How many times have you had to reject a student because their English level did not meet the minimum requirement to enter your school? For many of us international school enrollment professionals, this may be the top reason why we are unable to offer admission.
When we think about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) and see admissions through this lens, it does seem that the decisive factor for admission based on one data point – the ability to meet our English requirements – seems quite arbitrary. In addition, we also find it contradictory that the value of multilingualism is what makes an international school community unique compared to any other education system in the world. But through many admission processes, an applicant can be rejected solely based on their lack of fluency in English.
We are a multilingual department at Dulwich College Suzhou often speaking to one another in Mandarin Chinese which is the most comfortable language for most of the team. Our working language, or the language with which we complete our responsibilities and tasks, is English, but our conversational language is Mandarin. It is interesting to observe our team as we discuss applicants as part of our review. We will be very matter of fact in English when looking at our criteria but then switch to Mandarin when wanting to empathize with a student who we know maybe did not score as well as we would expect or was nervous or anxious.
When we put so much emphasis on assessments and benchmarks that are conducted solely in English, we are only perpetuating linguistic imperialism and colonial influence in our entire admission process. While we all endeavor to have holistic admission processes, missing the mark for English level fluency, in our school which values multilingualism, seemed very short sighted. We felt that something had to change – this way of admissions was not diverse, not equitable, and not inclusive whatsoever!
Research, literature, and action in the ecosystem of international education have us all reflecting on DEIJ, anti racism, decolonization of our curriculum, and looking inward to understand hierarchies and structures which emphasize an English, western dominant worldview. Many schools have or will be making DEIJ an important pillar of their structural strategic changes to how they choose to educate a diverse student population.
Throughout this academic year, we worked closely with Mr Jake Huckle, English and EAL teacher in our Senior School, to reimagine and unpack the admission process through a DEIJ lens specifically focusing on languages. Mr Huckle has spearheaded many changes in our College, moving to implement strategic approaches and training our faculty to embrace multilingualism in the classroom through translanguaging, which supports language diversity, equity and inclusion. It utilizes the many languages in a classroom as an asset and those resources are used to enhance the educational experience for all. In addition, Dulwich College Suzhou has recently become a Language Friendly School (LINK) – a commitment as a school where
Everyone welcomes and values all languages spoken by the student,
the parents and the school stakeholders.
Taking a design thinking approach, our Admissions team has gone through our customer journey and has been trialing these changes in our admission process:
1. Provide Support in Any Language
We take an enquiry or application in any language through OpenApply. We then manually change the information into English for our records but we never want English to be a barrier to an application. Whenever we receive a phone enquiry or email, we encourage parents to fill out the form in whatever language is most comfortable for them and we will take care of the translation. We work closely with our Communications Team which provides translation to our community in Chinese and Korean and we utilize their services to support the admissions function. For languages that we do not have access to internally for translation, we go into our network or ask the parents to provide support from their end. This year, we were able to support a Hungarian family with support from a colleague in our headquarters in Shanghai who helped us to translate the Hungarian academic records.
Prior to our interviews, we ask parents if they need translation – if we cannot provide it, we try to rearrange the time or we allow the parents to bring along their own translator. Parents can respond to interview questions or emails in their home language and we can use the translate function or programs to support the dialogue.
In emails to parents who prefer to write in their home language, we make a note to explain that we do use the translation function for email and if there seems to be anything lost in translation, we welcome to set up an online meeting with a translator to avoid any miscommunication.
2. Collect and Share the Language Profile of the Family
As part of our application form, we have a Language Profile that captures what language a child may use and in what context:
During our interviews, we also ask the parents about what languages they speak and to what degree they are able to communicate in English, but prefacing that it is not required to be a part of our community.
We capture all of this information to pass on to the academic teams. This is to support their onboarding so that anyone communicating with the family can know what the best language or form of communication is to use for certain messages.
3. Expanding Our Criteria beyond Our English Level Benchmark
Admissions testing and interviews are very high stakes for both students and parents. If we are truly inclusive and equitable, we should be considering how to get to know our prospective students in ways in which they can express themselves in their best language. In addition to offering translation, we have started to trial part of the interview in their home language. Especially when it comes to questions related to values, we always preface to tell the parents to answer in the language in which they can express themselves the best. In addition, for the students, if we have a native speaker nearby in our office, we will often start off or repeat instructions for the assessment in their native language to ensure they feel comfortable and ease their anxiety.
During this latest admission season, the home language interview became more and more important in our admission process for our Korean applicants. Its purpose is to really get to know the students and their personalities. It also gives us insight into how well they can settle in school, and if the school can cater for the student’s needs, if any. The true nature of the student is hard to observe when they are communicating in English, especially when they are aware of what a high – stakes assessment this can be for their acceptance to our school. When only interviewed or assessed in English, many students are overly nervous or become passive when they cannot understand the questions or do not know how to express themselves.
Renee Leung, our Community Engagement Supervisor, has been supporting admissions with our Korean applicants. She shares, “I was very happy to have the chance to join the program to implement the home language impression in our admission process. I think this really helps the students to show their real personality and their ideas. At the beginning of the interview, I ask them some warmup questions, such as what their favorite subject is; what they do in their spare time; etc. Most of the students would be happy to reply to my questions, and they usually are confident to tell me about themselves. In the warmup sessions, I can already observe the real personality of the students, and I adjust my instruction in the following assessments according to the student’s character to help them feel more comfortable in the interview. I am often surprised to see how creative the students can be when they deliver their topics in Korean, and how confident they can be. Sometimes I can also hear some amazing dreams and plans from the students. Some of them have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and what they want to learn at our school. They rarely do so in English interviews.”
The home language assessment helps us to analyze a student more accurately and evaluate the student in different areas as well. For sure, English is very important in our school; however, English is only a tool for the student to express themselves. Despite language difficulties, many students can thrive in the international school environment as long as they have the will, passion, and foundational skills and knowledge that can support their success. We have successfully enrolled 1/3 more students, whom we would have rejected based on English assessment alone, through this process. It is worth the extra time and effort to include more home language assessments in the admissions process.
Changing from Deficit Thinking to Asset Thinking
Having made these changes this year in our admission process has really changed our experience as admission officers. We find our conversations in the office really shifted from a deficit thinking “this student is not going to be successful” to a much more positive asset thinking focussing on the lively, fun, and great personalities of the applicants, or, how the family experience and contributions to our community align with our own values. Feedback from our Admission Committee members as well has been extremely positive. The alignment we are bringing in admission (external facing) with the student experience (internal), means that our values messaging starts at the very beginning of the Dulwich College Suzhou journey for our families.