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The American School of Rio de Janeiro – An Interview with Dr. Nigel Winnard

Nigel Winnard
April 1, 2019

Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro (EARJ), or the American School of Rio de Janeiro, is one of the oldest private schools in Brazil with its Gavea campus yet has opened a new expansion in the neighborhood of Barra. Situated next to the idyllic shores of famous Ipanema beach but also adjacent to one of the city’s largest favelas, Rocinha, EARJ’s story is one of community, opportunity, and resilience, much mirroring Brazil’s trajectory as a nation. SchoolRubric’s Managing Director, Wallace Ting, sat down with EARJ’s director now in his third year, Dr. Nigel Winnard.

Tell the SchoolRubric community a little bit about yourself and your background.

I guess this year I’m kind of excited and embarrassed to say it’s my 30th year as an educator. And I’ve kind of been very fortunate. I’ve worked in a lot of different locations around the world. I’m originally from the U.K., but graduate school is all U.S. So hence my location at the moment as the head of an American school here in Rio de Janeiro.

Before that, I was part of the team that started the first IB World School in Sudan and I was there for 13 years. And then prior to that I was in São Paulo, the Philippines, and a whole host of different locations. I am a proud Trojan and earned my doctorate from USC (University of Southern California). And it was great to see three Trojans play in the Super Bowl, even if they were on the losing side. I guess from the point of view of being a school administrator, we all end up with our particular interests. I think because of a lot of factors, my career has led me into a kind of a specialism in areas of school safety and school security. And I think, sadly, it’s never been more necessary, not only overseas, but Stateside and in most national locations now that there are increasing issues and concerns with both physical and psychological and emotional safety of students. So that’s kind of an area that I tend to spend a lot of time on.


Are you currently in Brazil with your family?

I’m here with my family. My wife’s a counselor. My son’s a surfer. I try and explain to him he’s actually 13 years old and he’s supposed to go to school. But yeah, I’m here with my family.


What motivated you to pursue the directorship at EARJ initially, and how would you characterize your experience thus far?

Every school is unique. I mean, that’s a given. And I think the the uniqueness in EARJ I was looking for was that EA’s a at a peculiar situation in its history. It’s 82 years old. It’s a twin campus school. So you’ve got this 82 year-old school with one campus that’s been around since 1971 and then you’ve got this kind of late marriage kid who is the second campus, which is geographically very different and also architecturally very different in its setup. It’s 20 kilometres from the home campus. And it’s growing with a certain unprecedented pace at the moment, I would say. So it is the challenge really of coming in and helping a community that, let’s face it, has its security challenges. It faces significant security challenges and is nonetheless expansionist in its ambitions. I think there’s a temptation very often for schools when they face difficult situations with economic, political or insecurity issues that they kind of batten down the hatches and kind of wait until it all goes away. And what I find is actually that this is a time for you to assert your identity. It’s a time for you to grow and celebrate and be bigger than the circumstances that are trying to restrict it. And so it was really a synergy between my background in working in tough environments and the needs of the school, as well as the ambitions of the board. And Rio is a pretty cool place to live.


What have been some of the biggest accomplishments during your tenure At EARJ?

I’ve not been fired.


That’s always a good one.

Come on, Wallace. You know and I know that’s not that’s not a bad achievement.

The Barra campus opened in 2014 with a number of purpose-built learning spaces, such as the Lower School art classroom.
The Barra campus opened in 2014 with a number of purpose-built learning spaces, such as the Lower School art classroom.


No seriously, I think… Let’s separate out the accomplishments of the school and my accomplishments because those are separate things. I think the school’s achieved some great things over the past few years. It’s achieved a lot more cohesion as a community. It’s asserted its self-belief that we’re actually a pretty good school doing some great things and we want to celebrate that. We’ve overcome challenges as a community and I phrase that carefully. Nobody overcame them for us. Nobody did them for the community. The community overcame challenges. Mostly security.

