The Harbour School has adapted the American curriculum to offer a very hands-on education to a diverse body of students. With its small class sizes, lessons at sea, and focus on technology, THS is offering parents a fresh alternative to mainstream secondary education.
There’s nothing traditional about The Harbour School (THS), which offers parents in Hong Kong the very ultimate in an alternative secondary education. Here’s a school with mixed-age classrooms, facilitators rather than teachers, a sailboat for a classroom, and a very hands-on curriculum. Runner up in Pearson's 21st Century School of the Year competition, THS adopts a very unconventional approach to learning that welcomes both gifted students and children with special needs. Students are heavily involved in a curriculum that is focused more on critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and teamwork, and far less on tests and assessments. While THS follows an American curriculum that is based on AERO Standards and offers Advanced Placement courses, its teaching is first and foremost “student-centric”.
“We give our students the autonomy, time, resources and respect to pursue projects that interest them. We hire very specifically for teachers who understand our “learn and adapt” approach and culture of trust, support and collaboration with students. THS teachers are not lecturers but facilitators, and they understand that integrating student-led learning and dialogue is critical.”
These are the words of founder and head of school Dr. Jadis Blurton, a “child psychologist with educational expertise”, who is pictured on the school’s website sat on a boat in casual attire, not in a suit behind a desk. It gives you just an indication of the style and learning of this school. While it may not appeal to every parent, this school offers an alternative to the typically mainstream education on offer in Hong Kong.
Founded in 2007, THS has grown to three campuses: Harbour Village prep school in Kennedy Town for four and five-year-olds; The Grove primary school in Ap Lei Chau; and The Garden secondary school in Ap Lei Chau. The Garden campus for Grades 9 to 12 is one of the newest kids on the block, having only opened in 2016 and only offering Grade 12 from August 2017.
An American curriculum with a difference
Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), THS offers an American curriculum that has been adapted to be consistent with both American and British standards; also, all teaching and learning is based on the challenging American Education Reaches Out (AERO) standards, a US framework for curriculum consistency across Grades K to 12. As such, THS attracts students predominantly from the US and the UK, and a largely American and Canadian teaching staff.
The Garden campus offers an American curriculum based on the Advanced Placement programme that prepares students for entrance into US universities. Students focus on honours work, AP courses, and concurrent enrolment courses linked to New York’s Syracuse University. True to American style, every student is assigned a personal advisor and counsellor to help them plan their future. The timetable looks fairly standard: numeracy, literacy, social studies, science, learner goals, Chinese studies, library, music, art, health, and PE. However, what makes this school so distinctly different is its approach to teaching these subjects.
The curriculum differs to the norm by using “THS's proven model of highly individualised and differentiated instruction in a collaborative learning environment”. Students rarely sit behind desks for long periods of time; they are too busy learning in the ‘real world’. For example, students work aboard the school’s Black Dolphin ketch, an outdoor classroom where they study the marine environment, conduct scientific research, and learn to sail. There are initiatives such as the World Peace Games, where students look at solving the world's problems, and TED-style monthly symposiums where students report on their learnings to date.
According to Blurton,
“We offer a vastly different high school model to other schools in Hong Kong with a curriculum offering that more closely resembles college.”
Technology is at the heart of an education at THS. The school has a state of the art science lab equipped with digital microscopes; its Tools Not Toys 1:1 laptop programme requires all students to have a laptop, and is heavily focused on responsible use of computers and the internet. It’s clear that this school takes a creative and responsible approach to technology.
In the words of Blurton,
“Handing every student and teacher a laptop or tablet will not magically usher our classrooms into the future.”
While the school has a worthy factor about it – it takes part in plenty of environmental initiatives and stages an annual Global Issues Conference – it also seems to know how to have fun. From talent shows to wrestling tournaments, students seem to get the best of both worlds.
Ingredient X: it’s what Blurton calls the school’s “very diverse body of students”. At THS, half the student population are mainstream learners, about 40% have learning support because they are either advanced or behind by two years in an academic area, and roughly 10% are offered 1:1 support for more serious learning difficulties through THS’ partner school The Children's Institute. It’s one of Hong Kong’s most fully inclusive schools, and welcomes gifted children, ‘typical’ children, and children with special needs.
Although age is an important factor, THS allocates students to a grade based on their “best fit” socially and academically; so, don’t be surprised to find mixed-age classrooms here. Students mix with their peers as reading buddies or through a mentoring programme called Social Training and Relationship Skills (STARS); there’s also an annual Kids Teaching Kids day where first graders learn from senior students and vice versa.
THS is a school that breaks from convention in many ways, from curriculum through to uniform code; there’s a very relaxed dress code for secondary students. Also, the school has ditched the word homework and replaced it with missions. “Besides simply sounding a lot more fun, being assigned to complete a mission (as opposed to be being assigned to just do homework) honours the adventure, trials, and tribulations included, associated with the long effort required to attain a skill.”
As well as completing missions in reading, writing, maths etc, students are expected to complete projects or quests after school hours, such as a kindness quest or movie-making quest. So, while the word homework is not used within THS, there is most certainly the usual demands on students to be studying out of school.
Small class sizes
THS keeps class sizes small and has a lead teacher and co-teacher in each class; there’s an average student-teacher ratio of 1:8. This personalised teaching experience creates a scenario where the teachers and students know each other well, and as a parent you should expect your child’s weaknesses to be developed and their strengths to be maximised.
THS’s approach to education is winning the school plenty of awards. For example, an app to address Hong Kong’s refuse problem won Hong Kong’s Technovation Challenge Best Presenter Award; and its optical plastic ocean sensor invention received the Hong Kong Roots and Shoots Award. While some parents may judge a school on exam results, others will view these achievements as the best recommendation.
The Garden campus, which is just an eight-minute walk from The Grove’s primary school campus, is a two storey building with 14 classrooms. It's a small school that lacks the creativity and fun of The Grove campus, but it lends itself to growing a very close-knit community of learners. Facilities include a multimedia centre, art department, photography gallery and dark room, and music room and studio; students use facilities such as science labs and the marine science centre at The Grove.
The Harbour Village
Following the school’s expansion to its two Ap Lei Chau sites, the Kennedy Town campus is now dedicated to the preparatory years of four and five-year-old students. Renamed as The Harbour Village, it reopened for the school year in August 2017 with new facilities, including The Black Dolphin Cove sailboat; the Backyard play area, equipped with a treehouse, rope ladder, balance beam, and climbing wall; an interactive, augmented reality wall that’s loaded with more than 200 games; an indoor park complete with tricycles, scooters, and balance bikes; and a road system with traffic lights.
It’s an intimate school with only 70 places, small class sizes, and an educational programme called Harbour. There’s no rigid timetabling based on literacy, maths, science, and social studies here; instead, lessons are taught in thematic units such as Everyday Heroes.
Admission and fees
As a relatively new school, there are still places available at The Garden. Rather than an entry exam – which the schools says, “is designed to exclude children” – applicants must attend a trial day at the school. Admission is based on a “balance between genders, sibling priority and ‘first come first served’ from the existing waiting pool”.
Tuition fees are HKD 189,500 – 191,500. Every family is required to purchase one family debenture of HKD 400,000; a debenture exempts one student from paying the Annual Capital Levy (ACL) of HKD 30,000 per student. THS also has an annual technology fee of HKD 4,000 per student.
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