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Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009

Securing the best education for your child


By ANNA KUNNECKE
GUIDE TO INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS IN JAPAN: From Anxiety to Opportunity, by Caroline Pover. Alexandra, 2009, 667 pp., ¥4,762 (paper)

Expatriates in some countries face a scarcity of options when it comes to educating their children, but in Japan the reverse is true: The array of alternatives and the potential permutations of language, curriculum and environment can be utterly overwhelming.

Parents — especially in Tokyo — have access to flyers, magazine ads, online parenting Web sites and schools' own informational sites, plus a host of other informational sources. But out of sheer exhaustion many fall back on a familiar source of information: the grapevine. The grapevine, of course, has one major drawback: sour grapes.

Parents already desperately trying to educate their children are hardly trustworthy sources of neutral information. The wish to provide one's child with the best of everything can be compounded by the sense of vulnerability often felt by expats and, indeed, the feuding and competition over international school placings in Japan is legendary.

Caroline Pover has waded into the morass of gossip, anxiety and disappointment with a remarkably simple approach. Shunning any attempt to objectively rank schools on factors that are undeniably subjective, she invited the schools to describe themselves in their own words, supplementing some responses with interviews (schools were asked to pay a fee to be included in the guide, but Pover insists no school was excluded for financial reasons).

The strength of the compilation is not so much that the information is new, since much of the content (though by no means all) can be gleaned from the schools' own PR materials, but in the sheer number of options presented side by side. One hundred and one schools, preschools and after-school programs are packed into the book alphabetically, without regard to location or type of curriculum.

Although I found the organization unwieldy — I found it confusing to have preschools and after-school programs mixed in with elementary and high schools — within the massive context certain patterns do emerge.

For example, while one school offers an impassioned description of their approach to children with special needs and gifts, another responds with an equally enlightening "N/A." Ditto for answers about security, sex education, bilingual support and other hot-button topics. What a school chooses to omit from its profile can be just as informative as what it includes.

As someone who attended five different international schools in Japan as a child, in addition to public schools in both Japan and America, I have a high degree of skepticism about "international" schools. Even the best of intentions can produce a lousy educational setting.

I had friends in school who failed to master their mother tongue because they were so intent on learning a second language, and others who spoke better English than the teacher who was charged with instructing them. On the other hand, one of my richest learning experiences took place in a tiny, haphazard, one-room schoolhouse with a fuzzy curriculum and outdated materials.

For years I was amused by parents' mighty anxiety about their children's schooling. Look, I wanted to say, if even my patched-together education turned out OK, then your kids will be fine. Then I had a child of my own and I lost the ability to be so glib.

I asked Pover why she chose to have the schools self-report, rather than ranking the schools or rating them according to set criteria. Her perspective, as a seasoned educator without children of her own, was refreshing.

Ranking systems can lead parents to become hung up on which school is the biggest or the best, she said, so the guide deliberately eschews all judgment and opinion. Its goal is purely to collect the rich array of available options. Pover said she hopes it will encourage parents to consider which schools will best complement their child's individuality, and reject the notion that there exists one school that is "the best."

The uncategorized presentation is rather awkward, but also consistent with Pover's overall philosophy that education is a continuum of individualized experience.

Although some parents will balk at the price and the many advertisements smattered among the listings, I predict that most copies will end up looking like my own: well-thumbed, dog-eared and feathered with hopeful sticky notes.



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