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Our Kids Interview: Get to know The American School of Warsaw

Our Kids speaks to Jon Zurfluh, the director of The American School of Warsaw

Established in 1953, The American School Warsaw is an international non-profit school with over 50 nationalities. ASW offers education from kindergarten through high school. ASW is an International Baccalaureate World School, which means that it offers IB at all the three levels: the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP), and the Diploma Programme (DP). Students can get the full IB Diploma in addition to the American high school diploma.  continue reading...

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Our Kids speaks with Jon Zurfluh, the school director. The transcript of the interview is below.

Please watch and listen to this conversation on video, which also includes many photos from the school (some taken before the pandemic, hence no masks):

A little history

Our Kids: I know you have been in education for over 40 years, but how long have you worked for this school?

Jon Zurfluh: I came in 2016, so this is my fifth year. Prior to that, I spent five years in Moscow, then a couple of years back in the States doing my superintendence credentials, and before that, seven years in Shanghai. And then, if we keep going back, I had five years as a principal in Washington State, and before that three years in China and back before that, 11 years as an elementary teacher teaching every grade level from kindergarten to Grade 6.

Our Kids: What made you choose ASW?

Jon Zurfluh: It's a long story (listen to this part on the video).

I'm kind of a "servant-leader", so for me finding something I can help with was right up my alley. And we resonated. I came down in July and instead of packing to go home, we packed to go to Warsaw. That was after meeting parents, administrators, and everybody else. But I was initially hired as an interim, for a year or maybe two, to help through a search process for their next director. I always talk about heads of school being like dating: you get a sense of each other, then you fall for each other, and then you’re ready to pop the question. So we followed that normal path and about October, they said: “John, would you be willing to stay?” We extended our contract once, then the second time, and recently we just finished negotiations to extend my stay here through 2023. It was always a great school, but by really capitalizing on that greatness and turning it into something truly special—the work with core values, the mission, the three-program IB school, just to name a few—we’re on target on a lot of fronts. A big chunk of that was just in our first two years and now we’re really taking a long look at how we can continue to stay where we've always been—at the forefront of international education here, in Warsaw.

Our Kids: The history of the school goes back quite a while, doesn't it?

Jon Zurfluh: Oh yes, all the way back to 1953. We’ve actually had family members of the original founder who have visited the school recently. The school started with 12-15 kids from three or four embassies, the US being one, but also the British, German and a couple more. That's where the journey started and it just kept growing year by year.

At one point, the school was in a few different locations and it was in the early ‘90s that we finally were the full K to 12 school. Then we had our IB certification for our Diploma Programme (DP), which is the longest-standing IB Programme, and our accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

It’s been a journey of growing and watching how international schools mature in the process, particularly the diplomatic schools which started under a very close umbrella of diplomatic missions, and then they grow successively out of that cocoon into a school in their own rights, and then the robust top-tier international schools.


Our Kids: And who are your students now?

Jon Zurfluh: There's still a solid core of diplomats. We’re still a diplomatic school of choice across probably about 13-15 embassies who have staff here and need education for their kids. The next group are ex-patriots, who are our biggest contingent, and who are living and working here for various companies, primarily for corporate entities—sometimes they’re entrepreneurs who have relocated here from another country. We have a mix of 55 countries on that list, so we are broadly diverse.

And then it’s local residents, whom we serve on the space available basis, roughly between 20 and 25% of our student body. This applies not just to the local country nationalities, but also to all other nationalities. If they get to that level, we would say: that grade level is currently limited for that nationality in order to preserve its diversity. Our goal is to keep it below the 25% figure. So we do create waiting lists sometimes if we have more Polish students than we can accommodate. But there certainly are other nationalities that may press that limit. The exception is Americans—we don't limit American expats, because they are already a mix. They tend to be representative of a broad range of many nationalities and backgrounds. And that may be one of the last vestiges of our ties to the US Embassy.

