Education in Leuven is booming. Next to increased student numbers at the University of Leuven and UC Leuven-Limburg, the International School of Leuven reached a milestone as well. After ending the previous schoolyear with 53 pupils, they started the current welcoming their 70th.
It's impossible to ignore the map pointing out the whereabouts of all 70 pupils and their teachers upon entering the International School of Leuven. From Canada to Australia and from Japan to Venezuela, the world map depicts a clear image of how many internationals live and work in Leuven. Some of the pupils even come from Belgium.
“These are Belgian students in need of a new challenge”, Headmaster Bart De Roeck fills in. “They come from local schools for half a day per week. So far, these exchanges have been a huge success.” As we are given a tour through classrooms filled with students barely distracted by our presence, Bart tells us he has been the Headmaster ever since the International School Leuven was founded in 2013.
Bart De Roeck, Headmaster of the International School of Leuven in front of the ever expanding map showing the pupils' home country.
Bart: I started out as Headmaster for the International School of Leuven without a location, furniture, teachers or teaching plan. We had nothing and had to get the school operational in September, which we did.
That’s quite an accomplishment.
Bart: It absolutely is. The first year began with eleven pupils in a container on the playground of a local elementary school. That was our home for about 1,5 year. In February 2015, our school literally burst at the seams as we didn’t have enough space for our expanding number of pupils.
I can imagine that finding a building for a school in a city where space is already scarce is next to impossible.
Bart: It was until UC Leuven-Limburg completed its purchase of Campus Proximus and informed us that they still had plenty of space at that time. Meanwhile, we had already agreed on joining the future International House Leuven but needed a temporary location until it was finished so Campus Proximus proved to be a perfect fit. Since then, both schools have been experiencing growth and the International House won’t be finished until about 2020. Facilitating our growth in this building until the International House is operational will be the next challenge.
Do you fear that, because of its rapid growth, the International School of Leuven is already getting too big for this location?
Bart: I don’t think so. The rooms are flexible enough. For instance, my office and the teacher’s room can be turned in to classrooms and we have the option to rent a couple of extra rooms from UC Leuven-Limburg, so we can easily make do. Although the space here isn’t inexhaustible.
Was there a lot of demand for an international school in Leuven?
Bart: Absolutely. The companies and the city’s department of economy expressed their need for it. After a conducted research, KU Leuven, VIB, imec and the city of Leuven provided us with a starting capital. We started off with mainly pupils whose parents work at imec. Over the years, this has diversified into more companies, although imec still represents the majority of our pupils.
Do companies contact the International School of Leuven to discuss placing their future international worker’s children here or do the parents contact you directly?
Bart: Both, actually. In some cases, the company takes care of the whole process and also pays (a part of) the tuition fees. Sometimes this is not the case and then the parents come to us directly. Even then, the company of the parents might chip in on the fees.
How different is the subject matter compared to other schools in Belgium?
Bart: Pupils are always asked to make a link between the host country, Belgium, and their home country. This knowledge also carries out in our International Week where, for example, food from all their home countries is being made for other parents and teachers. With so many different nationalities, we make every pupil feel like they’re unique; which they are of course.
In what way is working for an international school different than working for a regular Belgian school? Because you’ve done both.
Bart: I believe the parents of internationals are more involved. When they arrive, the school is their very first anchor point. For many parents, and especially the partners, we were the first locals they had a good conversation with. They also got to know other people, both Belgian and international, through the International School of Leuven. The fact that this creates an ideal community for internationals really pleases me and is also a big difference with Belgian schools.
It’s been known for a while now that the International School of Leuven will move to the International House once it’s finished. Apart from the presence of other expats, what assisted you in to making that decision?
Bart: The International House lies in a residential area and is centrally located. On the other hand, our presence here was always going to be temporary. We rent this portion of Campus Proximus, which is great, but - as you mentioned - UC Leuven-Limburg is also experiencing growth and uses this campus more and more as one of their central hubs in Flemish Brabant. After all, the agreement we made with them has always been temporary. On top of that, the future International House was originally built to be a school. Campus Proximus wasn't. So the infrastructure really fits our needs.
Is the International School of Leuven one of the reasons why Leuven is attracting more international knowledge workers in the past few years?
Bart: It is. Companies are now able to attract the workers that they really want and persuade them to stay in Leuven because of the presence of an international school. I remember imec recently expressing this as a huge advantage. On top of that, it has allowed internationals to bring their children from international schools in heavily internationalised areas such as Tervuren to Leuven. We’re not saying that one is better than the other of course, but on several occasions we let our pupils interact with local habits such as a Sinterklaas visit in a local elementary school nearby.
Some traditions, such as Sinterklaas, regularly cause controversy in our society. Do you see that in the international school as well?
Bart: People who come here, both parents and pupils as well as teachers, are naturally very open-minded. That is something that we encourage and it works both ways. For example, if we have a Jewish mother who wants to talk about Hanukah or a Hindu mother who wants to talk about Diwali in front of a class, she’s more than welcome. The pupils aren’t here forever and we’re well aware of that. Forcing a certain culture or religion upon them just wouldn’t be right.
I can’t help but feel a great and positive vibe in this place.
Bart: I wear a big smile at the end of each day because I realise what an amazing place to work this is. Not just because of the colleagues or the children but also because of the parents. They’re supportive and grateful and, like I said, it’s a great community to be a part of. It’s just a happy place, what more can I say? (laughs)