- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

Tuition is fixed — between $15,000 and $20,000 per year — and no scholarships are available, but companies and embassies sometimes pay for employees’ children to attend.

Equally, there is no fundraising and there are no outside expenses beyond school uniforms, special trips and bus transportation, if needed. Teachers, nearly all of whom are graduates of British universities, are given fully furnished apartments their first year and a housing allowance thereafter.

Welcome to the British School of Washington, a school with a difference.

In its eighth year, the privately run institution is the oldest of eight similarly named schools in the country organized originally to follow the English educational system and, to some extent, that country’s school calendar.

Another major difference from most other private and public schools locally is mandatory pupil testing at two levels: a uniform assessment in the 10th year called the General Certificate of Secondary Education and, before graduation in year 13 (U.S. schools’ 12th grade) qualifying exams for the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Both exams last two weeks and are graded “externally” — in England.

Courses to prepare for PSATs and SATs are among the many options available on top of the standard academic program.

French begins with simple phrases at age 3, with Spanish and Latin introduced later. The metric system is in force, as it is all over Europe, and British spelling is the norm.

In line with the school’s international outlook, three major world currencies — pounds, euros and dollars — receive equal billing.

Also, because of its standardized curriculum based on the U.K. model, students who have attended another U.K. school can enter anytime and pick up where they left off — an advantage for families whose parents’ jobs require changing home locations in midyear.

To Jenny Arwas, whose official title is head of school, another distinguishing difference is the emphasis in the curriculum on what she calls “a spiral approach,” whereupon skills and knowledge taught in 11 subject areas are reinforced constantly as a student progresses from nursery school through high school.

There is heavy emphasis on analytical thinking and expository writing because most testing in later years relies on the essay form rather than multiple-choice questions.

Arabic and Chinese are under consideration for a schedule that Ms. Arwas worries is already crowded, given the range of extracurricular activities and elective subjects available. (Sports choices include rugby and cricket.) In addition, she would like to have Spanish made compulsory and to introduce ballroom dancing.

Expansion is a byword at the school, which last month moved into freshly designed new quarters on three floors of a building at 2001 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

The upgrade resulted in a light-filled environment made even brighter with strong colors in the hallways, where, on one floor, a running track has been installed for use on rainy days.

The move allowed for installation of science labs, a recording studio and a spacious design-technology lab. The latter is considered a special draw for students interested in a career in industrial design.

In time, officials expect to double the school’s capacity. The current student body of 300 — more than half of them American — is taught by 40 faculty members. Everyone from last year’s graduating class of 14 is attending college and university here or abroad.

Among that class, only the third in the school’s history, was Brent Myers-Lawson, who is attending Babson College, an entrepreneurial business management school outside Boston, although he had offers as well from two top British colleges, according to his mother, Beth Myers, one of the school’s staunchest supporters.

“We wanted the IB, but also, the school has an interesting holistic approach,” she says, mentioning the school’s encouragement for students to have a strong family life. “There are small classes, and teachers are very enthusiastic and really bond with the kids, even doing a lot of things with them outside of class.”

Another plus, she says, is that “kids are encouraged not to care about what brand of sneakers anybody wears. Also, children come from all economic backgrounds.”

As part of a class in 20th-century Russian history, she says, her son was taken to Russia by his teacher and was welcomed by the British ambassador in Moscow.

Ms. Arwas, whose university was Leeds, was awarded one of the British government’s highest honors, the Order of the British Empire, for groundbreaking work in England “going into school areas where kids were struggling and turning them around,” Mrs. Myers notes.

Chris Butler, mother of two current British School children, initially chose the school for convenience when the family moved back from London, where her husband had opened an office for his law firm.

“Our kids got individual attention [here], more than they had before in [British] state and private system schools,” she says.

Faculty member Simon A. Bird, in his eighth year, teaches English and film and also handles school transfers and counseling for students’ college and university applications, for which he receives extra pay.

“It is a good package,” he says.

What drew him to Washington, away from life in a storied English cottage in Swansea, was the opportunity to travel, “to do something new.” After 20 years as a teacher and 10 years in the same environment, he felt he was growing stale professionally: “You lose a bit of imagination — your general sense of stimulus and enjoyment.” He calls Washington “a dynamic city,” where “everything keeps me stimulated.”

Besides, he is an avid skier, and options on this side of the ocean, he says, are far more enticing.

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