The Harbour School had adapted the American curriculum to offer a very hands-on education to students of all abilities. With its small class sizes, lessons at sea, and focus on technology, THS is offering parents a fresh alternative to a primary education.
The Harbour School (THS) is an alternative to the many mainstream international primary schools across Hong Kong. Here’s an independent school that offers that small school feeling, the personal touch that comes with small class sizes and high teacher to student ratio, and a very progressive curriculum.
Located on the island of Ap Lei Chau, THS The Grove is one of three campuses run by this less than traditional school. Founded in 2007, THS has grown from 11 students to 280 students in just ten short years. There’s the 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, also in Ap Lei Chau.
The Grove, which reopened in August 2017 after extensive renovation, provides the ideal setting for a primary education from Grades 1 to 6 that is dedicated to hands-on learning. It’s a school with mixed-age classrooms, facilitators rather than teachers, and its very own sailboat (The Black Dolphin) for an outdoor classroom and sailing trips. 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. And, while THS offers an American curriculum that is based on AERO Standards, its curriculum 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 typical education on offer in Hong Kong.
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. The school is organised as lower primary, upper primary, and intermediate.
THS has a learning path that attracts students predominantly from the US and the UK, and a largely American and Canadian teaching staff. 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.
Students rarely sit behind desks for long periods of time; they are too busy learning in the ‘real world’. For example, upper primary students have met with residents living in social housing and architects before designing and building a prototype housing solution. A Grade 5 team have set sail aboard the school’s Black Dolphin wooden ketch to monitor the waters around a site for Hong Kong’s new incinerator, and primary students use the boat for a re-enactment sailing experience as part of their Age of Exploration studies. There are also initiatives such as the World Peace Games, where students look at solving the world's problems.
The Grove offers students opportunities that would not usually be offered at their grade levels in other schools. From Grade 1, students go on excursions to the outlying islands, and begin sailing orientation and curricular programs aboard the moored-up Black Dolphin. From Grade 3, students go on sailing excursions and complete a six-week unit on Ancient China that culminates in an excursion to Xi’an, China. In Grades 7 and 8, students complete a Decisions, Decisions programme that is based on a project-based learning model; students select courses in economics, ethics, history, marine biology, chemistry, politics, physics, and beginner robotics.
Music lessons focus on the ukulele, guitar, and keyboard; upper primary students can sign up to school extension activity (SEA) courses in wrestling, indoor climbing, field hockey, and yoga. The school’s Chinese programme covers the language, food, and culture, and students are placed within regular, advanced, and native classes based on ability.
Technology is at the heart of an education at THS; its Tools Not Toys 1:1 laptop programme requires all students from Grade 3 to have a laptop, and is heavily focused on responsible use of computers and the internet. Also, upper primary students can attend weekend workshops with an inventor-in-residence, where past projects have included prototyping an award-winning plastic sensor. It’s clear that this school takes a very creative and sensitive 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.”
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 high schoolers and middle schoolers learn from second graders (and vice versa).
THS is a school that breaks from convention in many ways, from curriculum through to uniform code. Middle Schoolers are not required to wear the THS uniforms, but must follow a specific dress code that matches the school colours (red, white, navy, light blue). Grade 8 students and above have a much more relaxed dress code.
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. A typical daily homework timetable for a Grade 5 student, for example, would include a 20-plus minute reading mission, 30 minutes working on a mission, and 20 minutes on a quest.
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.
A new campus
The Grove’s new campus does get a big thumbs up for creativity. New facilities include a treehouse, a wet lab, an enormous library with a slide, and adaptable classrooms with moveable glass walls and furniture on wheels. As well as the latest developments, The Grove has a modern makerspace with sensors and Arduino kits for building robotics, as well as 3D printers and laser cutters; a performing arts studios; rooftop play areas; and an outdoor playground. There are plans to add an indoor swimming pool for snorkelling and scuba diving lessons.
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 73 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 Grove. Rather than an entry exam – which the school 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”.
Annual fees at THS are high in relation to other international schools in Hong Kong; primary fees start at HKD 181,000. 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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