|Looking out from an academic building toward the nearby student and faculty apartments: The Prem International School was fortunate to open with exceptional facilities already in place.|
In April 1996, the Bangkok Post carried a short news item about a "new school emphasising leadership skills" which was then under construction near Mae Rim, a half an hourís drive from Chiang Mai.
The school, the article said, was to be the centrepiece of an ambitious one-billion baht Tridhos Three-Generation School Village, the brainchild of the renowned Thai architect M.L. Tridhosyuth (Tri) Devakul. The school was to follow the traditional Thai curriculum coupled with a rigorous programme in the English language staffed by western teachers.
The idea was to provide a complete package for the whole family Ė schooling for the children, housing and recreational facilities for the rest of the family. The cost would be stiff Ė 300,000 baht a year per student for schooling alone, but, planners thought, its idyllic setting in a lush mountain valley and its world class facilities would draw several hundred families and up to 1200 students in the first year.
The crash of 1997 made those estimates look wildly optimistic. Indeed, virtually all news of the school abruptly dried up. Another victim of the Crisis perhaps?
Yes and no. Happily, M.L. Triís dream is still very much alive, albeit in a very different form than his original conception.
The Prem Centre
Today, M.L. Triís state-of-the-art village houses the Prem Tinsulanonda Center for International Education. The Centre is run by the Tridhos Foundation and is named for its honorary chairman, the distinguished former Thai prime minister and current head of the Privy Council.
Under President Lister Hannah, the Centre runs an active visiting schools programme which brings in groups from Thailand and around the world for educational activities in a northern Thailand setting. The Centre also hosts four institutes involving languages, technology, environmental students and culture.
In keeping with M.L Triís original concept, however, the centrepiece remains a school. The Prem Tinsulanonda International School officially opened it doors last August and now has an enrolment of 85 students, representing 24 nationalities. The international school has students at all levels from nursery to grade 10. Grade 11 will open with the next academic year and grade 12 the following year. Boarding is an option for all students beginning with grade 4.
Prem International is associated with the well-known United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) based in Singapore. The curriculum of choice is the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the eventual aim is to implement a fully authorised IB programme from the primary years through the diploma at the end of grade 12.
Accepting a challenge
"The challenge of setting up a new school" was a major factor in Carolyn Solomonís decision to accept M.L. Triís offer to head the Prem Centreís planned international school. The fact that he shared her enthusiasm for the IB and the global philosophy of the UWCSEA, where she was deputy director, were added incentives.
"Everything about it appealed," she says. "I saw this beautiful campus in an amazing part of the world, a rich learning environment in the North of Thailand Ė physically, culturally Ė and I liked the UWC philosophy. I liked the global citizenship philosophy. I liked the IB."
Her first job was to estimate the likely initial enrolment. "Youíve got to know how many students youíre likely to attract," says Solomon, "and you have to make that judgment well in advance to get the best teachers."
"I looked at what had happened in Thailand with international schools. When I looked at that situation, I saw great variability ranging from schools with maybe four students who had appointed large numbers of teachers day one. That is financial disaster.
"I thought if we were a good school, we could kick off at 50, given our location. But I thought we could do better than that because of our product, because of our teachers, because of the facilities."
The fees Ė on a par with the top-flight international schools in Thailand Ė would limit enrolment, but, Solomon felt, an initial enrolment of 70 students was a realistic possibility Ė an estimate which turned out to be remarkably accurate.
The next step was to recruit the teachers. "We recruited internationally," she says. "We travelled the world Ė interviewed in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada extensively. Because we want to bring in the IB diploma and to be authorised as an IB diploma school, teachers must be IB experienced and trained.
Not only that, she says, but teachers also have to be prepared to live on campus and to "contribute to the quality of life of the boarding school community by taking on duties." These duties include committing to an after-school activities-programme and being on call to assist the boarders.
The boarding option
Solomon feels that the boarding opportunities at the international school will be one of its biggest draws in the future. "The facilities are exceptional in that it is not dormitory style living," she says. "It is apartment living with two to a bedroom, each with their bathroom.
