Vivid Vision

A Bustling Hive, Everyone With a Purpose

A “vivid vision” of where we hope to go and how we hope to grow.  Much of this is already in place, and this gives us direction for fulfilling the rest of the dream in the future.


A Journal Page written by a Head of School in the Future

It really never fails and yet still makes me laugh. People are astonished when I show them through the school – this morning a group from a magazine in London. A few years ago, these tours were usually (but not always) groups of parents, surprised at the fact that kids were happy and absolutely astonished that the kids were happy and learning at the same time, all in a culture of kindness. Some found it hard to believe that a school can be fun and humane and rigorous, all at the same time.  As our reputation as a progressive model has grown, we are more likely to be visited now by others hoping to spread the word to schools in their home state or home country. In Hong Kong and beyond, we are perceived as the innovators, leading the edge in the field of education. We are not just doing old things in new ways, we are doing new things in new ways.  We’re the one every parent hears about when they arrive in Hong Kong. In fact, it’s fair to say that we are the reason that some families move to Hong Kong, which is one reason that we have been approached by a company in Singapore to build a similar school there. Families from Munich or Brooklyn or Bangkok, where our other school sites are, would be dismayed at having to move overseas to a new assignment in a location without a THS school, and parents in Hong Kong appreciate the flexibility of sending their children to exchange in other countries.  Our base of operations has become the world, not a specific school site, so we benefit from ideas from all over the world.  And yet, each school has never grown beyond 800 students and each one feels like a small community.

Part of the reason for our international reputation has been the implementation of new programs. Part, of course, has been because of the awards and achievements of our students, but also because at THS every student and teacher is valued as an individual who is searching for his or her own best self. Teachers apply specifically to our school because they understand that it is different and that “good enough” is not good enough. They expect to be excited, inspired, amused, and educated. They know that they will work hard, but they also know their ideas will be respected and their initiatives supported. They know they can teach creatively, not follow some remote committee’s cookbook structure about what should be taught when and how.  They know that work is not separated from life at THS – they are seeking not so much a balance as a harmony.  And the teacher-training center helps us get the right candidates.

Our students and programs...

Our students defy a unifying description: some are articulate and verbally assertive, some are inventive and clever, some are thoughtful and shy.  Many are driven and creative, and many others are more conservative in their style or approach.  We have many who are interested in science and many who are interested in drama.  We have chess players and singers, strategists, coders, athletes, and entrepreneurs.  Similarly, we have students from all walks of life, many from affluent families but many others who are on needs-based scholarships including some who receive full tuition and transportation fees. The rich diversity of our community is what creates our students’ healthy acceptance of themselves and others. 

So we have first graders who are doing eighth grade math, others who give great performances but don’t think of math as a strength, shy students who are working on perfecting their TEDx talks while also designing a building, verbally confident students who work in student government and can give a great speech at any opportunity, active students who lead thoughtful discussions, and students who are working on improving networking skills while scoring a perfect score on the SAT.  And they wake up each morning excited to be here.

I’ve almost lost track of the innovative programs in the school, so much so that I honestly forget sometimes to talk about them.  At first we struggled with people chaotically creating, and some initiatives didn’t fit the school’s vision. This was solved when we created a framework that allowed for creative freedom within a collaborative ecosystem of guiding principles and organic participation. Students, teachers and parents can and do initiate, pitch and share projects at our monthly Agora, a community marketplace that meets both onsite and online at which the school community meets for celebrations, performances and an exchange of ideas. Allowing for greater input means that programs occur that a single individual would never have thought of, which of course is the point.

One of the most striking features are the walls and in the halls of the building. We can see pieces of art that illustrate students’ and teachers’ creativity, messages of activism that illustrate students’ initiatives, projects completed in The Foundry, which is the school’s MakerSpace, and information about past or current performances. There are wooden carvings, mixed-media installations, announcements and pleas for action. Our High School’s nonprofit organization, Meraki Giving, has coffee stands in several places to sell their imported Caferuna coffee. The halls sing with vibrancy, and every nook is filled. That being said, most teachers and kids understand the importance of maintaining a place of beauty - nothing is just flung on the walls, and we curate what is posted to maintain a place that is compelling and interesting. Of course, most things are posted at the students’ eye-level because they are the school’s primary consumers.

Our experiences...

Students at all levels are taught to use design thinking to solve real-world local or global problems through research and the formulation of authentic solutions.  For today’s scholars, the memorization of bits of data is much less important than the organizing principles of science and history through which information can be contextualized and understood. And of course this understanding leads to the inevitable passion for sustainability and global responsibility that pervades the school community.

We’ve always been experiential, and experience is not contained by a building.  Our primary school kids are often out on the Black Dolphin (our 50-foot sailboat) or spending a day in a restaurant or creating a film about farming or any one of an infinite number of learning experiences outside of our school walls. At any one time we also have about a quarter of our High School kids doing a deeper dive into some topic or action project - deeper dives that can’t take place in a classroom. At the moment we have a group of students in Hong Kong who are working on a project with a start-up company here, while some are in France studying Art, some are walking the Camino de Santiago, and some are in Kenya studying public health. 

Each class will have a production element – a book, movie, art exhibition or business plan that explains their project to others not only to develop presentation skills but also to inform, inspire another project or build a network. We maintain a couple of these Global Classrooms during the Summer, in addition to our campus classes, so that the population of the High School – actually capped at 200 – is more than 300 because students can attend and gain credits year-round and in different venues.  And our flexible approach to online programming, which we started during the Coronavirus pandemic, has allowed us to develop many distance-learning alternatives.  Students and teachers can work from a distance part-time or full-time, study together online during certain periods or manage their student experience in other innovative ways.