My personal challenges here in terms of what I think I might have brought to the party is kind of like that old Kipling poem which says if you can keep your head while all about losing theirs. I try and bring a certain stability and calm when when things start flying around. And I’m old enough to realize that I I’ve hired some way smarter folks than I am. So I try and just create conditions for them to do what they do, and I hope that continues. That’s how I like to work in a community and I’m really fortunate here. I’m surrounded by a lot of really great people. So what I’ve achieved I guess is really just creating conditions for people to be their best selves. And reinforcing that permission if you will, to say you know what – we’re all pretty good here, we do a pretty good thing and have done so for 82 years. Sorry I can’t be a little more concrete there.


So to make sure that I understand, it’s like hiring the right people, making sure that there is a little bit of self-recognition within the community about the kind of potential it has, and addressing some security challenges. Things of that nature?

Getting out of the way. I think sometimes as a school leader it’s important to kind of set the tone and direction and then get out of the way. And that’s kind of scary, especially when you’re new in a position and you’re only just getting to know people. But it’s really critical, especially in a large school. You know, we’ve got 170-some faculty. Four divisional principals. You get a lot of really great people and you get out of the way; otherwise, even if you did believe in micromanagement you would burn out even trying.

EARJ Student and Faculty Demographics
EARJ Student and Faculty Demographics

Going forward over the next three, four, or five years, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges and hurdles for the school?

I think the challenges for the school are not just for the school per say, but I think challenges for the international school market in Brazil, and possibly by extension Latin America. There’s a spirit that’s a little bit like the Klondike at the moment in Latin America, particularly in Brazil, for the rise of the private for-profit sector. Those guys are moving in, and to a certain extent, are taking advantage of a quite rudimentary legislative situation. It’s not a well-regulated area at the moment.

And Brazil being at such a size and such a scale and with global availability of venture capital, you’re getting some big players moving in very rapidly creating quite a big noise and being disruptive. And I don’t mean that in a Christensen positive way, but being disruptive in ways that are really not well thought through. I think there’s a really strong need for a public-private conversation about what the landscape of Brazilian K-12 education needs to look like and what is the place for all the different kinds of players. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a dog-eat-dog mentality where the for-profits with deep pockets kind of take away options for parents, and parents should always have options.

And I’m not saying that for-profit schools per say do a bad job. That would be ridiculous, of course. Many of them are great schools. It’s more the business mentality. The lack of political regulation. And I think that’s the terrain that American schools in Brazil and longstanding international schools in Brazil and the British schools are going to have to wrestle with. Somebody once said to me, “how do you explain baseball to a Martian?” It’s a little bit like that because you know you’re not talking the same language when it comes to established business practices. And that’s causing a lot of disruption in cities like São Paulo and Rio. It’s going to be coming to Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador. It’s going to be become a nationwide challenge. And so that’s going to be one of the main challenges.

I think another challenge many of us face is the unpredictable economic situation. We’re heading into a period of stability with a new president and that will be stable until the next election. So that kind of cycle of stability-instability. From an educational standpoint, which is ultimately our core business, the first two are about survival and thriving from a business sense. But in terms of our core business, it’s about remaining relevant and I think that’s something that all schools have to wrestle with. How we remain relevant in our programs and in our understanding of what pedagogy means. And that’s quite a conversation.


Right. Following on that thread a little bit, there are quite a bit of international schools that are popping up in Rio now. So if a prospective parent came in to your admissions office and asked why they should think about sending their child to EARJ instead of one of the other options, how would you respond to that?

First of all, we have a kind of unique identity as an American International School. We are the only American International School in the city at the moment. So if you’re looking for an American International School then you’ve got one choice.

We’re also the most diverse in terms of our student population. We have over 30 nationalities. The international schools in Rio tend to be host country national schools which have an international outlook, so the predominant language is Portuguese, but they may have some international programs. So we’re an IB school and we have a U.S. high school diploma. You walk in and you’re going to see a lot of the symbolism and icons of what it is to be an American school. But we’re very much international in outlook. So you’re going to see MUN (Model United Nations) and you’re going to see all those kinds of programs. You’re going to see English everywhere. You’re going to hear English everywhere. And for international families in particular that’s a big deal, and increasingly for our Brazilian families as well. They’re wanting English immersion. And so that’s another key aspect of why they choose us.

