Marcia De Wolf – Community Engagement Director of St John's International School
Based in Belgium, where a large part of the population is French-speaking, St John’s International School runs bilingual English-French courses to suit locals and French expat students. Beyond academics, they also provide visual and performing arts, athletics as well as remediation to cater to students’ needs and interests all round.
However, Community Engagement Director, Mrs. Marcia De Wolf told ExpatFinder that the greatest appeal of the school lies in its supportive community and homely culture. Further, she brought us through their teaching ethos and some of the challenges they have been facing. Hear more from her in the full Q&A below.
Company: St John's International School
Category: International schools
Established since: 1964
Geographical coverage: Belgium
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and the teachers at the school.
A: We are a close-knit school with experienced, dedicated teachers who are fully committed to their students and see each child as a unique individual. Putting each student’s welfare at the heart of all they do, the teaching staff enable each student to flourish and reach his or her personal potential. The school has a family feel and an unique atmosphere that most people say they have never experienced elsewhere.
The 50 years of experience that St. John’s has in providing an excellent educational and personal experience for all of its students, whatever their background, is clearly evident. Our tight-knit community fosters a great sense of belonging and St. John’s truly accepts people from vastly different cultural experiences and, even more importantly, fosters interaction among them. What is unique about the St. John’s experience is that the community is diverse and international in the sense that everyone is accepted and, as a consequence, our students have a truly accepting and ‘worldly’ (global) outlook.
Q: What makes your school stand out in terms of teaching methods, curriculum and facilities?
A: We provide a comprehensive and varied curriculum that is able to cater for all students’ needs, offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, along with the related Primary Years Programme (PYP) in the Elementary School. The school has an excellent academic record, with more than 95 percent of graduates going on to university.
In addition to the main curriculum, here are just some of the interesting features:
- A fully bilingual English-French programmes from Pre-Kindergarten through grade 4
- Multiple levels of French in all grades and the option of doing the bilingual IB diploma
- Timbertops – a self-contained campus with a purpose-built Early Years centre
- A visual and performing arts programme and facility, which many consider to be the best in Europe today with the largest professionally run performing arts facility of any international school in Belgium
- An athletics programme that is regarded by many as one of the most comprehensive of any of the international schools in Belgium
- A gated campus with two entrances, each with a security guard, that provides a safe and secure environment
- Caring and welcoming community with 74% of St. John's families living within 10 kilometres of the campus and many walk or bike to school
Q: Do you feel the need to incorporate the local culture with your international programme?
A: With almost a quarter of the teaching staff coming from Belgium, the local culture and community are an important and integral part of life at St. John’s. With the school situated practically on the historic site of the Battle of Waterloo and within two minutes of the town, links with the local community are many and varied.
Some 20% of the population around Waterloo are expatriates, making this a very friendly and easy place to live, especially if it is your first time abroad. The local Commune is very experienced in dealing with expatriates and genuinely welcomes them into the community. The fact that many families live only minutes away from the school encourages a strong local community and school life, and there are ample opportunities to integrate into local Belgian life.
Q: Which are the most represented nationalities in your student population?
A: Currently the most represented are the United States, Belgium, United Kingdom, France and Norway next.
Q: What are the major challenges that you face as an international school in Belgium?
A: Belgium is one of the few countries that does not provide subsidies or tax breaks to international schools, which results in higher tuition fees at international schools in Belgium. This is often misinterpreted by companies and private families and requires ongoing explanations.
The recent events in Brussels make some expats more nervous to move to Belgium but our location and excellent security contribute to making prospective families feel more comfortable to move. Waterloo is a very safe town, outside of Brussels, and our campus is very well-protected.
Q: How do you help students overcome language and cultural barriers with their schoolmates?
A: We often hear that St. John’s is a very easy school to transition and integrate into, with our very active parent Welcome Committee and student buddy programmes, which support not only the new student, but also their family.
The St. John’s community comes from a wide variety of different nationalities and walks of life and the unique mix of cultures, religious beliefs, ethnicities and socio-demographic backgrounds of the students, families and faculty of St. John’s means that it is unusual for students not to find someone they can relate to immediately.
The English as an Additional Language (EAL) programme is specifically designed to support non-English speaking students, but a great deal of the support for both the student and their family will come from the St. John’s community as a whole.
Q: Do you provide personalised assistance and extra-curricular programmes to help students adapting to the new country and international school?
A: There are many extra-curricular activities available to students of all ages, including academic, sports and arts activities.
While teachers have considerable experience dealing with the issues arising from a relocation and can provide additional help in English language acquisition and support when needed, there are, of course, other issues that can affect how a student integrates into the school and life in Belgium.
We have Guidance Departments in the three sections of the school with trained counsellors who monitor, guide and support student well-being. All the Guidance Counsellors are available for individual and confidential consultations with any student, or indeed any parent, requiring personal or guidance counselling. The School Psychologist works school-wide and offers consultations for more specific concerns regarding emotional or psychological well-being.
Q: Do you have a special needs programme?
A: We have a Support Services department that covers the whole school. Our learning specialists work with students from Pre-Kindergarten up to grade 12 needing academic support or English as an Additional Language (EAL) in small groups in their own resource rooms or in the main classroom.
A programme of remediation is created to suit the needs of individual students. Our expert teachers and counsellors can, therefore, provide a range of educational and pastoral support to individual students.
We also have a speech & language therapist and an occupational therapist on site to provide specialised programmes and therapy where needed.
Q: In your opinion, what attitude and attributes should a student possess to thrive in an international school environment?
A: I don’t think you need to go much further than the St. John’s school values which are at the heart of everything we do: companionship, integrity and respect. Our vision is that St. John’s students are true to themselves whilst respecting the languages, cultures, beliefs and values of their peers.
Success in an international school environment demands personal excellence and individual responsibility, but to truly flourish and reap the benefits of this unique environment and grow as a person, they need to understand and take advantage of the rich cultural fabric of the student body, teaching staff and school community as well.
Q: What is one advice you'd give to parents looking for the right international school for their children?
A: Not to look only at the academic programme of the schools you visit, but to look at the school as a whole.
Does it cater for your child’s individual needs and learning style? Does it provide more than just excellent academic programmes? What was the teacher/student interaction like? Is there a thriving parent community (after all, you have to feel part of the school too)? Above all, did you get the feeling that you and your children would be happy to become members of this school community?