Our Community...

And this year-round approach also dovetails into other aspects.  The school is buzzing all day on Saturday and much of the day on Sunday. At any time, THS gives the feeling of being a bustling hive, everyone with a purpose. We have the intergenerational Shakespeare Company put together by parents, teachers and students, extra activities in The Foundry, community Karaoke on Sundays in Chinese, a Friday coffee house, the monthly Murder Mystery in the tree-house, mentoring meetings between students, workshops led by parents for students, classes taught by students for parents -- there just seems to be no end of great ideas for how to use a wonderful building that would otherwise be empty. THS students and teachers also create interactive museum-like science and art activities for other children in Hong Kong in a variety of other venues.  Last Saturday, I showed up at the school at about 11:00 a.m., just as the local community’s governance meeting let out, and because we live in a community of older citizens the parade of chatty septuagenarians and octogenarians leaving the building warmed my heart.  A smaller, but similarly-aged group often practices Tai-Chi on the roof early in the morning, and we have an exercise class in the pool on Tuesday mornings.  And so The Harbour School, instead of being defined by a particular place and specific “school hours”, has become much more of an overriding concept that is outside of time and space.  

Our parent community has always been one of our greatest resources. Community classes which are joined by (and in some cases even led by) students or parents have helped a lot in bringing parents into the school. Parents have also provided internships or projects in their own workplaces, which has helped spread awareness of and appreciation for our programs.

Our programs...

But I digress.  Some students come to THS partly because they are interested in Marine Science. (Our Marine Science program is a leader not only in Asia but worldwide.) Others come to THS because of the experiential connections to history and science that take place at all age levels. Some come because we actually address the needs of highly advanced students, and some come because they know their child will gain acceptance and encouragement even if they have areas of weakness.  Some simply love the fact that we understand that all people are complex and all people have both strengths and weaknesses.  Many come because they understand that at THS their children will become dynamic leaders, not just test-takers, and will gain profound experiences that nurture their souls forever.  

Each floor at The Grove is a Learning Studio that combines two grade levels, which means that students are part of a community for two years at a time. Classes are differentiated across the floor in Literacy and Math, and there are two heterogenous classes for History/Social Studies and Science per grade. We have worked with the architects to really incorporate flexible walls, so the floor layouts vary almost weekly as different demands arise. Our music program is now very well developed, with a few really stellar students who have been featured at Carnegie Hall and La Scala, and some of our students have been accepted at Berklee and Julliard. We produce one school-wide musical per year, as we have the last few years, and those are always powerful. But we also produce at least one student-driven project (written and/or directed by a student), one of Shakespeare’s plays, and one High School production.  

Our High School’s transdisciplinary classes, many suggested by students’ interests, reflect interesting real-world topics studied through rigorous but compelling courses.  Because each class is open to anyone who has met the prerequisites, ninth graders are often found with twelfth graders in classes with exciting titles such as “Game Theory in the Real World”, “The History of Art in Activism”, “Urban Dreaming”, “Subaquatic Hong Kong” or “Man versus Nature” alongside more traditional courses such as Calculus, Physics or Psychology.  Universities are now well aware of us because many of our alumni have been leaders in their schools as well. Students coming from THS don’t just have talent, skills or content knowledge – they have attitude.  

Our respect...

And yes, okay, maybe this is a cliche, but cliches arise from truth: A lot of this is because of the school’s fantastic teachers and staff. The teachers are creative, nurturing and smart. Most importantly, they love learning new things themselves and that means that they also love watching others learn. They never underestimate what can be done or learned by kids, they don’t relegate certain sets of knowledge to different age-sets, and they always present new information in a way that enables - and in fact encourages - discussion and questioning. Visitors see complex concepts being discussed in Kindergarten, with teachers not batting an eye in surprise as kids come up with genuine insights. At THS, kids debate the laws of Hammurabi when they are eight, present passionate arguments about food waste at age ten, and start companies when they are twelve. They are given respect as equally competent (although less experienced) learners.  In fact, most of our teachers could ruefully explain that their younger colleagues are often much faster at learning new processes and vocabulary, particularly with technology and science. Almost no rules exist that apply to specific ages – a common set of norms is accepted.  This atmosphere of trust and respect regardless of age permeates the campus. Kids often behave with great maturity because there is a true expectation that they will.

That respect surprises kids and also surprises adults. People in the school community feel that they are well-known, appreciated for their strengths and celebrated for their abilities. Kids and teachers understand that a weakness in one area does not define them. One of the primary missions of the school is to help people find their best paths, whether that is serving as an intern for NASA, attending a selective university or joining a nonprofit organization for a gap year. The teachers model kindness to administrators and kids, the kids model kindness for younger kids and parents, the parents are kind to each other and to teachers, and the administrators model kindness to teachers, kids and the whole school community. Everyone understands that they must be reasonable people who see each other with best intentions.  At its core, the school is a healthy place where people value themselves and each other.  As you might imagine, that was a hard atmosphere to develop, but its development was pivotal to every other aspect of the school. In fact, its importance is so fundamental that we’ve ironically learned that we have to be mean about being nice: The fastest way to be asked to leave THS is to be unkind to a child or a colleague.  

Our graduates...

Our alumni are entrepreneurs, physicists, artists, composers, scholars, architects, playwrights, mathematicians, physicians and engineers.  One is a world-class sailor and one is a world-class golfer.  Many are stretching the bounds of what we envision as work.  They are as different in their professions as our student body is different in their personalities and cognitive styles.  But as different as they are, they all carry forward a vision of a better world and a confidence in their own ability to help create it. 

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