The American School of Valencia.

Its resources and results are excellent; but that is not the secret of the success of the American School of Puzol.

Saara at the wall of hands

When I was a schoolboy, and innocent in the wicked ways of the world, it wasn’t normal to see somebody hugging the Headmaster. There were two reasons for this; being British he was cold and reserved, and anyway nobody liked him very much.

The American SchoolFor this reason it was surprising to observe how, on my tour of the American School at Puzol with Principal Saara Tatem, just about everyone we met gave her a big hug.

I was assured that this didn’t actually happen every day, but that Saara had, a couple of days before, celebrated her retirement after 9 years, and was going back to Canada.

There is a town in north Ontario where Saara’s Finnish parents arrived in 1952 so that her father could mine for gold after a career of building bridges in Finland, where Saara was born, and some years later “on a cold Sunday January night” as Saara relates, and just as she was preparing for her “first retirement,” she saw a small ad in a newspaper for a job in Valencia, and four weeks later was preparing to return to the old continent, although a somewhat warmer part.

It’s hard to believe looking at it today that back in 1980 fifteen families would drive 27 children up a dirt track to what even its admirers describe as a ‘bunker.’ It’s changed a lot since then but the spirit of the place has remained intact since a group of workers from the Ford plant at Almussafes were concerned about whether their children would be able to slip back into the American education system on their return to America.

Saara goes internationalHowever, despite its name, the American School is a truly international, bilingual school, with about 30 different nationalities among the students and almost ten among the 80 teachers. To demonstrate this, when they laid the foundation stone a series of coins from all over the world were placed underneath.

One of the founders of the school was Anselmo Gil, who would later go on to create Caxton College, although the system at the American School is unusual in that the parents are also the owners and shareholders, and it is a board of elected parents who run the school.

Something that strikes you, in the non-literal sense, as you wander around the school is that there are messages everywhere you look. These messages serve to reinforce the school’s mission statement, that it exists to produce “globally-conscious lifelong learners in an innovative, collaborative, caring environment”.

A number of details bear this out; some of them symbolic, like the wall of hands at the entrance, where each member of staff and each student helped produce their own oven-fired ceramic tile with their handprint, symbolising both individuality and teamwork in what is, as one teacher described it, a very “hands on school”.

valencia 002Another significant fact is that, although built up on a hill, with a sea view from the canteen, the school is not elitist, and every last Sunday of the month collaborates with an organisation called ‘Macarón Solidario’, where students and teachers, organised by staff members Chris Sexton and Jackie Paarhuis, prepare and deliver food to people with limited resources in Valencia. Or their collaboration with the Preventorio Nuestra Señora de Amparo in Real de Gandia for children from disadvantaged homes, who they visit with materials collected among parents and students as part of the ‘Create for Children’ programme.

They also participate in many external programmes such as The Hague Model United Nations, where schools are assigned a country to investigate and to draw up programmes for development, or the yearly project ‘What is a King for you’, because of which on three occasions since 2009 students from the school have gone to Madrid to meet King Juan Carlos, having won the award for the Valencian Community.

The school follows the International Baccalaureate school system, adapted to Spain and Valencia so that the students can also go to a Spanish university if they wish, although more and more they opt for foreign universities, as one notice explains, with a list of who among the ex-students went where.

The International Baccalaureate supposes a rigorous process of accreditation, which finalised in 2012 after the school satisfied the twelve different standards demanded by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools of Pennsylvania.

There are so many things happening at the school, such as the new Science Programme, ‘Seeds of Science’ from the Berekley University of California, or the student council elections where the candidates have to face the oters and make election speeches, or the parents’ day when the students become teachers and teach their parents, or the 40 hours minimum of laboratory work necessay for the International Baccalaureate, or the constant bombardment of positive messages encouraging engagement, thought, integrity, honesty and commitment.

It is however the human factor that leaves the greatest impression at the American School and quite clearly Saara Tatem has left a deep and lasting impression, which is why, when she has gone, the school library will bear her name.

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