An influx of families fleeing the pandemic has created a supply crunch at international schools.
Taiwan has stood out as one of the few countries able to keep schools open during the coronavirus pandemic. Some families in the West with ties to Taiwan and the means to relocate have returned here because of the safer, more normal conditions. Foreign professionals have also been increasingly interested in moving to the island, as seen by the record number of Employment Gold Cards issued in 2020.
The influx of overseas Taiwanese and expat professionals is heightening demand for international education, in some cases exceeding available spots. To be sure, schools like the Taipei American School (TAS) and Taipei European School (TES) have long had waiting lists. But others that usually have room for qualified students are seeing a record number of applications.
At Kang Chiao International School, which has campuses in Xindian, Linkou, and Hsinchu, a rolling admission policy previously meant that recruitment could continue into the summer before the start of the academic year. That changed with COVID-19, as an uptick in demand enabled the school to fill all vacancies for the current academic year in May 2020. For the upcoming 2021-22 academic year, Kang Chiao finished recruitment before the recent Lunar New Year holiday.
Many new students come from Taiwanese families who have returned from abroad, and there is also growing interest in Kang Chiao from expats with no familial links to Taiwan. “In the past, it was difficult to recruit so many overseas students, but now we’re getting lots of calls from foreign families who want to know about our school,” says Andy Chang, director of Kang Chiao’s College Counseling and Language Center.
Besides those wanting to wait out the pandemic in Taiwan, other expat families have been coming here for job opportunities. Chang says that the growth of industry near Kang Chiao’s campuses has increased demand for international education nearby. “Expat families are more willing to live in New Taipei City and Taoyuan than in the past because more major companies are located there now.”
At Taipei’s Lih-jen International Private School, “class sizes are completely maxed out,” says Laura Peterson Feintech, an American expat whose two children have been enrolled at Lih-Jen for four years. “Normally, they take everyone, but this year they are turning people away.”
At Kaohsiung American School (KAS), “the challenge is our waitlist for enrollment is the largest it’s ever been, and so for students who are here for a shorter period of time, it can be difficult to register and find space unless they register really early,” says Benjamin Ploeger, KAS Superintendent.
Families with a connection to Taiwan but based in the U.S. for some time are returning “because they see this as a safe place and they want that American education for their children,” he adds.
At Taipei Youhua in the city’s Beitou District, enrollment has increased as well since the pandemic began. Some families had planned to go to China, but stayed in Taiwan instead due to the coronavirus. Others returned from North America, says Shih Po-Huei, principal of Youhua’s high school.
Enrollment at Morrison Academy, an international school with campuses in Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, and Kaohsiung, has remained stable throughout the pandemic, says Susanna Myburgh, principal of the Taipei campus. “A few students who were originally coming from the U.S. are no longer coming due to COVID-19.”
The gold standard
For expats who want a top-tier Western education for their children in Taiwan, TAS and TES have pride of place. If cost is no object, it comes down to choosing between an American or European-style education. TES has British, French, and German tracks.
Among Taiwan’s international schools, TAS is considered the gold standard in Taiwan for preparing a child to study at a top American university, says Jon Hodowany, a Taipei-based business executive and father of two children enrolled in the Lower School.
TAS’s resources – both physical and in terms of talent – are unmatched in Taiwan, he says. “TAS has outstanding teachers whom it pays well, and facilities that would make most elite universities jealous.”
According to data on its website, TAS has a 9:1 student to faculty ratio; 82% of faculty have advanced degrees and the school offers 133 different sports, clubs, and activities. TAS has also won gold medals five years in a row at the international synthetic biology iGEM competition.
Hodowany and his Taiwanese wife originally enrolled their children in a local elementary school to ensure they got a strong foundation in the Chinese language. The plan was for the kids to stay in local school through sixth grade. However, the family found that they were not satisfied with the teaching methods in local schools.
“There’s an emphasis on rote memorization and passive learning, and not much balance between academics and everything else,” he says.
At TAS, Hodowany says his children are happier than they were at local schools, and able to pursue their interests. For instance, his son has a deep interest in robotics. At TAS, that subject is a part of the curriculum alongside core subjects such as mathematics, social studies, English, and science.
Further, since both Hodowany children plan to pursue college degrees in America, he and his wife believe that TAS is the best choice.
