By Jessica Fortin
The International Community School of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ICS) by the numbers:
- 33%: average new students each year
- 25–33%: new students from international schools
- 30–40%: new students from their home countries
- 17%: students who stay at ICS for longer than four years
- 50–60%: students who stay at ICS for less than two years
- 56%: students from outside the US or Canada
- 63: number of passport countries represented by our students
- 19: number of passport countries represented by our staff
- 3.8: average years of longevity among non-citizen staff
These numbers may look surprising but they are not unusual for an international school. They show a school community that is both diverse and ever changing, and reflect my experience as the Admissions Director at ICS over the past 15 years. We celebrate our diversity in ways that are likely similar to other international schools, but we also recognise that a diverse community with high transition rates comes with complex needs and challenges.
These numbers represent people. They push me to reflect on the ways we support our families and employees through their time at ICS. Do they feel valued and recognised at each step of their journey? Are they each allowed to fully ‘belong’ as unique individuals, or do they settle for ‘fitting in’ within the greater context? Do we have a sustainable and consistent system of positive transitions-care to maintain wellbeing and mental health? I see an ethical imperative for international schools to be exploring and incorporating these questions and many more into their strategic plans and daily operations.
My own transitions-care journey
It took me years to become aware of, start to understand and finally dig deeper into the ideas around positive transitions-care. These are three highlights of my personal transitions-care learning journey:
- 10 years after joining ICS, I discovered that there is a way to describe my own experience as a long-term staff member: I am a ‘stayer’, not an arriver and not a leaver, but someone who nevertheless still experiences emotional transitions in working relationships.
- One-and-a-half years later, while attending a transitions-care session facilitated by Mona Stuart, a thought leader in the field, I had another personal discovery. This time I realised that my own challenging transition into grade 9 had been positively impacted by just one high-school classmate, and by extension I understood that each member of a community supports transition.
- Two years later, I participated in the first cohort of the Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) Laws of Transitions Certificate Course. The 10-week online course was a deep dive into transitions-care and provided peer discussions, team building and a comprehensive understanding of the need for transitional support in international schools. Four of the ICS counsellors and I came away from the course with big ideas and, more importantly, practical plans to move our school forward. We have also remained connected to our course cohort, as part of a growing global network of colleagues committed to transitions-care.
Implementing our transitions-care learning
My ICS colleagues and I started the course with enthusiasm and a long-term vision for what we might accomplish. We learned a great deal about transitions-care, as well as about ourselves and how we must balance our own needs with those of others and of our schools.
For ICS, we selected manageable goals for ourselves—aspects of positive transitions-care that we could implement in the short-term. These included:
- Student peer ambassadors expanded into the upper elementary school
- Parent Ambassador Program recommencement as a parent-run programme
- Student-led virtual sessions for new families and/or students
- Dedicated Facebook groups for new families and for new staff to support making connections, with scheduled posts and new content
These all focused on the arrivers, both because we were preparing for the new school year and because this group already has established systems for transitions-care that can more easily be expanded and improved. Support for the stayers and the leavers needs more thoughtful planning and consistent action as part of a wider move toward a transitions team model in which a group of people throughout the school establish a sustainable, long-term transitions-care culture.
What might we do for those stayers and leavers? Some ideas from our course:
- Establish traditions to anchor and energise stayers
- Recognise longevity among long-term parents, as we already do for staff
- Offer counsellor sessions for stayer parents and staff
- Acknowledge families who re-enrol at ICS
- Track the next destination of leaving students, to facilitate future connections
- Follow up personally with leaving parents before departure
Our overarching goals include educating staff and leadership on the importance of positive transitions-care, ensuring transitions-care is incorporated into policies, procedures and expectations, and establishing an annual calendar of transitions-care events and routines.
Expand your own learning
Positive transitions-care is truly a schoolwide initiative, and responsibility extends beyond the admissions office, the counselling office and human resources – departments that are often expected to support everyone’s wellbeing during a transition. Leadership, educators, support staff, parents and students can all be contributors to a transitions team. Transitional support should be happening throughout the year and with all constituents: arrivers, stayers and leavers.
To learn more
If you want to learn more, you might start with Douglas Ota’s book, Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it. Join the monthly online gathering hosted by SPAN, The Nest, for transitions-care conversations with like-minded peers around the world. The full SPAN Laws of Transitions Certificate Course is, of course, highly recommended, and is now being offered twice a year. SPAN also hosts an annual transitions-care symposium; the inaugural event in March 2022 was inspirational and invigorating.