30 May Interview with Kevin Schafer, Director, The American International School of Muscat
Can you give us a history of The American International School of Muscat’s (TAISM’s) development?
The school was established by Ambassador Frances Cook — the first female ambassador to serve in any Gulf Cooperation Council country — with a vision to build an American educational system in Oman from early childhood up through to high school. She approached Sultan Qaboos and asked him for land. The school was gifted from the Sultan to the US Government in 1997 and the building of this facility began in 1998. Her vision was not only to set up a school for Americans but those desiring an American-based education. There is a caveat that Omani children wishing to attend must obtain special permission from the Ministry of Education, which has historically been around 10-15% of our student population. The school is incorporated as a private institution in Oman that leases the land from the American Embassy. Four of the seven people on the school board are appointees of the US ambassador, and the director of the school must be an American. It has a unique US connection and will always be American in character. We have a designation under the Omani Ministry of Education that requires TAISM to be associated with an embassy as a foreign school in Oman.
I joined in 2000 when the building opened. At that time, we began with 175 students in the building. We planned and developed five phases, each based on the growth of opportunities we knew would come from oil companies. For example, Occidental Petroleum was very involved in the school’s startup, and the company’s CEO was appointed chairman of the board. Shell and Halliburton were also present in the country, along with other American entities. Classrooms and spaces in the school are named after our benefactors. Some of the largest families and companies in the country, such as the Bahwans, the Khimjis and others contributed along with Shell, Halliburton and Occidental Petroleum. We expanded the facilities and can accommodate a maximum of 800 students.
What kind of families usually enroll their students at TAISM?
We have a strong relationship with the US Embassy in Oman, and a significant portion of our students are from families of the embassy personnel, including members of the diplomatic corps and other entities working through the embassy. For example, we currently have 85 students from the embassy out of our current 575 students. We have some students whose parents have independent businesses and moved here. Some retirees have children who attend our school who are in Oman through the integrated tourist complex that allows investment in local properties and grants residence permits. We also have parents whose children attend school here, but one parent works outside the country. It is a different world now. When American companies come to Oman, they often have employees from various countries working for them who are foreigners. These employees are often mobile and often want to keep their children in the American education system. We strive to ensure that our students are not held back in their education due to relocation. Oman offers a beautiful place to live and raise a family, with a good education system. The country is centrally located with flights everywhere; parents can easily work from anywhere while their children receive an education here.
How does TAISM’s curriculum differ from other institutions in Oman, and what exclusive experiences does the school offer?
As an independent school, we have a unique opportunity to design our curriculum flexibly. We provide the Advanced Placement system through the US College Board’s advanced placement examination system (AP), which is similar to the A-level program in the UK or the international baccalaureate program. In the last two years of high school, students can enroll in AP courses, which are equivalent to college-level courses. These courses require students to take an external examination. Upon successful completion, they can apply for advanced standing in the universities they are applying to. This opportunity is not limited to the US, as students can also use their AP credits in the UK or other countries. We aim to create programs and facilities that will be flexible and adaptable to the changing educational landscape as we move into the 21st century, including the introduction of advanced technology. This adaptability is recognized and valued by our board members who have experience in corporate settings and who consider a learner’s profile as one who will later be a potential hire. We strive to match our students’ abilities with their future endeavors in areas such as collaboration, reflection, balance and positive contributions to their communities. Students benefit from a broad-based liberal arts curriculum as we cannot predict their careers in 10 to 30 years from now. The connections our students make are incredible. When our students attend university, they often connect with international students because they have a solid understanding of the world’s diversity.
What qualifications are teachers required to have to work at TAISM?
We are connected to the educational systems in the US through the US State Department, which provides professional development funding for our teachers to attend workshops in the US. Currently, 85% of our staff members are from the US, and we exclusively hire teachers with US or North American teacher certifications. If teachers specialize in areas such as Spanish, French, Arabic or even music, we do hire other nationalities. However, we are not a bilingual school, and the primary language is English. Nevertheless, more than 50% of our students already speak two languages when they join us. This system is similar to other overseas American schools where students worldwide are brought together.
We learn a great deal from young people. Changes are happening rapidly, and we need to guide our students’ voices to help them create a new future, not just what we have created ourselves. It is crucial that teachers are aligned with this mindset, and it is a large part of our competency-based hiring program. We must ensure our students have the agency to choose and make decisions, speak up when change is needed and be active, democratic energizers within their communities. This is a fundamental aspect of the American education system.
What efforts does TAISM make to create a sense of community while highlighting cultural diversity for its students?
