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'Our students don't live in an expat bubble'

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'Our students don't live in an expat bubble'
The American School of Barcelona with school director Mark Pingitore (inset).
09:20 CEST+02:00
In the latest instalment of My Spanish Career, we speak to Mark Pingitore, the director of the American School of Barcelona, about running an international school that is going from strength to strength despite the crisis in Spain.

Mark Pingitore is very excited about the coming 12 months.

The school he heads up has just embarked on a €4 million ($5 million) building project involving a new centre for early childhood and elementary (primary) students.

At the same time, the American School of Barcelona (ASB), which teaches children from the ages of 3 to 18, is refurbishing its main building.

"It's like getting two new buildings at once," says Pingitore, who has been director of the ASB for four years now.

The new building is a visible sign of a school that is experiencing a boom.

"We are expecting 715 students next September. Last year that was 690, and two years ago, we had 650 students," says the American director of ASB.

Asked if he thinks the international school is doing so well precisely because of the crisis in Spain, Pingitore concedes this could be part of the reason.

"The fact that we offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) is obviously important," he says.

"This is one of the fastest-growing high school diplomas in the world," says the director of the two-year programme. "It's also among the most rigorous, and with its focus on critical thinking it really helps prepare students for universities."

"Plus it's internationally recognized. And we are now seeing more and more of our students applying to overseas universities — mainly in the US and the UK, but sometimes even to places as far off as Japan."

Does this mean students are planning on leaving Spain?

"Not necessarily," says Pingitore. "We also have students doing the Spanish selectividad (high school leaving certificate).

"In fact, our selectividad class coming through at the moment is very strong".

Looking at other reasons for the school's success, the ASB director also cites the school's use of English. 

"Although our students study both the Spanish and Catalan language, the rest of our curriculum is in English.

"We get quite a lot of students — from both Spanish and expat families — coming over from the state system at secondary school age," explains the director.

"Then there are the children of couples where one parent is Spanish and the other is a foreigner.

"All of these children have parents who think English is important and want to offer their children as many opportunities as possible."

Pingitore, for his part, has international schooling in the blood: his own education included stints in international schools in Haiti and Kenya because his father worked for the US State Department.

"I enjoyed the experience a lot," the school director says. "And it really helped me to see things globally."

This American, who says Washington DC is the closest he has to a home city in the US, started out his career in education as an elementary (or primary) teacher in New York. He then moved onto middle school where he taught social studies and history.

But his biggest challenge came when he set up a public middle school, also in New York.

"This was really satisfying in that I could choose all the teachers and develop a really strong team," he says of this experience.

Pingitore then moved to Barcelona, where he lives with his Catalan partner, a woman he met in the US.

He now runs the ASB, which operates as a not-for-profit Spanish foundation, and which is also accredited by the Spanish government.

"Our students don't live in a bubble," the ASB director says in response to a question about the possibly isolating effects of international schooling.

"There are international schools where this is the case — where up to 90 percent of the students are from elsewhere. But not here.

"The students here are about 60 percent expat children and 40 percent locals. Then, of these expats kids, only around 20 percent are from North America. 

"The rest are from northern Europe, from Germany and Scandinavia. We also have Italians, Israelis and Argentinians, just to name a few."

When it comes to teachers, meanwhile, 85 percent are from Canada and the US, with a sprinkling of Brits, Australians and New Zealanders adding spice.

These teachers usually stay three to four years, says Pingitore. 

They then either move on because they miss home, or because they are in a relationship, or as a result of a relationship ending.

A small percentage of teachers move on to where the real money is — the Middle East and Asia. But this is far from the dominant group.

"We have more and more applications from people wanting to move to Barcelona," says the ASB director.

"They could choose to live anywhere in the world, but they want to come and live here."

Pingitore puts this down to the cosmopolitan nature of the city, the easy access to nature and the fact that the city still has a lot of potential.

When asked by The Local whether he would classify the ASB as an expensive school — prices range from €8,220 for younger children up to €12,540 for grades 9 to 12, while a one-off capital fee of €4,250 is also charged for each student — the director pauses for a moment.

"That's quite subjective, of course. We are on the cheap end for international schools in Europe, but expensive by Barcelona standards."

The director explains that many of the parents are working professionals, including lawyers and doctors "but not the jet-set".

And does the school feel a responsibility to the community because of the crisis? Does it, for instance, offer scholarships to students in need.

"Not at this stage," says Pingitore. "Although it's something we are looking at." 

The ASB is, however, engaged in a range of projects to help the local community. These include food and toy drives and helping a local hospital with fundraising.

High school students from ASB also go around to local schools and help young children with their English. 

"As an educator, you never want to see cuts to education," says Pingitore of the drama affecting the Spanish education sector.

"In the end, it's the children who suffer as a result".

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