I don't think international schools of our type ever fully divest from that diplomatic connection. It's part of our governing documents and we have representation from the Embassy that serves on our Board of Directors. So our Board of Trustees is a diplomatic and school association. They're all parents and there are some selected positions reserved for diplomatic personnel who serve the interest of the Embassy and guide the strategic work of the school.

Our Kids: Do you have many students who go through the whole program? If most of them are kids of diplomats, then their parents presumably come to Poland just for a few years and then they go to other countries.

Jon Zurfluh: You hit the nail on the head. That's why our program is the way it is, because a majority of our kids—60-70%—are here for about three years on average and then they’re off to other places. So the fact that we’re aligned with other international schools in the way we articulate our program, makes that transition smoother for those families, particularly of diplomats but also of the corporate world. Every year at graduation, I love identifying “the golden warriors”, i.e., the ones who've been here for 13 years, the ones who joined us in pre-K. There's always about 6 to 10 of them. I'm able to have them stand on stage and say: “I've been here all the way through!”

Non-profit model

Our Kids: I've learned that your school is nonprofit.

Jon Zurfluh: We function as a nonprofit. The term has a different meaning depending on which country you're in. We are under an umbrella of a U.S. foundation registered as a 501C. From a budgetary point of view, we function as a nonprofit here, in Poland; if you look at our financials, you will see that everything that we take in the revenue goes back into the operation of the school. There is no profit taking of any sort. Based on my experience worldwide, I can say about 40% of international schools are nonprofit in nature.

The uniqueness of the school

Our Kids: You’re not the only international school in Warsaw and not the only American school in Warsaw. What would you tell a parent who is interested in enrolling their child in an international American school in Warsaw to convince them that yours is the best?

Jon Zurfluh: It's a sense of the place. I think, looking at it through the lense of the parents I talk to who are considering us, you walk in the front door and get a feel for the place and you see it as a match. For us, because of our diversity, because of our broad range of programs, because of our non-selective enrollment, we tend to match more parents and more families than a typical school that may be focusing on a more narrow frame of curriculum or program delivery. So for us, it's a mixture of the IB three-program continuum school but still embedded in U.S. common core standards.

So we unpack those standards and deliver it through the framework of the IB continuum programs, the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the Middle Years Programme (MYP), and the Diploma Programme (DP). All these three programs have components that are about matching students at their level of development and their level of need. In the constructivist PYP, we're helping the kids to become internationally-minded and critical thinkers, and understand their learning processes. The MYP, where the attitudes towards learning (ATL's) are embedded in every aspect of the program, culminates in the personal project after six years of study. And then we have the DP, which really allows kids to take all of that learning and turn it into what they will study as they go to college, really become practitioners in their areas of passion, choosing their classes that match the necessary points and structures that they need to really matriculate to the school of their choice. And the proof is in the pudding—when you look at our college placement, where our kids go, at our 98-99% placement rate, the fact that they're going literally around the world, to colleges the U.S., UK and Asia, I think that speaks for itself.

We’ve got something that really serves a broad range of students and we have something that has heart, which has at its core beliefs and aspirations how, to quote our mission statement, we will change the world for the better. That backdrop with the program to bring it to fruition is, I think, what distinguishes us from other schools that are more focused on delivering a curriculum. Everybody does an equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma and the IB diploma sits on top of that—that's the value add. Well over 90% of our kids take the full IB diploma though they don't have to. They can do just that high school diploma, go back to the U.S. and be competent in any of the 4000 universities across the United States and for the most part, they can probably apply to many European universities without that IB diploma. The IB diploma is that extra validation of preparation for high-level programs that they might choose to be enrolled in. We also firmly believe that the IB Programme is for all kids. That's why 90+ percent of our kids are in that Programme and we can get all the kids through it. They don't all have to be 44’s—they can be 28’s or 25’s and that IB diploma will still have value in declaring: “This child holding that IB diploma is ready for college”.


Our Kids: And who are your teachers?

Jon Zurfluh: They are a mix of international and locally-hired teachers. They’re predominantly overseas hired expats. They typically come from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia. They normally come with a broad background and usually 5-8+ years of experience. The vast majority have masters degrees in their field. We have a handful of PhDs as well. We're very competitive in the international world and we compete for candidates for teachers.

