult to pinpoint, he says, as some indirect costs have been absorbed into overall school running expenses as the programme has grown and are not always easy to quantify.
Understanding what has been spent in the past will allow him to appropriately budget for the future, turning what has been traditionally been a reactive approach to marketing to a more planned strategy. He says by matching costs to the income generated he can make better decisions on how much and where to spend their marketing dollar.
A collective approach
James Hargest attracts about 30 students a year, a third of which are short-term/six month stays. Historically their main source market has been Thailand, largely due to established relationships managed through Education Southland, a long-standing collaboration that includes seven schools in the region, and the local polytechnic.
They have gone away from education fairs in Asia, and now work with agents directly, who source students for all schools in the collective. They do attend expo events run by agents where potential students and parents are personally invited and the school will offer a promotion such as scholarships for students who sign up as a result of the event.
The group also has a partnership with Prince Royal’s College in Thailand, which sends four or five students to each of the Southland schools, for two months of full immersion in New Zealand culture.
International Student Director Jenny Elder says Thai students are good for the school and the country as they tend to come in year 11 or even younger and once in the system, look at pathways into New Zealand universities and even residency.
While the Education Southland group produces a combined prospectus, each school promotes its individual strengths. James Hargest positions itself on its academic strengths, the breadth of the curriculum, success of the ESOL programme and specialties such as outdoor education, languages, music and media. They also promote their scholarships and international friendship club.
Responding promptly with quality information to inquiries is another way they set themselves apart. “We try to get back to agents that day. When they want an answer they want it today,” says Jenny. “We try to respond promptly with good quality information – but that is a challenge, because quality information can take time to compile. But if an agent sends a request for information out to a number of schools, it may be those that respond the fastest that are successful.”
The school recently joined another marketing group, Outdoor Education New Zealand (ODENZ). This private company represents 23 schools across the country that offer quality- 4 accredited outdoor recreation programmes. Whereas Education Southland is supported by the local government and economic development agency with contributions from members, ODENZ members pay a joining fee, annual membership and their own marketing and travel costs. Their focus is on Germany and more latterly, northern Europe.
The decision to work with ODENZ was driven by a desire to mitigate risk by spreading their marketing to countries outside SE Asia, says Andy.
There are other benefits of entering into the Northern European market – students from there seldom require ESOL input, reducing cost, and while many start out as short-stay students, a number often stay on to complete their secondary study.
Andy says there are definitely pros and cons of being part of these collective arrangements. As with any partnership there are tensions that need to be resolved for the collective to succeed, and it can be delicate to establish a point of difference for your school when sitting shoulder to shoulder with your partner schools who are also your competition. And there are ongoing discussions about how much each school should be investing in collective recruitment costs and who benefits the most - but overall he recommends schools participate in their regional marketing groups.
Listening to their students
Being responsive to enquiries from agents is one of James Hargest’s marketing tactics but they are also responsive to students, listening to feedback and adapting their programme to what they learn.
Based on exit interviews with international students they changed their orientation programme so students weren’t overwhelmed with information on day one. Now the students’ first day is focused on welcoming them to the school, with much of their timetable and academic programme organised in the following days.
Initially, international students were distributed across all form classes. Feedback from the students that they were having difficulty understanding instructions and information relayed during form class, led to the decision to put all international students in one form class.
This meant the form teacher could ensure information was conveyed clearly, written down, and that all students understood before they left the room. The benefits of ensuring the students fully understand what is expected of them outweighs the negative of having the students clumped in one class, says Andy. Like everything, this is under constant review.
Making students feel at home
Andy says they try to provide an environment for international students to form relationships, participate in sports and extracurricular activities and integrate as well as possible – even if all the students don’t take these up.
They try to minimize the syndrome of Asian students clumping together by matching every new international student with a ‘buddy’ or buddies with common interests. The New Zealand students may be friends, creating an instant social group until the international student can make their own contacts.
The first interactions between the student and the staff and other students are crucial, says Jenny. “In the first 30 seconds the student gets the vibe about whether they will be welcome. It’s not only what we say but how we act that shows they are valued by members of the school community.”
Andy says they reiterate that welcoming message at every opportunity and he tries to be a role model for this by getting involved personally in their trips such as skiing and yachting.
To assist teachers make new students feel welcome, they are given a brief information sheet on each student, with background and an indication of each student’s language skills.
Students are put next to a non-threatening student and key instructions are provided in writing – not just spoken – so important information is not missed.
Jenny says it is difficult to know how fully the students integrate but the lack of racial harassment and the fact the international students feel comfortable in the cafeteria – preferring that over the international room, indicates success.
Managing the expectations of students, parents and agents
Understanding the aspirations of students and their parents and designing academic programmes around those goals leads to a more successful experience, says ESOL programme leader Marion Elder.
“Some come for the cultural experience, others to improve their English or get an academic qualification to get into university in New Zealand or at home – for some it’s just about personal growth.”
For Asian students, gaining sufficient English language skills to attain the desired qualifications can be a challenge. The staff focus on exactly what the students need, such as understanding English to pass maths or science exams, or for research purposes – which is 7 quite specific compared to learning conversational English. Students can do two ESOL classes if required, which requires flexible timetabling, and can access additional resources if needed.
She says international students can struggle with assessment-focused NCEA where exams often require explanations of how answers are arrived at. This means students may not achieve to their expectations. “We try to explain the system and to tell them not to feel disappointed if they don’t do as well in explanation type exams.”
She says the school walks a tightrope between what parents, teachers, agents and the students want and what is realistically achievable.
