Back to School: “Betting on Hong Kong”

Q&A with Ronald A. Roukema, interim head of school of HKIS

Back to School: “Betting on Hong Kong”

What company is one of Hong Kong’s largest employers of North Americans? And started a $1.4 billion construction project featuring a 1,000-seat performance hall as well as new sports facilities and a meditation room, in the teeth of the pandemic? That would be Hong Kong International School, or HKIS, founded in 1966, with two locations in Tai Tam and Repulse Bay. Interim head of school Dr. Ronald A. Roukema sat down with AmCham HK e-Magazine to share his thoughts about running one of Hong Kong’s leading educational institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic and after. The son of immigrants from Italy and the Netherlands, Roukema was born in a Chinese zodiac Rat Year, 1972, and grew up in North Carolina where he met his wife Ashley and which he considers home. Before joining HKIS in 2014, he worked at the Marymount International School in Paris and the Shanghai American School.

“Nobody in education likes to say they are a business, but it is a business, it’s the business of education,” Roukema says. “When you look at the cost and the time and the expense, we run like a corporation world in Hong Kong. We have goals, we have expectations, we have services, and we have marketing and development.”

Q. What is your outlook for the new school year (2023-2024)?

A. We continue to forecast that enrollment will remain strong. We’re starting to see more businesses asking and inquiring about returning to Hong Kong. Last year we saw a lot of businesses coming out of mainland China; this year we’re starting to see a return from Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand to some degree, as companies start to look back at Hong Kong. We’re pretty positive on our outlook going forward. We also see that for us, it’s a year to really fine-tune what we’ve been working on for the last three years. Because even after Covid there were disruptions.  As we move forward, we want to make sure there are no holes in the plans that we developed. Like any organization we have a strategic plan. Our strategic plan focuses on four main areas – sustainability, well-being, evolving systems for success and how we educate diversified learners.

Student enrollment is strong. We projected it to be at 3,000 by 2025, but we are already around 3,000 this year. We will actually be hiring more teachers next year, more personnel, which we approved through our board last year, knowing that our projections would be higher.

Q. Can you describe the type of student you hope to shape at HKIS?

A. We’re very diverse, 45 plus different nationalities, although we still offer predominantly an American-style education. We start teaching it with our youngest students, with our four-year-olds, and we carry that all through our programs. We want our kids to be kind, want them to be respectful, we want them to be responsible and we want them to be safe. And we teach that in different ways and change the language as they get older. Those are the outcomes that we’re looking for. Even as learners, we want them to be able to identify the different perspectives people might take in approaching a problem and be able to look and be flexible to solve those problems in multiple ways.

Often students who come from other schools outside of Hong Kong and even inside Hong Kong struggle with the idea that in math class we don’t want an answer, we want a process. We want to understand how you got there. We believe that in every class and in every solution there’s a process of finding a solution rather than just one answer.

Q. Did the pandemic change your view of Hong Kong?

A. In 2020, during the pandemic, when we had opportunities to think about our position in Hong Kong, we made a commitment to be in Hong Kong for another 50 years, both through our building projects and our renovation projects but also reaching out and becoming more than an international school on the south side of the island.

Q How did the pandemic and political changes of the last few years impact management?

A. The last three years have been challenging globally for all people. In education, our direct clients are the parents, but the indirect clients are the students. How do we help them through these times of uncertainty? We employ over 500 people. The vast majority of our faculty are North American, which makes us one of the largest hirers of American personnel in Hong Kong, which meant that we also had to serve their needs, in developing connections to their homes as it became harder to get back to their countries of origin.

What we did early on was make some hard decisions, as most organizations had to. One of the probably less popular decisions was that we would not encourage people to travel, and we asked them to stay in Hong Kong even through the breaks. To support the community and our teachers, we created opportunities for them to teach during the summer. We always offer summer programs, but in the summer of 2020, we created a summer program in conjunction with the American Club to offer classes for students, not just American Club families but any student who wanted to attend these programs. The expanded summer program helped our teachers stay engaged in teaching, but also helped our students stay engaged in face-to-face education.

In 2020 we made an obligation to Hong Kong. We could very easily have said we’ve had enough, but instead we said we’re going to push forward with our curriculum changes, we’re going to push forward with our development ideals. Our board made a commitment to build $1.4 billion of additions to our school, and our projects will continue through 2029. And that’s basically betting on Hong Kong. At the time it was betting on Hong Kong to get through the pandemic, but also saying we’re here, and we support the community, and we want to let the community know that our development is ongoing.

Q. Can you talk about some of the investments you made?

A. That was a big decision for us to make, to grow during a time of hardship. We completely renovated our middle school classrooms, which were about 25 years old, so we gave them a refresh, we made them lighter and really focussed on social spaces for students. We created a third-floor “Peace Garden” with a fountain just so that they would have a place to go and be in nature in our middle school. We created extra programming space for our art, as well as just our general well-being spaces. We even created what we call a meditation room, for students to go, as opposed to being in a loud recess area, where they could go and be in a quiet space without electronics or any interruptions.

During the pandemic, we saw that students were coming back from being held in small spaces in their apartments, and not being able to interact with other people, and we wanted to be able to create spaces for them to do that. And those spaces will be maintained as we move forward. These aren’t just temporary spaces, they’re permanent spaces. With the opening of our student activity center in August 2024, we’re putting in two brand new gymnasiums, four tennis courts and a new swimming pool. We’re also building a 1,000-seat performance hall. We’re renovating and repurposing some of our spaces to develop joint spaces between our Middle and High schools, so students will have opportunities to be at their proficiency levels, as opposed to their age levels, especially in our arts and music programs.

