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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Sawyer

Proprietary International Schools: Not Necessarily Improprietous

Those of you who have heard me speak at conferences have often heard me say that the term “international” isn’t patented, and that it’s important to know what a school means when it gives itself that title. Any school can claim that it’s “international” (I’ve visited some where the definition was quite original!), and since international education is big business, there’s often incentive for schools to cop that adjective.

In Chicago for the ERC conference, I just enjoyed a visit at GEMS World Academy of Chicago (, a new school (in its fourth year) on the international education landscape in the U.S. It’s a member of the GEMS network of over 250 schools across 14 countries and the first GEMS school in the U.S.   Already offering the IB at the primary and middle levels, it will soon be offering IB through the Diploma Programme. Interestingly, its student population is not primarily expat children but local students, many of them from families who are relatively new to the U.S. but are here permanently and have opted for a private school with a more international flavor. A lovely facility with a solid curriculum, it’s a great new offering for Chicago.

Many international schools these days are “proprietary” or “for-profit” entities, often part of large networks of schools-as-businesses entities.   We tend not to like the notion of education and profit being linked, and sometimes for good reason, but I always caution families and corporate clients that the fact that a school is proprietary doesn’t automatically mean it’s a suspicious or murky player. To the contrary, many proprietary international schools offer a fantastic education and of a type that its students might not have been able to access “back home,” wherever that was.

However, given that “international” schools can spring up overnight in locations where demand is high, it does mean that one should do one’s homework on a proprietary school thoroughly before recommending it for an assignee’s children. With that in mind, a few pointers on looking at international schools.

An international school should be “international” in its student and teacher demographics and also its curriculum. Questions to ask, therefore:

  • What is the student demographic—what percentage are from home or host country?

  • What is the teacher demographic—what percentage are local versus international hires?

  • What is the curriculum offered, and how is it “international”?

  • By whom is the school accredited?

There are many more questions to ask in order to assess the quality or success of any school in achieving its mission, but the above are at least a few basic things to consider when scanning a potentially very long list of “international” schools in a given location. If the school boasts 95% local students, 95% local teachers and a local curriculum but with a bit of bilingualism thrown in, it might not be your best bet.






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