Kazakhstan International School - More than Academics - WorldMonitor

Kazakhstan International School – More than Academics

Kazakhstan International School – More than Academics! Interview with Ole Bernard Sealey, Head of Kazakhstan International School. Welcome OB. It’s so great to see you. Thank you for your time. It’s always great to have a conversation with the head of a school. And today we’ll talk about Ka...


Kazakhstan International School – More than Academics! Interview with Ole Bernard Sealey, Head of Kazakhstan International School.

Welcome OB. It’s so great to see you. Thank you for your time. It’s always great to have a conversation with the head of a school. And today we’ll talk about Kazakhstan International School. It happens that I have been a witness of how KIS started – where it started, and it’s a really great history. But could you tell our audience the story behind it?

Sure. Thanks, Julie. It’s great to be here. KIS has an amazing story. The journey started in 1993 when our founder moved to Kazakhstan. And he developed a very successful business here. And he’s a man of great vision. But I would say that he would argue school wasn’t a great experience for him. His school had a very narrow view of what learning was. And, so he came up with this idea of a school that was more than academics. And five years on, he was able to open KIS, and the school has been growing ever since. There were people who said it was a crazy venture. There were times he had absolutely no money and he was paying the teachers out of his own pocket. But he believed in this vision – he believed in this idea of creating a school community where people can both excel in learning and in life. The motto of ‘more than academics’ has been the foundation of KIS since we opened our doors. 

We talked about growing and developing the school. What does it really mean ‘growing and developing’? Where are you now and where are you heading?

Well, we started off as a Montessori kindergarten. And in our Early Years campus – we have two campuses – our Early Years campus still holds onto those Montessori values in our Early Years programme, which is very much aligned with the Primary Years Programme of the IB. Throughout the main campus we have a state-of-the-art building with beautiful, big classrooms, modern technology in every room, and we’re filling up. Actually, from Grade 1 through Grade 6, there are no places left. There’s the secondary school, from Grades 7, 8, 10 and 11 there’s a few places left. There’s about 80 places left in the school. We’re going to have capacity for 600 kids, and you know, this tiny school that started off with 10 kids in 1993 has now grown to a two-campus, state-of-the-art facility right here in Kazakhstan with very few places left. 

Great! Kazakhstan is a growing country. Probably one of the very few in the world that actually has more younger people than the elderly. And we need more and more schools and more kindergartens that have a high-level quality of education. And why do you think parents and staff and students like KIS? 

It’s a great question. I can talk from my own experience. When I walked in for my interview, there was a feeling about the school. There was just something inviting and something engaging. And, there was an environment where you could tell everyone wanted greatness. Everybody wanted to be better. But there was this real tight-knit sense of community. So the two things I walked away with were there’s a sense of growth, which is what we do in education, we help people to achieve their dreams. But there was also this connectedness where people felt really secure and really welcomed. You know, every school teaches literacy and math. Every school has an after-school activities program. What differentiated KIS for me was the ethos of More than Academics and the feeling of community. 

That’s great. Let’s talk about school values. What values does the school promote? How is this demonstrated in the school body and overall in the community?

We spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly who we were, so we realized that there are two ‘D’s and two ‘R’s – dignity, diversity, resilience and relationships. And those are the things that we nurture. 

So, the dignity of others – making sure that people are respected, people are valued and that everybody has worth. And we make sure that our students show respect to everybody in the school, from the security guards right up to the teachers. 

Diversity – we are an eclectic group with 40 nationalities represented, so part of our mission is connecting those cultures, making sure that our local students can go off into the world and be successful or our expat students can come to a place like Kazakhstan and understand how they can contribute here. 

Resilience – there’s going to be setbacks in life, and so we try to make sure we have a rigorous programme and a challenging programme, because we want our students to experience setbacks and failures and we want them to overcome those, and we help them to do that. 

And then the last one is relationships – we want to make sure that our students are good people and that they know the importance of healthy relationships in their lives. 

That’s great. OB, you as the Head of School, obviously, have a vision or a plan of how to grow and develop the school. Could you share a little bit about that?