The most important thing is to provide a sense of belonging when families come here, especially in today’s world. For example, our school has a turnover rate of 25% every year, which is relatively high. To create a sense of belonging, a strong community needs to be established. Our curriculum focuses on community building in the classroom from day one. We also recognize that families are part of their respective communities, including their relatives back home. Through socialization, our students learn about their cultures and those of others. For example, many students might live with their grandparents or with extended families. We incorporate this into our social studies and science programs and emphasize equity, inclusion and diversity.
While we have global concerns like everyone, we begin locally with what is happening in Oman and on our campus. We emphasize authentic learning situations by learning inside and outside the school. We provide these authentic situations that help our students become more adaptable wherever they go; they learn critical skills such as community, respect and dignity toward others. One of our flagship programs is called Discover Oman in which every student participates. At the middle school level, for example, students go on different kinds of three-day trips per year. These are all within Oman and are led by teachers and local companies, including local and foreign tourism providers. We offer numerous activities such as camping, kayaking and rock climbing where they must take risks. Students learn about cultural, environmental, historical and anthropological aspects of Oman. We start this program in the elementary school with visits to the mosque, souks and farms, which may be unexpected for students who are used to different experiences. We believe it is also essential for Omani students to know their country. Oman is building Oman, and we want our students to understand and appreciate their culture and heritage.
What is TAISM doing to ensure that sustainable values are handed on to the next leaders of tomorrow?
As an institution, we need to be a role model for sustainability. We developed solar power resources at our facilities as soon as the option was available. We also use recycled water to maintain green fields and a healthy environment for students. All of our technology comes from foreign countries. When we are finished using it, we spend money where necessary, even if it means shipping our technology waste out of the country. We have a local entity that sends our old technology to the United Arab Emirates where it is dismantled. Unfortunately, no local companies are currently engaged in this kind of business.
The second way we contribute to sustainability is through ecological education and scientific issues classes. Our curriculum teaches students that we can contribute locally and be responsible consumers. For example, we have fishermen in our school who catch and release fish because they are part of the nature conservatory here, and we teach this to our students so that they learn what is possible. Additionally, students in art classes use locally available materials to create art as Omanis have also started to do. These aspects are not limited to a specific unit in our curriculum but integrated into everything we do, including discussions in biology, chemistry and social studies. Our students also participate in beach cleanups as most of the plastic rubbish in these areas comes from ships. It is important that students understand what it means to be ethical and globally conscious lifelong learners.
How open is Oman to diverse cultures and businesses?
Oman supports a collaborative environment where they adopt a more neutral approach to diplomacy between the United States and other countries; it is a lesson in the potential possibilities of peaceful coexistence. Oman has a rich history as a maritime nation with significant trade routes. This has developed a highly international culture. Ships have been coming up the eastern shores of Africa and ending up in Muscat for generations. Omanis are welcoming and very curious; they are not judgmental. This mindset is reflected at all levels, including the state. The Ministry of Education is highly cooperative and supportive of all foreign schools. They facilitate opportunities for diverse educational offerings, such as American, British and French. This is not always the case in all Gulf countries; many nations impose strict management or censorship of educational programs or books. As an international educator who has served in many countries, I have faced challenges in meeting the requirements of local ministries and navigating national manipulations. However, operating in Oman is done with ease.
Sultan Haitham has allowed those who are not an entity such as TAISM to establish themselves and work collaboratively through joint partnerships within the country. In Oman respect is developed because care is given. This has nurtured a healthy relationship over the years, and you can see this in the organizations that are present in Oman. At every business meeting, the first 45 minutes are dedicated to relationship building and the last 15 minutes to business because building trust is crucial. I have learned a great deal from this approach, and most companies discover this when they take the time to appreciate Oman. We are eager to collaborate because that is part of the relationship we have developed.
What challenges does Oman face in marketing the country as a destination to US visitors?
Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Tourism is working hard to promote the country internationally. While the labor population in Oman is transient, around 70-80% of the people in the country are Omani. While Omanis do travel, they are more likely to visit family rather than go to the US or other places. Therefore, getting the message out about Oman requires efforts from Omani authorities and private companies. This poses a challenge in terms of marketing. For example, Oman Airlines does not fly to the US, while in New York there are signs promoting vacationing in Dubai with Emirates. Americans may recognize Dubai as a destination but may not know much about Oman. This may have something to do with Oman’s cautious approach to preserving its culture while also being open to tourism. The country is making significant strides in promoting itself in unique ways, such as the Tour of Oman bike race and ultimate marathons in the desert. Ecotourism is very popular.