Growth spurt hits SAS after 60 years

Starting as a petite schoolhouse on King’s Road in 1956, Singapore American School has since grown into one of the world’s finest educational institutions. Now situated in the Woodlands with nearly 3500 students, SAS has gone through almost 60 years of its own evolution.

One of the focal points of the SAS mission has always been to provide students with the best educational experience possible. “At SAS, it is our mission to provide each student with an exemplary American educational experience with an international perspective,” writes Superintendent Dr. Chip Kimble on the Singapore American School website.

Through its challenging courses, supportive teachers, and abundance of resources and opportunities, SAS has so far been successful in this mission. However, as it is with any educational institution, it is crucial to reevaluate and think, “What can be done to improve even further?”

Three years ago, this was the question administrative leaders discussed. Soon, decisions were made to take a pivotal step in improving SAS – the establishment of a Research and Development (R&D) team. Comprised of a group of teachers and administrators, this group has since sparked a period of transformation for SAS.

“We’re obviously very invested in this R&D process, which has been a phenomenal adventure for the school,” notes Dr. Vicki Rogers, a middle school teacher and SAS alumna. “It’s had its ups and downs but, all in all, it’s made the institution a continuing institution of excellence.”

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Early morning at SAS. Photo by Janna Agustin

 

In the past few years, the works of the R&D team have moved from the development stage to implementation. Various changes to curriculum have been made –  many deviating from what is seen as “traditional” in an American school curriculum – while moving towards a more student-focused learning experience.

SAS has always been a school recognized for its academic rigor. With its variety of advanced courses and college-level classes, students can easily challenge themselves and are strongly encouraged to do so.

However, along with these opportunities there is also a culture in which students may feel pressured by a social obligation to excel.

Collaboration and slight competition are just what students need to push each other, challenge themselves, and succeed. But the focus on achievement can also create a mindset in students and parents that in order to truly be successful, one must go above and beyond.

“Everyone at SAS is very competitive and we’re all surrounded by smart people,” said junior Michael Chu. “So we all feel obligated to do well in order to seem smart at SAS.”

Load up on AP classes, study hard, become president of different clubs, have a high GPA – it’s easy to robotically follow this algorithm to success without truly gaining from educational opportunities. Instead of focusing on areas of interest, some students get swept up in the competition.

But the changes currently underway by the R&D team have gradually started to transition away from this competitive, grades-focused mentality into one with a stronger focus on personal interest, relevant skill application, independent studies, and chances to collaborate. Providing these interesting new opportunities allows the students to demonstrate their learning and excel because of passion, not competition.

“What’s happening behind the scenes is a lot of programmatic change,” said AP coordinator Mr. Dennis Steigerwald. “Where traditionally, SAS has focused a lot on content… what we’re trying to do is change that paradigm and start to really move it towards skills-based learning and greater relevance for the kids.”

Instead of competitively comparing standardized test scores, students can collaborate through research, writing, and presenting topics of interest with the SAS Catalyst Project. Instead of being contained within the four classroom walls, students can create international learning communities through the unique courses offered by Global Online Academy. Instead of relying on traditional curricula that might focus on breadth instead of depth, students can focus on following their passions and diving deeper into areas that interest them.

In keeping with this theme of independence and student focus, the high school library has also transformed into a hub of innovation. With book shelves rearranged, new desks, chairs, whiteboards, and a “Maker’s Space” left open  – more and more steps have been taken to highlight this change.

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Entrance to the high school. Photo by Janna Agustin

 

Aside from academics, however, the R&D team has also explored new ways to improve another aspect just as important to students’ educational experiences: relationships.

Relationship-building is one element of SAS education that has lacked attention throughout the years. Surveys revealed a significant percentage of students who had difficulty building relationships with adults. At a school as large as SAS, it’s harder for students who aren’t as outgoing or extroverted as others to build a strong relationship within the community with both teachers and classmates.

“For a lot of kids, the relationship piece is there,” noted counselor and R&D team member Mrs. Sue Nesbitt. “But it’s not consistently taught.. it’s not systematized.”

Three years ago, after visiting a number of schools in the U.S., Australia, and Europe, this was brought to the attention of the members of the R&D team. In hopes of finding new, valuable practices that could be mirrored at SAS, they found themselves stumbling across a particular program again and again – the advisory program.

Through continuous meetings with a small group of students and one teacher, the advisory program aims to increase students’ skills of relationship-building with adults as as well as other students. Noticing its success in other schools, the R&D team realized the benefit it could bring to SAS and the stronger community it could create.

A proposal was made and plans soon turned into actions. In the upcoming year, students will be sorted into advisory groups of 9-12 students, each separated by grade. On Tuesday and Thursday of every week, 30 minutes will be set aside for time to meet with advisories – providing time to discuss interpersonal topics, participate in cultural activities, and generally form and strengthen relationships.

“[SAS] is such a big school,” said Nesbitt. “This was not an easy place, for me personally, to get to know people. So the objective of advisory is to make a big school small. That every kid feels they’re known and cared for. That’s it – that’s the reason we’re doing it.”

This program, along with the other practices being tweaked and improved, are stirring up change at SAS at a faster pace than ever before. “[This process is] worth every dime,” added Rogers. “And it’s long overdue. We should have started [it] years ago.”

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