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It Takes a Village: The American School of Belo Horizonte

Thanks for joining us today. Let’s start with telling the SchoolRubric community a little bit about yourself and your background.

Well, currently, I am serving as the Head of School of American School of Belo Horizonte, which is also known as Escola Americana de Belo Horizonte. We endearingly refer to the school as EABH.

I’m currently in my eleventh year serving as the Head of School, but prior to that, I was the lower school principal and the PYP coordinator. I also serve on the board of trustees for two different organizations: AISH, the Academy of International School Heads, and AASSA, the Association of American Schools in South America.

EABH school director Catarina Song Chen
EABH school director Catarina Song Chen

Prior to coming to Brazil, I grew up in California. But I also spent part of my childhood in Asuncion, Paraguay. I am what you call a TCK – a third culture kid. TCK means a child that is raised in a culture that is different from their parents or a culture that is different from what’s written on their passport. I have worked in education my whole life, but I’ve also worked in the fashion industry which gives me a unique perspective and set of experiences.


So we understand that you just came back from the United States to participate in AASA’s recruiting fair and conference in Atlanta. Can you talk about your role as Vice President on the board and the direction you see AASSA heading?

I have been serving as a board of trustee for AASSA for six years now, and it is a privilege and an honor to serve an organization that represents a community and a region that is very vibrant and that is membership driven and focused. We believe that we are positioned to be one of the major global players in education due to our strategic plans. We are investing heavily in professional development so that it is based and focused on innovation and preparing our future leaders.


The Advanc-ED accreditation visit happened recently in April 2019. What were some of the major takeaways in terms of effective practices and opportunities for improvement at EABH?

We had a very successful Avanc-ED visit back in April 2019 and we walked away with a lot of commendations as well as areas for improvement. We’re very proud of the results. We have been told that we are one of two schools in Latin America that have received zero areas for “initiate” – there are ultimately three levels for accreditation: initiate, improve and impact. And most of our results are in “impact,” with a handful of areas that we have identified as areas we need to improve upon.

The accreditation visit identified a strong school culture at EABH and a very collaborative environment. All of the key stakeholders are involved in helping and improving our school’s growth. The accreditation visit also identified the strengths of our board members with respect to their governance and oversight for the long term strategic plans of the school. And of course, our teachers and the leadership have also been identified as a strength for focusing and growing in the areas of teaching and learning.


Maybe you could just talk about some of the things that you’re proud of that your school does that isn’t necessarily part of the accreditation process.

We’re very proud of our school because we have been experiencing immense growth, not just in quantity, because we have grown our school from 100 to 400 students, but right now we are in amazing times in terms of growth in quality.

Our school has engaged in adopting a master plan as we’re getting ready for continuous growth. But we’re also very excited about everything that we’re doing in terms of curriculum. We are focusing a lot on interdisciplinary planning and STEM is a big part of our school. We hope to be STEM-accredited in the near future. We’re also focusing a lot on co-teaching and we are in our second year in implementing co-teaching. We believe this is a great, cutting-edge model for success in learning and we believe that we are one of the few schools, if any, here in South America that is implementing this program right now.


EABH is currently authorized by the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) and Middle Years Programme (MYP). Are there plans to adopt the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) at any point?

We are one of the first two schools in all of Brazil to have been authorized to offer the PYP and MYP through the International Baccalaureate Organization. At the moment, we do not have plans to implement the Diploma Programme. We have the Advanced Placement Capstone program in place for our juniors and seniors. We believe that we have done such a good job over the decade of teaching the students to think outside the box with the PYP and MYP. We want to continue providing for our students an individualized and personalized approach to teaching and learning, and that is what the AP capstone offers for us, an a la carte approach to focus on student interests and strengths. For now, this is serving the needs of our school. With the implementation of seminar and research classes, we believe that we will further develop our juniors and seniors so that they are prepared for college.

Another thing that we really like about the AP Capstone is that the students can start their college level courses as early as ninth grade. So our students who want a more challenging course can start in the ninth and tenth grade so that by the time they reach their junior and senior year that they have a more balanced life and they can still engage in sports and extracurricular activities.

Belo Horizonte is located in southeast Brazil and is the 13th largest city in South America.
Belo Horizonte is located in southeast Brazil and is the 13th largest city in South America.

When you’re recruiting and looking to hire a teacher, what are some of the key attributes that you look for in candidates to determine if a teacher will be effective with EABH students?

Recruiting is a work of art. There are many, many great qualified teachers out there. So how do we pick the best teachers for EABH? I believe that it’s all about the right fit. When I’m recruiting, I want to make sure that the teacher that joins our community is one that is looking to join a community where they can take risks together and engage in lots of cooperative and collaborative planning. I always try to ensure that the teacher that we’re hiring is forward thinking. They definitely need to have a mindset for growth and know that they’re coming here because they know that they will be pushed to learn and grow as a professional. But they must also learn and appreciate how to have fun because we know that learning takes place when one is engaged and really committed to having fun in the process.

