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Thursday, Nov. 16, 2000

Small classes but big ideas at new multicultural school


Staff writer

MAEBASHI, Gunma Pref. -- A new international school here may be starting off small, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in aspirations.

Determined to challenge Japan's monolingual culture, four international couples have launched a school that aims to eventually offer classes in any language requested.

The International Community School plans to start in April with about 30 children. The 3- to 7-year-olds will be put into one kindergarten and two elementary classes. English and Portuguese will be the principal languages, although Japanese teachers will use some Japanese as well.

The school's ultimate goal is to become a multilingual institution that covers the age range from kindergarten through high school and offers its program in any language when there are more than 10 pupils in a particular language group.

"We are trying to make, maybe for the first time in Japan, a truly multilingual international school," said Cheiron McMahill, chief director of Multilingual Education Research Institute, the operating body of the new school. "English is only one of the languages of this school. We are open to any language."

Although the elementary classes will roughly follow the curriculum of public schools in Canada, the school is basically not bound by any particular nation's educational program as opposed to many other international schools.

The school pursues its own educational goal -- to nurture global citizens -- while taking the best from various international educational methods, McMahill said.

"I don't want to create a school just for dual-nationality kids or just for foreign kids. Neither do I intend to create a school for Japanese kids to learn English," she said.

English is the main language of instruction for students through the third grade, but the school plans to gradually start teaching subjects such as math and social studies in Japanese. It aims for 50 percent of classes to be in English and 50 percent in Japanese when students reach the sixth grade.

The idea of establishing such a multilingual school has its root in the founders' own desire to give their children multicultural experiences.

McMahill, 39, an associate professor of English at Gunma Prefectural Women's University, has often discussed these wishes with her Japanese husband.

"I wanted to expose my children to many languages and cultures. . . . I want my kids to learn about diversity, difference, equality and respect (through the experience)," she said.

They shared their ideas with three other couples living in the area, who were worried about their children's education, especially about how they could pass both languages and cultures on to their children.

Sean Leedy, an associate professor of English and linguistics at Maebashi Institute of Technology, is part of the group. He has three children, aged 5, 3 and 2.

"I have been just amazed how fast they (children) learn languages. . . . There are schools that would keep strengthening their ability, but those schools are located in urban areas and require such high tuition (fees)," he said.

"I wanted to create an international school that requires the lowest tuition fees and is open to everybody."

Every new project faces problems. Major concerns of the school at the moment are financing and a lack of facilities.

Volunteer work by parents and other staffers support the operation of the school, which aims to charge tuition fees of about 600,000 yen a year, much lower than some major international schools in metropolitan areas, which can charge up to 1.7 million yen.

The school is now seeking corporate status under the so-called NPO Law, enacted in March 1998 to enable nonprofit organizations to earn greater social status.

It also hopes to get accredited by international groups, such as the European Council of International Schools, McMahill said.

Preceding the full-fledged start next spring, a preparatory kindergarten class has been held every week since October, with 15 children gathering at a modest two-story house, located about a 10-minute car ride from JR Maebashi Station.

Collecting students will be another concern for the school, which is, unlike major international schools, located far away from big cities with large populations.

But with efforts to hold explanatory meetings in nearby cities, such as Takasaki, the school has started to draw the attention of parents.

"I found this school interesting not only because children can acquire foreign languages but also experience different cultures," said Yumi Sugimoto, a mother of 3- and 5-year-old children, who attended the preparatory kindergarten class.

Yukari Cowan, whose husband is Australian, visited the school from Takasaki one weekend to find out about the program and said it was very helpful for her to talk with school staff about her concerns over raising children in a bilingual environment.

McMahill, who has lived in Japan for almost 12 years, says she hopes the school will help bring about a multilingual society in time by providing an alternative educational system.

"This is the school created for my children, but at the same time, this is the kind of school that I wanted to go to myself," she said.



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The Japan Times

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