But I think one of the most pervasive things about admissions is the EA alumni community and the kind of reach that our community has. People really don’t get this, but they come to value it very quickly. You know, we have alumni reunions from guys going back to the 60s. There was a huge reunion recently down in Florida. Guys from the 60s and early 70s. And that kind of Panther reach, so to speak, is significant. And there are a number of international schools around the world, some of the larger ones like ourselves, which have that kind of alumni reach and that sense of community. And if you’re coming from that background yourself as a U.S. parent shall we say, it’s a really great bonus to be able to find it in an international school and say wow, you know, I went to Andover or wherever I happened to go and I’m part of this great college alumni. And EARJ offers the same thing for my kid. So that kind of brought a sense of community.

One other thing that we do that I would say categorically that none of the other schools in the city do is that we enroll families. We don’t enroll students. So we enroll Mom and Dad and everything that goes with that. So I sometimes wonder if we are relocation agents as well. We have a newcomers connections group. We basically, as soon as you join us, look after you all the way. So we look after the social side, the social connections. We problem solve for you and your family. So we can do kind of a wraparound services model, which is a little bit different too I think than most schools.

Dr. Winnard leads a student and staff session at the school’s MuseON, a flexible learning space that adapts to a variety of different learning needs.
Dr. Winnard leads a student and staff session at the school’s MuseON, a flexible learning space that adapts to a variety of different learning needs.

I actually even saw someone on your school’s Facebook page that you did an alumni spotlight on. That was pretty interesting to read.

Yeah we do. Our alums are kind of scary in their achievements. We do regular alumni spots. We do alumni reunions, dinners. We’re increasingly looking for ways to connect our current students to alumns as well just so they can see that they’re part of a very long, long song. So that’s kind of a big deal for us.


Going on the parent note when you said you accept families as opposed to students… When I was prepping for this interview I stumbled across a GQ Brazil article where you expressed that you feel very strongly about the role of parents even more so than perhaps the role of schools. Can you elaborate on that a bit more and how that manifests itself at EARJ?

In a sense it’s related to that comment I made earlier about 21st century pedagogy and remaining relevant. One of the things I say to the new parents at the start of the school year is that you’re not outsourcing responsibility for the education of your children by sending them to EA. The education of your children is your responsibility as a parent. We are one of the tools you use to do that. But it is not our job to parent your kid. It’s our job to work sympathetically with shared values about the things that matter. That’s part of our onboarding with parents when they’re looking for a school. But ultimately the parent is responsible for raising their kid and for educating their child in the true sense of the word “education.”

Schooling is another matter. But we’re not talking about schooling – that kind of read, write, and figure out numbers. We’re talking here about the growth of an individual’s ability to be a meaningful contributor to society. And I think that’s why I feel so strongly about those parents who feel that they send their kids to school and the education’s sorted out. Or if I’m a parent who happens to have a very privileged life I can be absent a lot because I can fly wherever I want, whenever I want. And that provided my kid has a nanny and the tutor and the psychiatrist, then I’m being a good father. No, you’re not. If your kid needs you to sit down and have dinner and have boring-time together, that’s something I really worry about. And the absentee parent. And by absentee I mean even when they’re present in the same building they are still absent because there’s that lack of philosophical buy-in that parenting is an active, engaged thing. So we do parenting classes. Of course it’s the usual thing that you end up with the wrong people coming to the parenting classes. The people who need it are traveling. But nonetheless what we’re saying is that we need to have a conversation about what it means to be a parent in a world that’s changing. Not just what it means to be a school in a world that is changing. So yeah, the whole parenting-school overlap thing is a big area of interest for me.


One of the things that’s stated on the website about the school’s unique features is that students create news programs and documentaries. The website claims that there is a robust service learning program at the school. Can you tell us a little bit more about these programs and what makes them special?

Maybe we do the last one first, the service learning. It is difficult to think of service learning as a program because that feels innocent. I think we kind of got things wrong when we think about service learning as a program. It’s a little bit like innovation, creativity. They’re not things that happen on a Tuesday at half past three.

They’re habits of mind and the main campus here in Gavea where I am now is located 200 meters from one of the largest favelas in Brazil, Rocinha. There are a lot of challenges in Rocinha, but we’ve been here since 1971, so we are part of Rocinha in a lot of ways. And since certainly the 1980s we’ve had so many reciprocal programs running between ourselves that we no longer even see them as programs. They’re just part of our DNA. So we have music programs. We have a milk program. We have library programs, reading programs, sports. But recently we’ve not been able to go into the favela because the security has been too challenging.