They are always straight with the agent or parent if a student is not going to be able to achieve their goals, suggesting strategies to help the student such as doing another year of school.
She says academically, the students that attend James Hargest have the same range of academic abilities as New Zealand pupils – some are outstanding, some are not academically focused. Being a bigger school means they can offer the non-academic students alternative courses that still allow them to achieve, but at a different level.
Ensuring the teachers have support and resources to assist their pupils to succeed is part of Marion Elder’s job as Head of ESOL. Through experience she has built up a range of strategies to assist teachers to help their students. The level of support needed differs depending on the level of the class and the teachers’ experience.
A group mentality
Andy Wood says one of the strengths of their programme is that there is a group of people involved.
“We have an international committee which includes support staff plus teachers who have an interest in international students. Regular meetings create a team spirit and a lot of goodwill. Staff here are prepared to go the extra mile for international students which is a big part of our success,” says Jenny.
Involving more members of the staff also ensures the international programme is fully integrated into the school, says Andy. “It becomes part of the mindset of the wider staff. It shows that the international programme is part of our reason for being.”
He says there are numerous roles to be filled and “all require persistence and perseverance. And you need someone to run the programme who is passionate about it – not just someone who likes going on trips. You have to be passionate about it all.”
The support team
Jane Pearce looks after the homestay relationships alongside her role as Andy’s PA. Finding quality homestay families in a smaller city (Invercargill’s population is 45,000) is difficult, particularly ones which are close to the school and sports facilities. But, she says, the upside is that she has more interaction with her homestay parents than the Code of Practice requires because she is always running into them in the supermarket or the park. Being accessible and approachable means issues are identified and resolved quickly.
Jane has developed a comprehensive guide for students which they receive prior to arriving in New Zealand. Alongside a handbook which covers information on daily life in Invercargill, there is a questionnaire for students to ask their homestay family. It covers key questions that have arisen in the past – from what to call the homestay parents, to when it is best to use the bathroom, what time to get up, to when family members’ birthdays are, whether their host Mums and Dads, brothers and sisters have any likes or dislikes.
Alongside her official duties, Jane also produces a bi-monthly newsletter with photos of students on outings, birthday announcements, and topical issues for homestay parents and their students.
Supporting homestay parents and the teaching staff is the counseling service. Sharon Rodgers (School Counsellor) meets with every student about a week after they arrive, finding out if there are any immediate issues and ensuring they know that there is someone with whom they can meet confidentially if they need help. Issues might be identified by the teachers, homestay parents or staff, who will bring Sharon in to assist. “I try to help the students understand there are going to be exciting times and times that will be tough. I want them to understand someone is listening, and this is a place they can safely express any concerns they have. “It’s tricky when something isn’t working and they don’t want to say anything – they don’t want to disappoint anyone. It’s not a common situation but it’s tricky to deal with.”
Donna Henderson’s accounts role has been expanded to provide administration support to the international programme. At the beginning of the year about two-thirds of her job is focused on enrolling international students. She runs the orientation programme, administers English testing with help from a teacher aide, helps students choose classes, organises timetables and introduces students to the school – basically ensuring they are welcomed and settled in. She also makes herself available at any time – taking her breaks outside lunch and intervals so the students can visit her during their breaks – to help students with any problems they might have.
A student’s perspective
Invercargill’s relative isolation is a positive for Chinese year 13 student Herman Zhu. 10 “It’s a good place to study English,” says Herman, “there not are not many Chinese people here. Auckland is too big and there are too many Chinese, so it is better to study here.”
Herman came to New Zealand on the recommendation of an agent who is also a family friend. The agent had visited New Zealand and James Hargest and it was this personal experience with the school that he says, gave them confidence to send their son to a school in a lesser-known city.
Eighteen months since he arrived, Herman says he has overcome his shyness and is learning to play tennis – something he would not have been able to do in China, where he would get home at 10pm having attended self-study classes after school, leaving no time to spend with friends or on non-study activities.
“I have learned a lot of different things, not just about study. Living with my host family, I needed to learn how to live with other people, how to form a good relationship them. The culture is different, the food is different – I miss Chinese food!” he says.
In New Zealand he has learned to cook and wash dishes – things his parents always did for him. “It is good for me, good for my future.”
- Having a commitment to the quality of the programme and student experience regardless of the financial results.
- Consider all the elements required to make a successful programme:
- Quality of ESOL
- Quality of the homestays
- In school support
- Integration into the school community
- Extracurricular activities
- A methodical, planned and considered approach with a good understanding of the financial principles and the true costs and returns.
- Regional collectives can be beneficial, particularly in smaller or more isolated regions where a collective can pool resources to boost their profile - but there are inevitable tensions that have to be accepted and worked through as “business as usual”.
- Bringing agents to Southland has proved to be a very successful strategy.
- Having a quality website.
- Quick turnaround on enquiries from agents.
- A distributed staffing model where jobs are shared amongst a wider group can help the international culture is spread across the school and means more brains for brainstorming.
- Create profiles of each student which are shared with teachers so everyone understands the students’ English language skills and background – eases the student into the school.
James Hargest College
Year 7-13 co-educational school
30 international students (mainly from Southeast Asia and Germany)
Tuition fee: $13,000 a year
Homestay Placement / Administration fee: $300
Homestays: $240 a week
Principal: Andrew Wood
Deputy Principal and Director of International Students: Jenny Elder
Head of English Language Programmes: Marion Elder
Homestay Coordinator: Jane Pearce
Administration: Donna Henderson
Counseling: Sharon Rodgers