One of the oldest international schools in Vietnam, Saigon South International School (SSIS) has a reputation for its robust US college-preparatory academic programme and excellence in technology and innovation.
This all-through school in Ho Chi Minh City offers an American curriculum that works towards the Advanced Placement programme (AP) and the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). In a country that has more than its fair share of American-curriculum international schools, Saigon South International School (SSIS) has managed to distinguish itself from the rest, though. As well as boasting a large, spacious campus within the city limits, SSIS is Vietnam’s only Apple Distinguished School, it has small class sizes of 20 students, and it is one of the few non-profit schools in the country.
Accredited by the US-based Western Association of Schools and Colleges, SSIS is deeply-rooted in the American education system. In addition to offering 13 AP classes to students in Grades 11 – 12, students’ progress is tracked by US-led Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments in maths, reading, and science; seniors sit SATs exams, which are required for freshman entry to many, but not all, colleges and universities in the US. The academic year runs from August to June and follows the US two-semester system.
Founded in 1997, SSIS is one of Vietnam’s oldest international schools. The school is home to more than 1,000 students from over 35 countries, and the most common nationalities include American, Vietnamese, Korean, and Taiwanese. Most teachers come from North America, Australia, and the UK, and the teacher to student ratio is 1:10.
The school says it offers an “intellectually rigorous” curriculum combined with “sports, activities, and social programmes to develop the whole child”, which offers some insight into the holistic education you can expect here. It also stresses the importance of its ‘Core Values’ – Academic Excellence, Sense of Self, Dedicated Service, Balance in Life, and Respect for All – which it says, “unite us as a school and are at the heart of everything we do.”
As in all American schools, SSIS students attend three levels of schooling prior to graduation: elementary school (nursery to Grade 5), middle school (Grades 6 – 8) and high school (Grades 9 – 12). The curriculum is predominantly American until Grades 11 – 12, when students can choose to study AP classes and/or the IBDP.
Throughout elementary school, every class has a full-time teacher who focuses on the core subjects of English and language arts, maths, science, and social studies. All students learn with specialist teachers in the areas of art, library, music, drama, PE, and swimming, as well as classes in Vietnamese language and culture.
There’s a progression from, “play, hands-on experiences and experiments” in the early years to a more formal structure in Grades 1 – 5. When students enter the middle school in Grade 6, they continue to study English and language arts, maths, science, social studies, and PE. Vietnamese is only compulsory for nationals, who have to attend a programme of 90 minutes per week; all other students must select to study either Spanish or Mandarin.
In Grade 6, students take single semester courses in writing and digital literacy, as well as exploratory courses in art, drama, health, and choir and instrumental music; this gives students the opportunity to ‘sample’ the different electives that are offered from Grade 7. In Grades 7 and 8, the timetable is divided between core and elective subjects, and in the last year of middle school students are involved in developing their own Four-Year Plan for high school; it’s encouraging to see the school offer students such an active role in their education.
SSIS offers students the choice of studying AP and the IBDP, in part, full, or combined. This gives students the advantages of the IB’s international slant and the AP’s individuality. For students following the IBDP path, they will study six subjects and complete the IB’s Theory of Knowledge course, Extended Essay, and a community service programme known as CAS (Creativity, Action, Service). In terms of AP, one-year courses are offered in art, biology, calculus ab, statistics, chemistry, comparative government and politics, macro-economics, micro economics, English language, English literature & composition, physics, psychology, and Spanish. All students can graduate with an SSIS high school diploma.
Sport and creative arts
The curriculum offers a spectrum of exciting opportunities for creative thinking and competitive sport. Art lessons are supplemented by regular excursions, visiting artists, and a celebration of students’ artwork in an annual art show. As well as learning about acting, direction, set design, costume and makeup, sound, and lighting in theatre classes, students can take part in regular performances in the school’s new black box theatre, and sign up for music-making sessions after-school.
Out on the playing fields, students can join one of the many SSIS Dragons teams, which compete against other international schools in basketball, volleyball, soccer, badminton, swimming, cross country, and track and field; the school also takes part in the Saigon International Schools Athletic Conference. It’s encouraging to see that the school has a no-cut policy; it has A, B, and C teams in a variety of sports to ensure that children of all abilities can take part in training and matches.
Beyond the classroom
Head teacher Mark Iver Sylte says,
“We aspire to be the school that opens the greatest number of doors and windows possible to each student’s future.”
This is perhaps the driving force behind the school’s broad offering of non-academic activities. There are leadership opportunities on the student council; community service groups including Bliss 4 Youth and the Global Issues Network; and the chance to attend Model United Nations conferences locally and internationally. Students can pursue their interests by competing in academic teams such as the Mathletes, or even working as an intern in workplaces such as medical clinics.
The SSIS after-school activity programme offers students in Grades 1 – 12 a wide range of activities including sport, dance, cooking classes, Vietnamese folktales, board games, martial arts, robotics, design technology, flag football, and jewellery making.
Possibly the highlight of the academic year, though, is the Week Without Walls event: Grade 6 students travel to Kega, to learn about environmental issues facing coastal communities; Grade 7 students travel to Madagui, to build confidence through physical activities like rock climbing and white-water rafting; and Grade 8 students travel to Dalat, to experience outdoor camping and explore the natural world.
The school’s PTA helps to maintain a friendly, close-knit community that has successfully been built up over the past two decades. As well as organising fundraising and school events, the PTA hosts a variety of parent clubs including the Luncheon Club, Basic Conversational Vietnamese Class, Badminton, Book Club, and Cooking Club.
As Vietnam’s only Apple Distinguished School, SSIS has dedicated time and resources to innovation and technology in the school. It runs a 1:1 iPad programme from Grade 3, and a 1:1 laptop programme from Grades 4 – 12. As well as teaching ICT from the early years, SSIS offers Grade 8 students the choice of studying multimedia or robotic/coding. It also uses systems such as Google Apps, PowerSchool, and Moodle for communication with parents and homework.
The school says,
“Students are taught not only technological skills, but also the critical thinking, communication skills, and ethical use of technology required in the current world.”
The school’s 2017 IBDP cohort achieved an average score of 34, which is considerably higher than the global average of 30. In the AP exams, 93% of students scored 3 or above. Most SSIS graduates go on to study at a university in the US at institutions such as Boston University, New York University, and UCLA.
SSIS has a suburban campus in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, with large, grassy fields and modern, purpose-built buildings. It’s conveniently located in the popular residential community of Phu My Hung, and easily accessible from the city centre.
While the elementary, middle, and high schools each have their own dedicated low-rise building, they share specialist facilities for music, visual art, drama, and design and technology, as well as sport. There is also an early years and main swimming pool, an auditorium with black box theatre, playing fields, and a sports hall.
Admission and fees
Tuition fees are among the highest in Vietnam, and are VND 485,000,000 for Grade 1, VND 519,000,000 for Grade 6, and VND 604,000,000 for Grade 11.
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