We started a new extension six, seven months ago where we started a theater school because we have a theater. And it was just an obvious thing for us to do. The premise of the theater school is that for every fee-paying student attending, one maybe two students will be sponsored from the favelas so they can access it. Because it’s almost within our DNA that we have an obligation to extend what we do as far as we can and as much as we can afford it.

So we have this theater program running on a Saturday and then this film director heard about it and he reached out to us. He made a great great documentary, The Killing of Sister Dorothy, about an environmentalist who was killed in the rainforest in the north. And he said, “So you’ve got kids from Rocinha. And kids from wealthy backgrounds seen as partners working on this collaborative theater program and then they’re going to their respective places and then they’re coming back again.” So he’s now got a crew of students who are now documentary filmmakers, making a documentary about it which is hoping to be shown in April/May. So that was another opportunity where I said, yeah that’s great but we’re going to have kids from Rocinha also participate as filmmakers for this because that’s what we do. So that service learning piece is if you will wrapped up into our interrelationship with Rocinha. But there are many students who do other forms of service in other locations around the city as well. And as an IB school of course with CAS they do creativity, activity and service anyway. So there are some programmed elements of it.

We have media electives and those kinds of things and so the kids get pretty excited about those. We just had a collaboration between one of our media electives and our MuseON. The MuseON is museum space where we do four exhibitions a year on very provocative things. And so the one that we were just about to open is on language and the relationship in particular between language, identity and truth. So think of a large museum space with artifacts, exhibits and boards. Then there was a promo movie done for that one about media elective groups, which is very high quality. We kind of join up the dots within the skills we have in the school and there are many. I’d like us to get a little more coordinated with that – what school director wouldn’t? So yeah, there’s a lot of media from that point of view. I’d like us to do a lot more in that area because it’s creativity that all students can access without prior judgment. Everybody can pick up a camera. Everyone feels they can pick up a paintbrush. So that’s the media piece.

Children in the neighboring favela de Rocinha regularly interact with the EARJ community as part of the school’s community service and outreach efforts.
Children in the neighboring favela de Rocinha regularly interact with the EARJ community as part of the school’s community service and outreach efforts.

Perhaps on a bit more academic note we can talk about the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme). I noted that the participation rate has increased to 100% last year from 74% and 59% in previous years. You were also able to achieve a 100% pass rate of students who attempted the diploma. Can you speak to some of the factors you believe have contributed to this improvement?

You know what – not many school directors are going to say dumb luck, but I’m going to go with that. Every now and then the stars align and I think it’s important that we realize that we’re not in total control of student learning and we never were. Learning is a choice. Students make decisions as to what they invest in and what they want. You can just create the conditions for that investment and the conditions for them to be successful.

We happen to have a bunch of kids who are very invested in their academic success and doubled down on it. And we happen to have faculty who are able to support that.

But every now and then you’re going to get some kids who don’t. So when we look back and we say we didn’t have as many kids who were successful before, that’s not to say that was because they weren’t as bright or as talented. It was because it didn’t fit their particular path because for some of those kids I can tell you now they were early decision. So those are the kids who take their foot off the gas and do what’s necessary and then start to look at that last semester in a very different way. And I don’t mean they blow it off. One of the things I would love to do if somebody died and made me God is that all terminal examinations in the world would take place in December. And then that last semester of high school would be when we really got the chance to do something spectacular. And I would love for us to one day get into that situation.

We’re a Northern Hemisphere school working in the SouthernHemisphere. We have Northern Hemisphere examinations, but I kind of would love to have that opportunity. But in terms where we’re going with all this – are we becoming a more academically oriented school? No, I think what we’re doing is we’re becoming a more tailored school. We’re becoming a school that’s able to flex according to its population because we’re a pretty broad church. I mean, we’ve got over 270-280 kids who are receiving services. And those kids will graduate. And they may not do the full diploma. They may do some classes but they will graduate. And every now and then there’ll be some grade levels with a higher proportion of kids with different learning needs. And then you’ll get a group of kids who are all IB chasing 40 points. Our ability to flex according to their need is critical to who we are. One thing we don’t do is we don’t have an admissions policy that is geared towards high academic outcomes. We take any kid who’s going to benefit from an EA education.