The pandemic

Our Kids: How are you dealing with the pandemic?

Jon Zurfluh: Last year we did the right thing and we finished well in virtual school. We had some real praise from the parents for our program. We’re very competent online, so we can initiate online learning very effectively if we need to. But our real story is that we have stayed open, that we have initiated a full set of protocols and practices that have allowed us to keep school open the majority of the time since August. We’ve had small stretches of a few days here and there where we've taken classes or cohorts online, but we’re doing weekly testing of students and staff we are doing daily attestation of health status, a variety of other hygiene protocols throughout the building, and limited access cohorts—everything we needed to do that the medical experts recommended.

And we’re at the leading edge of this, because even though the medical experts were saying this is the way you need to go, there was not a huge uptake among the schools around the world. In fact, we had to rely on literature and research from a handful of schools that like us were looking for solutions, for partners, for medical professionals that could guide us. We adapted those practices, did a full summer of work to completely revamp our facilities and we were up and running on the first day of school. And we've stayed open since then. (Details on video)

We have protected the school community effectively. We present those practices to SANEPID in Piaseczno and their response is: “Good, keep doing it.” So we're doing more in terms of contact-tracing, checking, and immediate decision-making than in the typical context—if you submit a lab test, it may be seven days before action is taken because of the load, while we're taking action within hours. We have been open the entire time. I dare say we're the only school that has. Now what we're seeing around the world is that more and more schools, from the elementary to the college level, are adopting these protocols.


Our Kids: What are you proud of? What do you see as your biggest achievements?

Jon Zurfluh: I think we’re most proud of the fact that we’ve achieved three-program status that in very short order we engaged our community and our staff. We implemented PYP and MYP at the same time so that they can join our very competent and effective DP Programme and create a continuum of learning that spans from three years of age to 18. I think that's something to be proud of.

Another thing is getting cohesion around our mission and core values. The core values were developed by 36 people. Half of them were middle and high school kids, who helped to write and define our five core values. And they are really the centre of everything we’re doing. They are solid in our framework. One of them is “Bounce back when things don't go your way.” What a perfect core value to have in the middle of a pandemic! We get hit by challenges left and right, and every day we're being asked to bounce back and demonstrate resilience. Our kids understand it and show it every day. They take on these challenges, all these new rules—wearing a mask every day being the biggest one and protecting others.

Another core value that's critical and that I'm really proud of, as it speaks to who we are as a school is “Work together,” because without us all we’re nothing. It's not just collaboration, but that nobody can be left behind, that we take care of each other, we make sure we all continue on this pathway together.

We also talk about turning the classroom into the world and making sure we connect their learning to the world outside, turning what you do in school into what you do in life. One of our biggest events of the year is United Nations Day. All the parents come in, because they see that core value of making the whole world your classroom and they bring the world to us: they bring the food, the customs, the dance and music, the decorations. They bring the world into our classroom, because they know that’s our core value. 40 countries have booths set up around the school that are sharing that core value.

But there is another core value that's connected very much to our IB Programmes—the idea of stepping forward, of taking action. “Step forward and make things happen, don't wait.” It’s about empowering the kids to be able to take action in the context of their learning.


Our Kids: When I interviewed parents from your school, they emphasized this sense of community in your school. How do you make this community work?

Jon Zurfluh: A big piece of it is the willingness to participate in the life of the school. One of my biggest concerns of this year was that in the hygiene recommendations, we had to restrict parents from being able to access the building. One of the places where you've always seen community was the parents were always present here, in the cafeteria, volunteering in the classrooms. I was very nervous that under the pandemic, when excluding them from this environment, we would lose that. In fact, it has just grown and it’s been created in the pursuit of the unique, virtual ways of inserting their presence. So United Nations Day, instead of being here on site with food and everybody present, was country videos put together by groups of parents to share the countries and culture with the students in the school.