Well, I think it comes down to our vision statement, cascading out of More than Academics, we are a caring, impactful community that excels in learning and in life. What that means for me is that I don’t want the kids to get set up just to go to university. I’m not that interested in who they are going to be at 18, I’m more interested in who they’re going to be when they’re 30. And school, outside of the parent and family unit, a school will have the most influence on that for a young person. So, if we live those values, we’re going to be able to achieve that vision. 

And we talk about a vision, but what is the mission of the school? 

Right. So, the mission of the school is what we do every day. And what that is, we are a community that nurtures a growth mindset in students through a holistic education that connects cultures. So there’s four parts to that. Number one, there’s community. I think I’ve talked a lot about that. The growth mindset is the idea that no matter who you are you can continually be growing. I’m not the Head of School that I want to be, I’ll never be the Head of School that I want to be, I always want to grow, I always want to get better. A holistic education, that means we educate the whole child – again, that links back to More than Academics, so we want our students to be artists, we want them to be creative, we want them to live our values. And then connecting cultures, again, that’s the dignity piece and the diversity piece, that is where we make sure our students understand that other people with different opinions can be right, and so how do we create an environment where kids can step back and try to understand other people’s point of views before broadcasting their own. 

That’s really, really amazing. Sometime ago, the school made the decision to pursue IB authorization, and how has that proven to benefit the students the most, do you think?

I believe in the IB. There’s two parts to it. There’s rigor. It is the most challenging academic high school programme there is. There’s no doubt about that in my mind. But in addition to that there is an obligation for the IB schools to make the world a better and a safer place. And so there’s a clear sense of purpose and it’s something that generates results. And when you put those things together, I think the IB is a great fit for the ethos of KIS.

What is required to provide education that meets the various needs of an international school?

Well, we’re also in the process of becoming an MSA accredited school. The reason that’s important is that although the IB looks really closely at your curriculum, what you’re teaching and how you’re teaching it and your values, the Middles States Association of Colleges and Schools are going to come in and they’re going to make sure that we are doing all of our – what you would call our fiduciary responsibilities – so, our governance, our finances, our health and safety protocols, our child protection protocols, facilities. Are we just a school that is running just this programme, or are we actually a well-run, operational machine that is secure so that we can continue to provide these great educational services and all these lofty ideas for a sustainable amount of time? 

How do you think that will go?

I think it will go great.

What makes you think that?

First of all, every school I’ve been in has been accredited by one of these organizations, and I would highly recommend – if any prospective parent were looking at any international school, I would say, “Well, who are you accountable to? And if you’re not accredited with an international organization – and we’re accredited with two, we’ve got the IB piece and we’ll have the MSA piece – what quality assurance do the parents have knowing that the school is going to be well run?” So, we actually pay people to come and tell us the things we’re not doing well, so that we can continually improve, which is aligned with our mission of growth mindset. 

This year is a very special year for KIS. You have the first class that’s graduating with the IB Diploma. Can you tell us about what this achievement actually means for KIS? And what these students will have accomplished? 

We couldn’t be more proud of our graduates. You know, one of the things we’ve talked about in the IB is being risk-takers. These kids came into our school, they knew enough about the IB Programme to know that it was a gateway to get them to where they wanted to be. And so, each one of them left with two pieces of paper in their hands: they had one that said I’ve done something that’s really challenging and I’m really proud of, and the other one says I’m going somewhere and I’m really excited. Those kids, between the ten of them, earned over $2.3 million in scholarships around the world. They got into world-class universities. All of them have a university placement, and we’re really, really proud of what they’ve accomplished. And, we were just happy to support them. 

What is required to receive an IB Diploma, and apart from getting into great universities, what future opportunities does it open up do you think?

That’s an excellent question. I’ve worked in all three of the major international curricula. There’s the American curriculum, which is focused on choice, and so you can take your Advanced Placement classes, or you can take one of them or none of them or you can take six of them. So, there’s a lot of freedom within the American system. 

Then there’s the British system, which is narrow but it’s very deep in terms of what it does for kids: kids at the age of 16 will generally choose three subjects of study and they will pursue those rigorously. 