Graduating Senior University Acceptances
Graduating Senior University Acceptances

What is the school’s governance and leadership structure?

We have a blended school board so it’s a combination of elected and appointed. There is the opportunity on the board for some self-maturation in that the board can appoint a couple of positions as well. It’s a combination of expatriate and national, which I think is a healthy representation. There are 13 members. Twelve of the 13 have kids in the school. And so they have a level of engagement which is richer as a consequence. They are a really good board for a number of reasons, but one in particular which is that they understand their strategic and fiduciary role and they are constantly on guard to avoid becoming operationally engaged. And that is a constant conversation because people are people. They know it. And then they leave the leadership of the school to the leadership team.

We’ve expanded the leadership team. One of the big changes that I instituted when I came was to expand the leadership team from just the principals to include non-academic leaders in the school. So on the leadership team we have advancement, HR and strategy, business office plus the principals and myself. It’s also had the added benefit of increasing diversity on the leadership team. It’s now 50 percent female, 50 percent male. Fifty percent expatriate, 50 percent Brazilian. So we’ve got people who know the long story and know the cost of things with people who know the educational side. So that’s been a good thing. Our leadership team meets every three weeks. It was more frequent than that, but I want my leadership team also to be strategic. And it’s very tough to do that when you meet a lot. So we meet once every three weeks and that’s across campuses and that’s pretty much it. And then they each have the kind of divisional administrative structures to implement the programs in the school.

I just want to make a quick shout out to our parents because they play a role within our leadership conversations. We instituted monthly parent-teacher association meetings with the community, plus every semester I have an open forum with all of the parents divisionally on each campus to try and increase the number of conversations with our parents in particular. Those conversations plus the new semester community surveys can all go into the mix for that conversation at the leadership level about how well we’re doing, and whether or not we’re all still on that shared narrative about what our school is.


You mentioned there’s over 30 nationalities represented and it seems like approximately 60 percent of your current demographic is Brazilian. Do you expect any change in these demographics going forward, and are there any steps that school and the board are taking to obtain a certain target demographic distribution?

No. I think we have it in mind that it’s healthy to have a wide range of kids from different backgrounds in the school. But we’re talking only their about nationality, you know. If we had longer I’d like to talk about other forms of diversity within the school.

It’s not the entire conversation to assume that nationality and internationality are the same thing. Some of our most internationally-minded families are actually some of our Brazilian families. They’re more well travelled. They’ve lived in more countries. They’re educated all over the world. They’re truly global. There are some of our expatriate families which are exactly the same. But there are also some of them who may be overseas for the first time and they’re trying to take a little bit of Georgia with them wherever they go and hope it passes if it feels more foreign than that. So it isn’t necessarily the case that just because you have 30-odd nationalities you are more international. But I’d say we have a very internationally-minded outlook as a school. We value our diversity. We celebrate it. And we want to deepen it and enrich it as much as we can. That’s why English as the lingua franca is such an important icon for us as well as necessary for academic progress. It also says what we value is our ability to cross national boundaries. You asked if the board has any plans to address that. We do have a policy which tries to aim at making sure we are the most international school in Rio.

We’re about 68 percent Brazilian at the moment. And you know that by the rough metric of national passports, we would want to still remain the first choice for expatriates getting off the plane.

“Some of our most internationally-minded families are actually some of our Brazilian families. They’re more well-traveled. They’ve lived in more countries. They’re educated all over the world. They’re truly global.” – Nigel Winnard
“Some of our most internationally-minded families are actually some of our Brazilian families. They’re more well-traveled. They’ve lived in more countries. They’re educated all over the world. They’re truly global.” – Nigel Winnard

Let’s talk a little bit about Brazil. You made reference to it a little bit earlier, but it seems to be a country that’s experienced some fluctuations in terms of finances, exchange rates, economy, safety, and security. Can you talk a little bit about how that may have affected operations at the school from resource management to student enrollment to perhaps even teacher recruitment?