TAS’s critics acknowledge the school’s strengths but are wary of its governance structure, which they say was originally similar to that of a U.S. public school, but has become less accountable to parents over time. Current and former parents that spoke to TOPICS noted that certain members of the Board have become embedded and that tuition has skyrocketed in recent years. Parents of children at TES have raised similar concerns about that school, citing board structure and tuition as major frustrations.
TAS can cost more than NT$1 million (US$36,000) a year, and TES is only slightly less expensive. In years past, multinational companies would cover those fees as part of packages offered to expatriate employees. Today such benefits are less common. Multinationals fill more positions locally, with expats typically only at the country manager or vice president level.
Choosing the right school
Fortunately, for expat families looking for alternatives to TAS and TES, there are many options. For instance, Morrison Academy has served the missionary community in Taiwan along with others seeking a quality education in an international school setting, says Taipei campus principal Myburgh.
“I think our school is a little different than the other international schools because of our core values,” Myburgh says. Consequently, while academics is important at Morrison, the school also focuses on the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of children’s lives. “We really focus on building a caring community and preparing our students to know how to care for those around them,” says Myburgh.
Morrison graduates typically go on to study at universities overseas in a number of countries, she adds.
Laura Peterson Feintech and her husband could have sent their children to TAS because she worked at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) for several years – children of AIT staff are given top priority for enrollment – but they decided Lih-jen would be a better choice.
“We wanted our children to have a bilingual education in Taiwan,” which would be difficult at TAS where courses are taught predominantly in English and there is no Chinese immersion program, she says.
At Lih-jen, students receive a bilingual education that includes both Taiwan’s standard curriculum and an international curriculum. The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. with after-school activities until 6 p.m., so parents do not need to worry about finding something for their children to do in the afternoon. The school day at Taiwanese public elementary schools finishes before 1 p.m.
Lih-Jen does adhere to the Taiwanese tradition of assigning lots of homework, even at the primary level. Fortunately, Feintech has advanced Chinese-language skills and is able to help her children with their homework from the Chinese curriculum. For expatriate families with less advanced Chinese-language abilities, Lih-jen might not be the best option, she says.
Lih-jen may also not be optimal for families looking for the newest athletic facilities, Feintech says. “The campus is a bit old; there is no swimming pool, and the gym is not the best.”
Still, overall, Feintech and her husband are happy with Lih-jen. “My kids are getting a great bilingual education,” she says. “We’re not aiming for them to test into Taiwan’s high school or university system (her family plans to return to the U.S. before the children begin high school), so it is perfect for us.”
She adds: “If I wanted to send my kids to a bilingual Chinese-English program like this in the U.S., it would be difficult to find and very expensive.”
By U.S. standards, Lih-jen’s tuition fees of roughly NT$320,000 per academic year are modest.
Kang Chiao also has a fully bilingual curriculum from kindergarten through sixth grade, with half of the day taught in Chinese and the other half in English. From middle school on, Kang Chiao has different programs, with an international track for students who plan to attend university overseas.
College counseling director Chang says that Kang Chiao offers foreign families the chance to experience local culture in Taiwan without the language barrier. “Because we are a bilingual school, the environment is comfortable for expat students and their parents, and the students are able to learn Chinese as a second language,” he says.
Taipei Youhua is another bilingual school known for its strong Chinese curriculum, taught the morning of each school day. The English curriculum is taught in the afternoon, when students also study an additional foreign language: German, French, Japanese, or Spanish.
Youhua, which has both a junior high and high school, historically has had more local than foreign students, but the latter are beginning to increase in number. “Youhua is a good place for expat students to learn firsthand about traditional Chinese virtues,” says principal Shih. “We teach Confucian values and character education.”
Meanwhile, some expats prefer to send their children to public school. Richard DeVries, managing director of Geber Brand Consulting, has two kids in the Taipei public school system. He and his wife, who is Taiwanese, are satisfied with the results so far.
While the kids may end up attending university in DeVries’ home country of Canada, he and his wife want their children to gain a strong grounding in Chinese.
“The kids really need to build up their Chinese and the public school system is the best place to do that,” he says.
Duncan Smith, an energy consultant and co-owner of the CraftHouse pub in Taipei, has three children in New Taipei City’s public school system. He and his wife, a Taiwanese-American, believe that international schools here are too costly, especially for big families.
“Is the quality of education they provide really worth the amount they’re charging? I just don’t see the value in it,” he says, adding: “They seem to have become a status symbol for the very wealthy.”