Even though we were daunted by the challenges of the present moment, as a result of community, our parents have found ways to step forward. We have a small select group of parents who get tested so they have access to the building. They're inside the building to keep things going and are supported by the parents outside, who are contributing and helping to make that happen. Our sense of community transcends all boundaries. I firmly believe that when we get back to the point when we can open our doors again or we can involve parents in our safe practices, that will all come back.

When people come into our admissions, we have to try to explain to them that this isn't just about signing up your child, paying the fees, and walking away. This is about parents engaging in this, too. We are partners and we expect you to be part of this. We will facilitate it, e.g., when we have new families, we have ambassadors from various parent groups to guide them. We always have 10 languages used around the room, people are asking questions in their native tongues. Then that relationship continues.

At the core of what we do we recognize that we’re all in this together, that education is not just about teachers delivering to students, that it's about creating an environment of learning here and in the logical extension in the home to make sure that our kids have this robust experience that's more about life and less about the textbooks. We’re out there making change, doing good things and good work. We have a 30-year relationship with the blind school that we continue to support to this day. Donations are being loaded on the truck in spite of the fact that this is happening in the middle of the pandemic.

Supporting charities

Our Kids: The school for the blind is one of the examples, but I know you have more initiatives to support charities.

Jon Zurfluh: We're sending lots of kids to the animal shelters. We support the Warsaw Volunteer Mission. We've done various cancer fundraisers, some of them international school-based. Around May or June we have a walk for life around our track—a cancer research fundraiser but also a time of the memorial for those who have faced or whose loved ones have faced cancer. We encircle our track with candles in paper bags with messages on them about the person it’s connected to. We have dozens of other partnerships. We have a robust list of funds the business office manages. In the past, before the pandemic, kids did bake sales and then they would transfer the funds to the charity. We have supported various disasters over the years. We had a giving tree that supported the Warsaw Volunteer Mission.

Before the pandemic, we hosted chess tournaments that included village schools from across Poland. They would bus their kids. We turned our gymnasium into a chess playing hall and had a robust tournament, a wonderful cross-cultural play. We had three years of that before the pandemic hit.

Extracurricular activities

Our Kids: I know you always have lots of extracurriculars, but are they still going on despite the pandemic?

Jon Zurfluh: Yes, in a very robust way. The only thing we don't have is competitions. We’re doing it within our bubble. The kids understand we are bridging, we're doing this temporarily in-house to keep going, because these kids will play next year and we want to continue this skill development. We started off with soccer and volleyball. We had to be more careful with basketball, because it's a closer contact sport, so it's been primarily skill development. What’s been popular is more of a shift to our fitness facility, so we have a lot of fitness equipment, such as treadmills, weights. So we’re opening on Saturdays for kids in the high school cohort. They come in, do bodybuilding and weight training as a way of supplementing what they're missing in their sports.

The one that is kept going, although still with no competition, is our swimming. We have our pool and all the advice on the swimming environments is that it's a natural, clean environment with chlorination, so we are able to do a lot more there than we're able to do in other venues. That's the athletic side. On the activity side, all of our activities are going on, but the competitions are in virtual meetings. For example, in our Speech and Debate we still competed with six schools across Central and Eastern European theatre, but we competed with them virtually. We are hosting Model United Nations virtually in April and we have over 120 participants signed, from around the world. These kids will stay up late at night in some places to participate in the online sessions. I’m currently leading the middle school Model United Nations and we have meetings every week, like we normally would. We have kept it within their cohorts, so elementary, middle, and high schools have their own separate activities in their spaces.

We have also written this up in the form of a research paper, submitted it to various publishers, and we hope to get it published as a model for schools to build on. We’re always seeking collaboration with other like-minded schools mostly in our region but also beyond Central and Eastern Europe, in the rest of the continent, and in Southeast Asia to address the question: how can we build and continue to expand those protocols to get schools back together?

Our Kids: Is there anything else that you would like to say and that I haven't asked you about?

Jon Zurfluh: Only that I really love my school and I love what we’re doing and what we’re achieving. I think that says it all. You have to love a place, and if you do, you do anything to make sure it’s successful. And I don't think I'm the only person that loves this school.

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