Yeah, sure. One of the things about Brazil is that it kind of bucked the Latin American trend. I mean, if we go back to the 90s and Cardoso and then the Lula years. You know Argentina was blowing up. Venezuela was going all over the place. And Fujimori over in the West. Latin America is really kind of a very volatile place. But Brazil was a BRIC nation. And I love that acronym BRIC because it was like a brick, solid right in the middle of Latin America and it actually didn’t fluctuate economically that much given what was happening with the mayhem in the 2000s around it. And even recently, we’ve had some currency fluctuations because we have an election – but find me a country that doesn’t during the run-up to an election. Relatively speaking, there’s been kind of a point one, point two, point three fluctuation on a scale that’s run between typically three and four Reals to the Dollar. So the financial fluctuation hasn’t been that difficult.

There have been major corruption issues within the country. There have been issues with the integrity of the political process. Those kinds of things. But somehow Brazil is so big and so complex. It’s able to weather its own storms. Even the security situation. And undeniably Rio and Rio State have had some significant challenges over the past few years. Brazilians have a great habit of owning their issues, you know. Can you imagine a state governor and the president standing up and saying, “you know what – we’ve lost control of security, so we’ve asked the army to step in and give us a hand so we can get back on top of it”? It’s political suicide. And that’s exactly what the Rio State governor and former president Tamera did. They brought the army into Rio and they supported logistically. And they got on top of things. So I think Brazil is many things, where it’s definitely a country of hope. It’s not a country that throws its hands up and says well there’s nothing we can do. So I think that optimism is a hugely important aspect of the country.

In terms of recruitment, it’s currently February. But if we were having this conversation at the end of January I can tell you we are fully hired for next year. We don’t really face an issue with recruitment. And you know, we’re pretty rigorous in searching for our teachers and one of the reasons for that is our attrition rates are very low. It’s a great place to live. It’s a great place to be as an educator. So we don’t actually look for that many teachers when we’re recruiting although this year was a few more because we’re expanding.

But what we are hearing is that the narrative about Brazil outside of Brazil is very different. It’s a far gloomier narrative than the reality. And that’s unfortunate. I mean, I’m 52 and I grew up during a period when Brazil was like the coolest place on Earth. Wow – go to Brazil! You speak to Generation Z kids and that’s not their perception of Brazil at all. It’s a very different perception. And that perception is reality when it comes to people making choices about where they go around the world.


Let’s talk about teacher recruitment. What kind of teacher do you look for? And more specifically, what kind of teacher or what kind of characteristics would make him or her as successful as possible at EARJ and living in Rio?

I’m pretty research-oriented when it comes to this kind of thing. In fact, my doctorate dissertation was on the role of divisional principals on teacher retention, so retention factors for me is where you start. What are the factors that have enabled our most successful teachers to stay the longest? So we did a research exercise. We dug out anecdotally who had been the 20 most successful teachers that we can remember who stayed at least four years. And then we asked, well what what do they all share? We came up with a series of criteria which basically said these things: resilience, adaptability, open mindedness, and students before programs. And then we had a few other things as well about their levels of background and education.

But critically, if you were to ask me for one thing, it’s that they are comfortable being uncomfortable. And I mean that in every aspect: emotionally, socially, psychologically, politically, educationally. That things not being topped, tailed, and clear is actually their comfort zone. If everything was clean and tidy and fixed these guys would be really pissed off. These are the guys who really want to live in the grey area, where learning is what comes from the kid, not what comes from what they’re teaching. So there’s that unpredictability in that situation, which they thrive on. Because Rio in itself is an unpredictable kind of place, they thrive. If they’re not comfortable with that kind of incongruity then there’s a big problem. So I’m looking for those kinds of people. And I’m looking for those kinds of people who have taught in the kinds of schools where we know the programs are pretty good. I very rarely talk about teaching and learning when I’m hiring. You know, I’m hiring a person – I’m not hiring a pedagogical textbook. And unless somebody is a complete idiot, you should be able to talk good pedagogy in a 45-minute interview. It’s got nothing to do with who you are. And fundamentally you’re hiring a person. So for us we look for those personality and character traits. Thirteen years in East Africa taught me that you know you can become a better teacher, but it’s tough to become more resilient when you get to a certain age.

