Article published in Metro Society magazine, December 2007 – January 2008 issue.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and the Principal – or the President, rather, is in her office. The slender, graceful woman behind the desk is a far cry from the stern headmistress one would expect at an elite Chinese school; an international Chinese school, at that. Felicia ‘Feli’ Atienza, wife of TV personality Kim Atienza, is the President of the Chinese International School Manila (CISM) in the upscale community of McKinley Hill. She launches straight into a discussion of the school; its origins, curriculum and what makes it unique.
“I think what’s important about the school is that we try to demystify the stereotypes that people can have, or do have, about the Chinese. A lot of people say ‘Why do you call it a Chinese International School?’ ” She enumerates the most common misconceptions. “It’s strict. The math is hard. It’s full of geeks. It’s not sports-oriented.” Then she smiles, amused. “Part of my vision when I established this school was to break those stereotypes by offering the best of everything to the students.”
CISM combines an American curriculum with a meticulous program for learning Mandarin efficiently at all levels. This unique approach also takes into consideration the Philippine cultural context, which makes it an excellent institute of learning for both local and foreign citizens. The school follows the American standard of education, and participated in last year’s ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), with admirable results.
There are five core subjects, with the first four being the standard Math, English, Social Studies, and Science. The fifth is the main Chinese language, Mandarin. “Some schools have an ESL program (English as a Second Language). We will be launching a CSL program (Chinese as a Second Language) soon.” Feli says. “A lot of people, myself included, believe that Mandarin is the language of the future, particularly in the business arena.” All the Chinese language teachers are native speakers, and one is from Taiwan. “Extra-curricular programs are also very important to us because I think that aside from nurturing the intellectual aspect of a student, we want them to touch base with the whole right side of the brain. We offer a full range of extra-curricular activities. We have a Lego Club and a Drama Club, to name a few.”
When asked if she’s always been involved in education, Feli shakes her head and reveals a different background altogether. “I was actually in Finance.” She explains. She has a B.S.E. with a dual major in Finance and Multinational Management from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She worked for JP Morgan Fleming for 5 years then Merrill Lynch for 5 years. Her interest in education was a direct result of motherhood. “I had my first child, a son. When he turned two, my natural instinct as a mom was to look for a suitable school. I wanted an international school, and I wanted my child to be fluent in Mandarin when he graduated. I looked around and wondered, ‘Why is there no Chinese International School?’ I couldn’t believe it when the Chinese are probably the largest minority in the Philippines. I was actually quite puzzled considering there’s a Japanese School, a British school, and even French and German schools. On one side you have a whole range of international schools, and on the other there are local Chinese schools. But I wanted an international curriculum with a Chinese element as well.” Her eldest, who is now 6 years old, is enrolled at CISM together with her other two children. They pass by, giggling and energetic, as Feli walks out of her office for a bit, into the hallway.
On the ground floor of CISM are the Pre-Kindergarten classrooms, a multi-purpose hall and music room. “We’re pretty much fully-equipped. We have a bi-level library, an arts room, an audio-visual room, a music room, five science labs, a basketball court, a volleyball court, and six Chinese language labs, because we take our Chinese seriously here.” Feli grins. Her passion for both the school and its language program is evident.
CISM also takes its teaching very seriously. The school had a two-day Teacher Training Workshop last August for the faculty. This was followed by a one-day in-service seminar in September, October, and November. All workshops were handled by former ISM teachers with a minimum of 35 years teaching experience, from the SAGER Learning Institute. “We’re very proud of our faculty. Our teachers all come from international schools.” She boasts.
It’s wonderful to meet a woman whose origin in education is inextricable tied with her being a mother. After all, children will be in school almost everyday for the greater part of their formative years. Where better to place them, than in the hands of someone who is a parent herself? Feli also understood the importance of excellence, in whatever field. “I knew I had to have the best educators by my side when I started.” So she searched long and hard for someone who not only had outstanding credentials, but also shared her dream of teaching students Mandarin. “I was fortunate to meet Lulu, the sister of a good friend.” She introduces her partner, Maria Luisa Que Sian.
Maria Luisa, or Lulu for short, is CISM’s Superintendent. Her qualifications are exceptional, with an Ed.M. in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard University, an Elementary Teaching Certification from the US, and 15 years of teaching experience in various international schools here and abroad. Lulu had been working in Brent for about 9 years when Feli approached her with plans for the Chinese International School. From the start, she sensed it was an excellent plan. “Once I said yes, I knew it was a commitment.” Lulu explains. She helped create the distinctive academic program, and chose which textbooks from abroad were most suited to the elite academic standards and particular approach of CISM.
“Our goal is to make learning really more experiential. The knowledge becomes a part of the students. By the time they get tested for a certain skill, they don’t even have to study for a test, because they already know how to do it. It’s not about memorizing; it’s about understanding and experiencing the topic. That’s really what learning is about.” Lulu states. She is also a mother, and her children study in CISM as well, one in Grade 5 and the other in Grade 7. “Learning has to be fun. That’s one of the things we try to do; we combine academic excellence with making learning fun for the kids.” She adds.
CISM was three years in the making, and it continues to expand steadily. “Right now we have Pre-kindergarten to Grade 8. Next year we roll out Grade 9.” Feli shares. At full capacity, the school has ample room for 600 students. They expect to reach that figure in about 6 years. “We’ll be working on pre-University – some people also call it college level – courses, such as the IB (International Baccalaureate).” CISM is the first of its kind in the country, and seems to be well on its way to achieving its vision of becoming one of the leading international schools in the world, with its high academic standards, and effective integration of tradition and innovation for the next generation of learners.