Belo Horizonte is built on a number of hills and sur-rounded by picturesque mountains.
Belo Horizonte is built on a number of hills and sur-rounded by picturesque mountains.

How Brazil weathered some of the challenges over the years with respect to safety and its economy??

Not only is Brazil the largest country in South America, but it’s also the largest economy as well. And although both South America and Brazil have weathered lots of different problems in the past, the country has found a way to not only survive but thrive. Brazil is a great problem solver. I love living and working in Brazil because the people are vibrant. They can come up with creative ways to approach and solve problems. It’s a place where you feel like you’re living. I think problems are what give life to any culture. But it is that unity and that desire to make things happen and that positive mindset that really helps Brazil thrive.


What is your school’s current governance and leadership model and structure?

EABH is currently governed by seven elected board members, of which three have to be local Brazilians and three have to be international. The seventh member can be somebody that’s not part of the school community, such as an external professional that joins the board.

The leadership team at EABH is made up of eleven different members. We have leaders in the area of business management, community relations, and in the academics. We also have a separate PYP coordinator and a lower school principal. With the continuous growth of our school, we expect to have a separate MYP coordinator and upper school principal as well.

EABH Class of 2020 graduation ceremony held at the international airport, with social distancing measures in place.
EABH Class of 2020 graduation ceremony held at the international airport, with social distancing measures in place.

EABH has a large capital expansion plan in development. How are you going about raising funds and what does the vision for the school in the future look like?

EABH has adopted an ambitious master plan and we have already kick-started this project with the implementation of Sage Hall and our new parking lot entrance. The next phase is to build twelve additional classroom spaces. But in order to fund this, we have established our development program.

In South America, fundraising is not widely practiced. So right now, we are implementing a culture of giving and this school year, we have launched our first giving program on February 14th to celebrate love for our children and love for the future. Things are going well. We have reached our annual goal and are working really hard to reach the goal for our long term project, which is to raise three million in three years.


What are some of the major spaces that will be part of the proposed expansion?

The objective with the expansion of our at twelve additional classroom spaces is to ensure that our spaces really support our teaching and learning methodologies. Right now we do a lot of interdisciplinary work with our teachers, so we want to make sure that the space really is able to support that. We are heavily invested in STEM and we want to make sure that the environments are very flexible and our students can move around and engage in projects as they are currently doing. It will be a three-story building with a rooftop where students can garden, hang out, and engage in Socratic seminars outdoors.


It’s quite little remarkable and perhaps unusual for a school director to spend this amount of time with one international school. What are you most proud of at your time at the school so far?

It’s been a remarkable journey being a part of this school community. As I mentioned before, we grew from 100 to 400 students, and in that process, we were able to build a very strong community where morale is high and everyone is collaborative. Everyone is engaged. At EABH, we refer to our school community as a village, and we truly mean it when we say that it takes a village to raise a child.

From the minute you arrive at our campus, you will be welcomed by our guards who are here to protect us. And if you walk to the lunchroom, you will see our cafeteria ladies who are always preparing healthy, hot meals for our students and our staff to our maintenance workers who are quietly working behind the scenes, fixing up everything that may be broken and our janitors who are making sure that the school environment constantly clean. The administrators that are always making sure that the parents are having their questions addressed and making sure that they also support our teachers, because we know that the impact a teacher makes to a child is a lifetime.

We all work as a team to ensure that we all work together as one community. This is something that we’re most proud of and something that we have been commended for over and over by all accrediting and authorizing agencies.


What do you envision for both yourself and the school in the next 10 years?

We hope to continue to thrive in the educational world. Right now, education is changing at a rapid speed and we are preparing children for a workforce that we don’t even know what will look like. We need to make sure that our students are socially prepared, that they are mentally healthy, and that they have all the competencies needed to survive and thrive in an ever changing world. We want to make sure that EABH provides the right space and atmosphere for this to happen.

EABH enrolls approximately 400 students in grades PK-12 and offers PYP, MYP, and Advanced placement courses.
EABH enrolls approximately 400 students in grades PK-12 and offers PYP, MYP, and Advanced placement courses.

We want to ensure that EABH is known as a learning hub. We want to continue to attract the best teachers. We also want to make sure that our school space is able to offer the appropriate environment for risk taking, for science, and for the arts. We want to make sure that it’s a place where everyone feels welcome. This is an international school where we have people from many different walks of life who come here and feel welcome to be a part of our family.


Is there anything else you would like readers to know about yourself or about EABH?

EABH may be a small school, but we do pack a punch. We consider ourselves as “the little engine that could.” We’ve come a long way and we are positioned to grow even more with our development program, our expansion plan, and our positive track that we’re on in recruiting the best teachers. We believe that we will grow in quantity, but also in quality.

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Ryan Sagare
Ryan is an experienced U.S. and international educator who currently works as Meet the Experts Webinar Moderator/Producer for Advanced Micro Device, inc (AMD). Ryan previously worked as the Coordinator for Distance Learning at the Knight Center for the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.

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