The new performance hall sounds amazing – can you share some of the details?

We’re actually designing it for the community as well as the school needs. When we look at our performance hall, we’re looking at places like the universities here in Hong Kong as well as the hotels in Macau that offer graduated seating, so that you can change the layout of the audience. For instance, it can be a professional development training center as we do training for teachers, and for various agencies such as the Hong Kong government, local or international schools, so that they can have a space other than the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center to do professional development.

We’ve also looked at what would it take to have a group like the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra come perform on the south side, or to have the ballet perform on the south side. We want to make a state-of-the- art facility that will be of the quality that you would find in Central. We would open it up, so that there are options for performance, as well, of course, as to give our student population as close to a professional setting as possible so they can move on to their next steps in education.

Q. Could you share what differentiates HKIS from other international schools in Hong Kong?

A. International schools, especially on the American side, were set up originally as places for expat children to attend near US military bases or consulates or embassies, and also the mission side of it. These types of schools now are in competition with general education schools to obtain tertiary education opportunities in the United States. It’s no longer good enough just to offer an American curriculum, you now have to have the bells and whistles and the tools to prepare students for tier one universities in the US.

Like any business, it’s about developing a market niche that is different and makes it a differentiator for your institution.  Obviously one differentiator for HKIS is our Christian identity. Another differentiator would be our American-style education. It’s already saying you are different from the international baccalaureate (IB) schools or the traditional curriculum schools.

Those differentiators make it so that you’re highly sought after for both work environment but also for students attending the institution. The general ambience of the school, the flow, the rhythm, the opportunities for family are a big piece of what you feel when you come on campus. We tell people that when they join HKIS, they join our community, they’re not just sending their kid there. For example, I left our lower primary campus this morning and there were about 50 parents coming in for a parent’s workshop on how to be more effective as a parent-learner with their students. And all these are great differentiators for the market. Hong Kong has around 54 international schools, and you have to find ways to stand out, to be different, and be true to your identity and mission.

Q. What do you mean by “American-style education”?

A. First of all, our curriculum is tied directly to an American curriculum and frameworks such as Common Core and Next Generation  science standards. It is also about our focus on creating community as well as individual wellness for students. It’s a very American concept of education. And then of course, we’re Advanced Placement, as opposed to IB, which ties to the College Board of the US, which is recognized by universities directly both for acceptance and for course credits at the university level. 

Q. What do you think of as the HKIS “community”?

A. For us, it includes my involvement with the American Chamber, my work with the US Consulate, and my work with the American Club to create these pillars within our greater community, to help really solidify our position as a leader in education for American-style education.  I would also say that when we talk about community, we have a very active parent-faculty organization that plans events for our students and adults. Every fall, we do a pumpkin festival which is like a state fair back in the United States, with games for kids to play. Last year we had over 2,000 people on campus celebrating the weekend. Our high school students run the activities.

In the spring, we do a world’s fair, with food from around the world. These events are culturally aligned to what we believe would happen in the US, in a community, not just in school. You want to create a diverse environment for our families so that they feel welcome, because not all families are from the US, but they get a taste of what it might feel like.  Our eventual end point is that over 80% of our kids go to the US for university. It’s preparing them for what Labor Day weekend might look like, or for Thanksgiving holiday. What does that mean when you’re not living in the US but then you move there and you have it all of a sudden?

Q. Why do you say you want HKIS to be “more than an international school on the south side of the island”?

A. Service is huge for us. And we do that through student activities, we do that through developing relationships with different organizations. During the pandemic, through the generous donation of one of our parents, we were able to staff a position as a service coordinator, which really opened up opportunities to reach out into the community. Tied into some of the community events that we do, our students are often serving on weekends. We call it Seeds of Service. We had a club called the Matrix Club that worked closely with the undocumented or refugees to come in and help provide their families, not just the students, have a meal, and learn at our school on weekends.

The main thing about serving the community is identifying where the needs are, making sure our partnerships are sustainable, and making sure our students see the sustainable nature of the services they’re providing. It’s nice to go in and for a weekend build a wall, but how do we maintain that wall after we’ve left, how do we have a relationship to support the NGO beyond that? We want our students to experience, not just to send checks, so it’s important to be able to go out and create a connection to whatever it is you’re passionate about, and then develop around that passion. The end result, if you will, is that we want our students to be interesting, kind graduates, who can contribute to the world around them, rather than just be successful by making money. That’s not what we’re after.  We value success by the actions you do, not the money you make.

Q. Can you tell us a little about your family life in Hong Kong?

A. Having lived in United States, Shanghai, China and Paris, France, my family and I are no strangers to International life. Hong Kong offers us a great mix of work, great schooling, and activities for all members of the family. Whether it is day trips to Disneyland, lazy days on the beach, or simply going to the American Club to enjoy an immersive experience in our home culture, we enjoy the work-life balance and opportunities that Hong Kong provides. 

Dr. Ron Roukema, Ed.D., Interim Head of School has served as Upper Primary Principal, Provost, and, since 2017, Interim Head of School. Prior to joining HKIS in 2014, Ron was Head of School for Marymount International School in Paris, France, a Principal at Shanghai American School–Pudong, and a principal in several public schools in Durham, North Carolina. Ron received his BA in History Education from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, an MA in School Administration from East Carolina University in North Carolina, and an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from North Carolina State University. Ron currently serves on the Board of Governors for the American Chamber of Commerce.