And then there’s the IB, which is about depth and breadth at the same time, so you have to take six subjects, three of them at the higher level, and you also have to write a 4,000 word essay, but you also have to commit to what we call creativity, activity, and service and that means you have to go out and engage in some artistic pursuits and you have to be active as a human being so you have to take care of your health and you have to, perhaps, participate on sports teams, and then you also have to commit to a service learning endeavor. 

So, all three programmes are great, they’re all going to get you into university, and they can all get you into a world-class university. But, in terms of that holistic education the IB Programme, in my mind, is the best because it has a social human component to it that a lot of great American and British schools also have, but it’s not mandated, they don’t have to. We have to. And so, there’s no opting out. If you’re coming to this school, you’re going to engage in the world.

That’s really great to hear and it’s really inspiring. OB, could you tell us, where do you think students with an IB Diploma who have just graduated will end up, in what university, and what does the future hold for them do you think?

Absolutely. We had a number of students get into the Russell Group universities in the UK, outside of Oxford they are the top 15 universities, so universities like Warwick, Manchester, Queen Mary University. Some fantastic schools in the UK. We had students accepted to top-tier universities in the United States, University of Southern California, the University of Notre Dame. And we had students accepted into schools in Hong Kong, in Holland, Australia, all around the world. So we have really great opportunities, and those ten kids are going to branch out and they’re going to make the world a better place. 

Do you already know who they will be? Doctors, lawyers, any indication?

Yeah. Lawyers. Artists. Business people. Economists. There’s no shortage of possibilities with these kids.

Absolutely amazing young and bright talent. Congratulations on this great achievement. And I’m sure that the school and everybody who is involved are very, very proud of this achievement. OB, you’ve been here for a couple of years already, and with your experience in education as you’ve been in different schools and in different systems and in different countries, it would be really great to hear your opinion on Kazakhstan. What is your take on education and opportunities and challenges and the future that Kazakhstan has? It’s a huge question.

It is a huge question. It is a great question though. I’ve been an educator in Hong Kong, in Australia, the UK, in Dubai and in Canada. Kazakhstan is a blank canvas but it’s also a growing place. There’s an energy here that I find really exciting. And yet, there’s a lot of schools, maybe even new schools, that are really trying to hold onto traditional values. You know I sometimes say, a lot of schools are pretending to be 100 years old. And, I think there’s an opportunity for Kazakhstan to, in this emerging economy, in this bustling city, to really move into a contemporary place. And so we’re the first three-programme, English-language IB school in Kazakhstan. So, I know that’s not necessarily unique – there’s 18 schools like that in Dubai, there’s probably 20 in Singapore – but, here there’s one. And so, I have found it to be a very exciting place, a challenging place but also one with a beautiful culture and a lot of reason for optimism. 

And the school community consists of an international community and there’s a big number of local kids who go to IB. How do you think these students might have an influence on the changes that can make Kazakhstan a new Kazakhstan?

First of all, we’ve got a 60-40 split. So we’ve got 40% expat families and 60% local families. That value of diversity is going to help both groups of people understand a different cultural lens. And I think you’re not going to become the country of the future by focusing on the practices of the past; there need to be new pathways for young people in Kazakhstan. Yet, it’s really important to maintain the cultural and social fabric that makes Kazakhstan unique. So, we have to embrace and value those wonderful traditions and at the same time educate our kids to be forward-thinking so that they can broaden the scope of what it means to be a young person Kazakhstan and create opportunities for themselves or take a look at existing systems and find ways to improve them. 

Thank you so much, OB. And thank you for being in Kazakhstan, bringing your international expertise, bringing your professionalism, bringing your passion to educate kids and taking it to a higher level, which is that I will never be the Head of School that I want to be but I will always be growing, developing, trying to achieve bigger and deeper and more knowledge and experience. And thank you for being generous and sharing it with the students here, with the teachers and with the families overall, and making this community a better place. 

Thank you so much. 

Ole Bernard Sealey,
Head of Kazakhstan International School

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