In this exclusive interview, Jakarta Intercultural School’s new Head of School shares his thoughts on the business of education as well as his vision for this sprawling campus filled with one of the most diverse student bodies in Southeast Asia.
Not many people understand Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) exists as a non-profit educational organization. Its founding as a small school for United Nations staff posted to Jakarta after Indonesia gained independence in 1951 has now transformed to lush and sprawling grounds with three separate campuses. With roughly 2300 students and 65 nationalities represented throughout, it’s an incredible sight to behold when the school bell rings at Cilandak and students pour out of classrooms and move on to the next. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls allow parents and visitors to see how the youngest students enrolled in the early education programmes are learning at Pattimura. With a ratio of one teacher to every ten students, teaching staff and administrators also complement the campus and many greet students on a first-name basis as they walk through the corridors.
Perhaps due to its tuition costs, an image has circulated through expatriate and local communities that JIS is an elite and privileged institution. And while the costs of schooling have increased at private schools such as JIS in recent years (and may have perpetuated this image), one needn’t look far to also see JIS’s position in the region as one of the first and largest international schools with high matriculation and graduation rates for those students who finish the rigorous International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement programmes. The new Head of School Tarek Razik, Ed.D., sits down with Indonesia Expat and dispels this common misconception along with explaining the differences between the business of education and the art of educating in the current economic environment.
The Education Business
Education has changed dramatically over the past few decades. It is a massive business, with large management companies running schools around the world. “Investment firms are putting big money into purchasing schools. There’s the GEMS [Global Education Management Systems] organization running primarily in the Middle East. There’s also [others] that are running a lot of the international schools in Asia and South Asia,” Razik explains to Indonesia Expat one afternoon at his office in Pondok Indah campus. One look at the profile of any of these educational brands reinforces this position.
“As long as the quality is kept in mind, I am OK with it. But you’ve got to put students first, and most of these schools end up trying to save money in order to turn a profit and that’s either on resources or on teachers or teachers’ salaries. There is this tension, I think, between the business side and academic delivery. However, some of these schools have figured it out and are doing a very good job; I single out GEMS because I know they put the students first,” says Razik.
And although JIS is a non-profit organization, it is not exempt from Indonesian government taxes. In fact, the school is taxed as a for-profit entity. Razik explains, “We are the largest employer of expatriates in Indonesia. We are not making any money, but we are taxed like it. The taxes on teaching staff salaries and benefits really puts us non-profits at a real disadvantage.”
It is strange to consider that international schools like JIS might eventually go the way of the dinosaur. In order for school boards to attract top talent, maintain quality facilities and make resources available to the students; the schools must spend money. Finances are a constant concern for the head of school. “We have to raise tuition each year commensurate with the cost of living that just keeps going up and I worry unless we develop alternative streams of revenue, we could be priced out of the market.” Public schools in the United States and other Western countries have corporate sponsorships, on-campus advertising, leasing of school facilities and other such income-generating activities for the schools when government funds do not meet the rising costs of resources or salaries.
However, the only source of revenue for a non-profit, private, international school such as JIS is through tuition. Competition is high among schools in the region for sourcing the best teachers, too. “If we want to remain competitive against schools in Singapore and China, then we have to maintain a competitive benefits package. I do think that there is a similar tension between non-profit and for-profit systems, and that for-profit schools are going to take over most of the education in the region. I struggle to think of how many not-for-profit schools there are in Indonesia, Thailand or China. There are few and far between,” says Razik.
Attracting the Best Educators and Talent
Some international schools have a tough time attracting and retaining top talent. There is a small pool of qualified, international school educators in an ever-expanding world of international schools. Some for-profit schools manage that by throwing money at teacher applicants who would otherwise be working elsewhere with less hardship. “At JIS, recruitment is conducted year-round to find the best people. It’s a nonstop job,” says Razik. For him, there are three major factors that he believes to be important.
