By Mark E. Ulfers and Elise Webb
As the pandemic pushed students from classrooms to living rooms and forced educators to find creative ways to engage and teach, the Office of Overseas Schools kept watch on the capabilities of schools at posts abroad. The Colegio Nueva Granada (CNG), a kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12) international school in Bogota, Colombia, faced a particularly tough test: how to engage not only their general student body, but also exceptional learners—those requiring special needs educational support and/or gifted and talented curriculum. With almost 20% of their student population with exceptionalities, CNG had become a leader of inclusion. The pandemic challenged everything they had built over the decade.
When the world reopened, concerns about U.S. government students in school at post facing major learning losses melted away. CNG, and the entire network of American-sponsored overseas schools, actually fared better than other schools—both domestic public schools and other international schools at post—in standardized tests in 2022. This demonstrated that American-sponsored overseas schools are the premiere learning centers for U.S. government employees’ children to receive their education as the globe weathers crises and emergencies.
For nearly sixty years, the Office of Overseas Schools has been charged with the responsibility of ensuring that quality education is available for dependents of U.S. government personnel stationed abroad. Encouraging excellence in K-12 school programs throughout the world also demonstrates the philosophy and methods of American education. Established in 1964, the office uses targeted grant funding to promote Department of State strategy and program enhancement within 195 schools in 137 countries. These schools—known generally as assisted schools—are considered by the office to be the gold standard in international education at post. Assisted schools are not owned or operated by the Department of State, rather they are independent, nonprofit, non-religious, nonpolitical, and U.S. accredited institutions. Each school is encouraged to have U.S. embassy representation on their governing body where possible and to have significant numbers of U.S. citizens and U.S. trained staff and administration. While there are many good international schools around the globe, assisted schools have a uniquely close and mutually beneficial relationship with the Department.
Variety is one of the basic characteristics of assisted schools. They range from small schools, such as the American International School of Algiers in Algeria, with 33 students, to large overseas institutions like the Singapore American School with 4,083 students. While the primary language of instruction is English, an outstanding attribute of most assisted schools is how they make use of their locations abroad to provide foreign language and local cultural immersion.
Variety is also the hallmark of work for the office. The six Regional Education Officers (REOs)—all veteran educators and school leaders turned civil servants—perform site visits at each post every other year and no two days on the job are the same. From discussing crisis-planning and budgets with directors of schools to advising families on optimal matches for their children’s educational needs during bidding season, and briefing ambassadors on the host-country relationship with the schools, every day presents new challenges and problem-solving.
Conversations with American secondary school students are a routine part of an REO’s school visit. Andrew Hoover, the REO covering East Asia Pacific, noted after a recent visit to post just how appreciative students in assisted schools were for their international school experience.
But, perhaps more remarkably, he was struck by how, “the students are exceptionally articulate in their descriptions of how growing up in overseas schools has made them more self-aware, confident, and comfortable taking risks.”
They describe being a part of the cast or crew of performances, leading peers in Model United Nations, learning about the complexities of local culture, and managing the social challenges in a culturally diverse student body, as central aspects of their sense of accomplishment and success.
International schools where USG students are enrolled, tend to reflect a similar pattern to high performing domestic schools on standardized testing. When compared to public schools in the Washington area, as well as other overseas international schools in the post-COVID era, assisted schools consistently performed better at all grade levels in math and reading in 2020 and 2022 in the Measures of Academic Progress test. Similarly, when compared with schools in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, SAT scores over the past five years have shown the strongest and most consistent performance in assisted schools. Test scores remain steadily high and are continually improving in Bogota at CNG with the average SAT score exceeding 1200 most years.
With CNG continually performing at a high level, other assisted schools are now reassessing and finding ways to improve their special needs support and social emotional learning programs post-pandemic. When surveyed in the autumn of 2022, nearly all assisted schools considered themselves to have a program that could support generally mild needs. However, only 12% of schools claimed their programs could support more intensive needs. Leveraging grant funds to address strategic priorities, the Office of Overseas Schools is striving to ensure that all children within the assisted school network can grow and support programs for children’s mental health and special learning needs. Culture change within international schools as a whole does not happen without capacity-building. Past influence and advocacy from the office for special educational needs among the assisted schools has spurred a reevaluation about what it means to be a truly inclusive school. By focusing on inclusion of students with exceptional learning needs, the office is working to make every post a viable option for talented bidders with families.
Department employees can reach out to the Office of Overseas Schools for resources and guidance on education at post for their elementary and secondary school students. The office’s main goal is to make sure that schools enhance a family’s experience and support success in the foreign affairs community. Resources, including REO contact information, can be found on their public website or via email.
Mark E. Ulfers is the director of the Office of Overseas Schools. Elise Webb is a communications officer at the Office of Overseas Schools.