EARJ Barra Principal Tim Shirk leads a staff training session on using proficiency scales in standards-based assessment.
EARJ Barra Principal Tim Shirk leads a staff training session on using proficiency scales in standards-based assessment.

We understand that EARJ has two physical campuses, one in Gavea and another in Barra. Can you tell us how the staff and the students are split between the two, and what are some of the long term plans on both campuses when they are fully developed and at capacity? What does that look like?

Our most fundamental driver is one EA. So no matter whichever campus, students are entitled to a broadly similar education. And we phrase it that way on purpose because 20 kilometres apart the communities are slightly different. They’re going to evolve a little bit differently. But there are some core things that do not change. They are EA. So access to programs, policies, and procedures are common across both. Assessment, curriculum models, everything like that we work really hard to keep that equitable across both campuses.

Gavea at the moment is Pre-K to 12. It has been for many, many years. Barra at the moment is Pre-K through 10, 11 next year. We start our IB program next year there. And then through 12. So we’ll have two fully functioning Pre-K to 12 campuses within the next two years. We’re 410 kids over in Barra at the moment. Approximately 700 over here in Gavea. There’ll come a point where those numbers level out because the physical campuses are equipped to handle the same scale of school. So what will happen is parallel development of students. We’re not looking for Barra to offer one kind of thing and Gavea another kind of thing. The only thing that will influence which campus you go to is where you live. You’re not going to get something better or worse in one campus than the other. And that’s important. We have one board. The only area where we have two is we have two PTAs. But they are chapters with one set of values.

Keeping that together is going to be tough. It’s really difficult. And we’re going to have to respond probably in some ways we may not even have thought of yet in order to keep that going because with each year the traffic gets worse as more people move to Barra. So I think if you were to come back in 50 years then the main thing that would strike you would be the architectural difference between the two campuses. But it should be the only thing strikes you. The rest should feel like EA on both.


Several studies indicate that the average tenure of international school directors is around three years. Now that you’re in your third year at the school, can you share with us how you see your own personal and professional plans going forward, and how they may or may not align with EARJ’s future?

I am not somebody who typically moves that much. When schools experience leadership turnover, very few people win in that equation. And I think if you’ve found a fit you need to make sure that you stay as long as that fit remains.

Moving is seldom a mutual decision. It’s usually the directors who find something else or the board that has decided it’s time for you to go, but it’s very rare for both those planes to come in at the same time and land on parallel runways. One recommended action for schools is how they can be much more intentional about leadership turnover. And that’s one of the things that I’ve worked on here with my board in terms of how can we put policy and procedures in place to be really intentional in terms of our leadership turnover, at the board and school leadership level so that what we’re doing is we’re kind of looking for those pinch points and trying to head them off so that we avoid situations where everybody is leaving at the same time. You’re losing all that institutional memory, the disruption for learning. All those kinds of things. Easy to say in theory, tough to do when life happens. But from my point of view, unless you’ve heard something, I have no plans to go anywhere.

EARJ is the most diverse school in Rio de Janeiro, with over 30 nationalities represented.
EARJ is the most diverse school in Rio de Janeiro, with over 30 nationalities represented.

Is there anything else that you feel like you’d like people to know about EARJ that perhaps we haven’t had a chance to talk about?

I would hope that anybody who looks at us from within the profession realizes that it’s important that schools like ours are part of a bigger conversation about what international schools are and the role they play in host national educational politics, because we have sometimes a disproportionate impact. We need to be very careful and intentional about that. As a director, you can come in drop bombs in three years and walk out of the door. And one of the things that I’m working with here at EARJ is that I’ve inherited our school’s position in the social landscape which is quite significant. And with that comes a responsibility to participate in a much broader conversation within the country about the role of international schools in the national educational strategy. So I think if there is anything, EARJ’s is a place where we honor that. Not only the public-private conversation but also the international-national conversation. And I think not all schools are in locations where that’s either welcomed or recognized as a thing. But I think it’s a thing wherever you are… it’s just whether you recognize it.


Thanks for sharing today. I appreciate your time.

OK. Thanks for the conversation.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Nigel Winnard
A lifelong educator with 30 years of leadership and teaching experience in K-12 schools around the world. Proud to serve as Headmaster of The American School of Rio de Janeiro.

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