“The least important one is a competitive salary and benefits package; teachers need to know they’re being looked after. The more important ones for me are the work environment and reputation. Schools develop reputations, and it impacts the recruitment process more and more. Teachers want to feel that they’re valued, they enjoy coming to work, they’re respected and they have opportunities for professional development and growth within the organization. I always say that you can be making a lot of money, but be very unhappy in your job and you’re not going to be productive so the students are going to suffer. Money is not going to buy a good working environment. However, a teacher is more willing to stay and the students will benefit if the work environment is positive and the salary is good. If you can put those two things together, then you’ve got a good thing going,” says Razik. He adds, “I’m trying to navigate the impact of Jakarta on recruiting as well. Coming from Beijing, we had this little thing called pollution that we had to work our way around periodically. Here, I’m just learning about the challenges.”
The Enrolments Issue
If there’s one issue that is always a constant source of anxiety and concern at board meetings and conferences, it’s the issue of enrolments. When the global economy was expanding during the early part of the century, expatriates were hired in large numbers, particularly in Asia. As that stagnated and countries started to localize because of the expenses associated with relocations and benefits packages provided for school and housing, a different approach was taken. “Anybody who tells you that their enrolment is increasing with expatriates right now, well, I’d like to see their data. Most of the time you see a decline in expat students and that’s where your board starts to get nervous, especially with for-profit schools,” explains Razik
For many of the schools, the alternative is opening the doors to local students. By doing so, do schools then lose their international appeal? Does a bum on the seat that translates into tuition the only way to survive a tough economic environment? Razik considers this point carefully. “People stereotype by saying, ‘We’ll lose our identity and our international culture.’ I’m not sure I agree with that. I think here at JIS we want students that fit with our admissions criteria, and they and their families agree with our mission and values. You can be Indonesian, you can be Korean or you can be Brazilian. However, if you agree with our core values and mission and you’re academically qualified, then we will happily educate you.”
The New Head of School
Tarek Razik pauses for a moment. “I’m only three months on the ground here. There are many differences between working in China and Indonesia. It’s a different pace and cultural sensitivity.”
Razik is a seasoned head of school, having started his career in the Caribbean and then landing a management role at the Shanghai American School in 2000. He eventually moved to Beijing where he was head of school. “Even though I’ve been doing this for a while and moving periodically, no two cities or schools are ever alike. I want to acclimate myself personally and with my family. I also want to make sure I respect the work that’s been done to get the institution to this point and how I’m going to add value with the next iteration of Jakarta Intercultural school with my leadership,” he says thoughtfully.
He describes his philosophy in detail. “At the end of the day, test scores should not be the measurements of a child’s success. Is a child happy? Is the child giving back to society? Is the child doing good things for the world? Is the child healthy mentally and physically? Those things, in my mind, will influence their education in a positive direction beyond the academics.
You see some of the big scandals around the world like Enron; these people have serious college and graduate school degrees and yet they’ve gone off and done these unethical things. I think that’s what we try to prevent here. We look at wellness and mindfulness because I believe a healthy mind and body will eventually lead to academic results that are appropriate for that individual child.
There is definitely an emphasis on the academics and less so on the child in many countries, and I don’t think that’s healthy.”
So where does this elitist reputation come from? Is it simple from the costs associated with attending the school or are there other factors that come into play?
Razik seems acutely aware of the situation, and surprisingly, does not shy away from the subject. “It’s definitely crossed my plate since I’ve been here. I want to dispel this reputation, but acknowledge that perhaps some of it is our own doing. I think we need to get out there and share more of the community service work that we do. We need to showcase what happens on this campus when this place is abuzz with local students using our classrooms, theatres and sports facilities. We are a very community-based school here.”
When pressed further, he adds, “The elitist perception comes from the fact that we charge tuition, and our tuition is high for all of the reasons that we spoke about earlier. However, that in of itself shouldn’t drive the narrative for the school and who we are. It’s not about how much you spend to go to school, but how you’re giving back to the community and getting people to see your attitude. And your attitude should never be one of arrogance or condescension, but rather something that is inclusive and respectful.”