However, she says, "the boarding market takes a lot of time to spread the word if the word has to be spread to people far away," Fortunately, the initial response has been encouraging. "The week before school we had three and now we have 15," she says.
Interestingly, two of the 15 are Thai students who left boarding schools in England to take up residence at the Prem Centre. "Homesickness" was the motivating factor in Alisa Morrisí decision. For Ampawan Rojanavee, it was disappointment over the cliquish environment at her boarding school which left her largely on her own. Both are delighted with their new living situation, having chosen the boarding option despite being Chiang Mai residents.
Opting for experience
Solomon is obviously pleased how far her school has come in such a short time. One of its biggest assets, she believes, is the schoolís cultural diversity, not just among the students, but among the faculty as well. "If you put us all into a melting pot," she says, "between us we have taught in national systems on every continent of the world."
The teaching staff is also very experienced, she says, particularly in the IB. Several members of the staff, in fact, are IB diploma assistant examiners.
Of all the staff, however, none is more experienced than junior middle school principal Ron Auckland. A long-time primary years programme (PYP) teacher trainer, he is currently the PYP regional coordinator for the Asia Pacific which includes South Asia, China, Southeast Asia and Australasia.
"Iím halftime here as the junior middle school principal," Auckland says, "and Iím halftime at the IB. Actually, I station myself here rather than the Singapore office."
The presence of Auckland is one reason why Prem International has opted to implement the PYP from day one. The other is his teaching staff. "We intentionally hired only PYP experienced teachers, he explains. "It costs us more, but the benefit is that it allows me to run around the way I do (on IB assignments) knowing everythingís fine at home because these people know exactly what theyíre doing."
The PYP curriculum, says Auckland, "is an inquiry based, active learning type programme. "There are really four underpinnings. I call them the four ĎIísí. Besides "inquiry," the "Iís" include "international", "interdisciplinary" and "individualisation".
Of course, says Auckland, "youíre not going to see inquiry all the time all day in any class. Because its inquiry-based it doesnít mean there isnít time when the teacher is talking to the whole class. Itís the kind of programme that requires all kind of different teaching strategies. However it does require kids to be questioners and inquirers."
Interestingly, teaching the PYP curriculum does not mean the programme at the Prem International has been IB authorised. That will come later. "Weíre implementing slowly," says Auckland. "No quicker than anyone else. Weíll apply for authorisation when we know weíre ready.
"It isnít that we have to be authorised by 2003. Thatís the wrong way to go about it for any programme, but certainly for PYP. So weíre just gradually moving ahead. Iím obviously doing some of the training of teachers, but at some point we have to bring in other trainers. You canít train your own school."
Implementing the PYP curriculum before getting authorisation, says Auckland, is perfectly normal. In fact, he says, "You can implement PYP philosophy and never apply for authorisation. That would not be a problem because one of the premises of the PYP is self-planning and sharing. Donít keep it a secret, let it out there, share it."
The authorisation process itself takes about two years. It includes several rounds of teacher training and intensive pre-authorisation and final authorisation visits by IB representatives Ė a big part of Aucklandís job as a regional coordinator. It is only after final authorisation that a school begins to pay its annual US$2770 fee as an IB member school.
Unlike the primary programme, Solomon says, Prem International has elected to delay the introduction of the IBís middle years programme (MYP). Instead they have opted for the British-based University of Cambridge International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE).
"We felt that it was important as a new school to be accredited as a University of Cambridge International Centre, explains Solomon, because the IGCSE has been established for a long time and is well known. It is possible for a new school to start with the IGCSE in place, but the IB can only be authorised after a school is operating."
Solomonís main preoccupation at the moment is the completion of the rigorous IB authorisation process for the diploma programme scheduled to begin in Grade 11 later this year. See the box to get an idea of what this involves.Click here to read what an IB grad says about two of the toughest courses in the programme. Plus: Becoming and IB Diploma school.