2020-2021 review: stand-out moments and achievements

By Nick Yates, ISB Communications

This has been a school year like no other. In an unprecedented and testing era for the whole world, the International School of Beijing (ISB) arrived at the start of 2020-2021 with fresh optimism. The ISB community had stood strong against Covid-19. With China returning to something more like normal conditions, the school was more prepared than ever to offer challenging and joyful learning as students returned to campus.

ISB reopened for 2020-2021 with stunning new facilities. Refreshed Mission and Vision statements were formally put into operation this year, capturing the heritage of the school, crystalizing its values, and guiding us into the future through a complicated time.

And this was ISB’s 40th anniversary year! Throughout 2020-2021, a variety of activities have been held to celebrate. In 1980, ISB was the first international school in Beijing. Now, after everything that has happened in between, it is recognized as a leading center of learning.

Here are some highlights of a truly memorable past year.

September 2020

The new school year began on September 1, an unusual start date after a highly unusual buildup. After months of enforced online learning and restricted campus access due to Covid-19, it was indescribably good to see all grades back in classrooms by September 11.

Furthering the good feelings, signboards bearing ISB’s refreshed Mission and Vision statements had been added to the corridors. The Mission: “We are an inspiring international community in Beijing where thinkers and leaders find their place in the world and serve others. So that our learning is at its best, we build strong relationships and set high expectations together. We are committed to challenging and joyful learning with the freedom to explore.” The Vision: “Empowered with purpose and compassion.”

Read this article for an explanation of how and why the Mission and Vision were refreshed.

From day one, students and teachers quickly settled into new buildings that had been years in the planning. The Elementary School Arts Center and Theater, Middle School (MS)/High School (HS) Performing Arts Center, Early Years Learning Community, and MS/HS Design Center were all carefully designed, based on scientific principles, to be inspiring spaces for learning. Our students have access to unparalleled resources in all areas including the arts, design, and sports.

How appropriate that the new buildings were made operational for ISB’s 40th anniversary year. ISB was established in 1980 in the hallway of a diplomatic apartment compound. The facilities have inexorably improved as the school has gone from strength to strength and the student body grown to the current 1,700.

On the opening day of 2020-2021, we held a ceremony to kick off the anniversary celebrations. Students and faculty made moving speeches and world-renowned violinist Lu Siqing performed in the inaugural event in the Elementary School Theater.

Time Capsule Ceremony 2

October 2020

ISB’s annual Back to School Nights (BTSNs) allow parents to discover more about what their students are learning. This year, the BTSNs were more accessible as they took place virtually to ensure community safety. Attendees enjoyed virtual tours of the new facilities and face-to-face meetings with teachers to discuss objectives for the year ahead and understand more about the principles of a modern education.

Some amazing things have happened in the 40 years of ISB, but October 30 was the first instance of time travel. On the 40th day of ISB’s 40th anniversary year, students reached out to future generations at the school as they buried a time capsule – a historic cache of goods and information to be opened on the 50th day of the 50th anniversary year.

“The selected location for the time capsule is symbolic, right beside the new ‘bridge’ connecting our legacy buildings with the newly opened spaces where new memories will be made,” said ISB Board Chair Su Jin in this event for the school’s anniversary year. 

November 2020

November saw an outpouring of thanks from students and teachers for a special group of staff. In August, almost 100 experienced and highly qualified Instructional Partners (IPs) joined the team to ensure high-quality teaching could continue despite the challenges of the pandemic. ISB had welcomed students back to school after Summer Break with a new Partnered Instruction model, which took advantage of these additional members of staff working alongside more longstanding teachers.

By November, with almost all of ISB’s teachers having negotiated Covid travel restrictions to get back to Beijing and campus, the school had bid farewell to most of the IPs. What a great example the IP model was of building strong relationships to keep learning at is best.

Another vital relationship is of course the one between faculty and ISB parents, and that’s why we have put so much effort into maintaining our regular events and meetings with enrolled families since the pandemic struck. Many of these have taken place virtually. With parents still unable to enter campus, we were pleased to be able to host the November round of face-to-face coffee mornings with our Elementary, Middle, and High School principals at a restaurant close to ISB.

The same venue also started to host talks and workshops in the ISB Parent Education Series, through which we explain our programs, give insight into the modern approach to learning that we embrace, and help parents keep up to date with goings-on at the school. These events continue to be an important means of staying in touch and supporting our community through these unusual times.

Overhead shot of a large group of people in formation to read "40"

December 2020

ISB held its third Teacher Recruitment Fair, helping continue a record of finding passionate, highly qualified international teachers for its students.

Members of the Middle School’s Young Writers Club were published for the first time this month in a special supplement to The New York Times. The club had struck up a partnership with the venerable publication, which sent guest editors to run workshops with students.

On December 10, some of the most prominent figures in China’s design and art scenes praised the teaching of these subjects at ISB when they joined an opening ceremony for the Middle School/High School Design Center. Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, one of the world’s most influential figures in artificial intelligence, echoed ISB’s philosophy of giving students freedom to explore when he said, “Let students find their passion. If you do something you are passionate about, something you cannot stop thinking about, you cannot help but be good at it.”

December was also busy with field trips as students traveled off campus for enriching and fun experiences. Where regulations allow, faculty will continue to plan and lead trips to top museums, galleries, the great outdoors, and other spots where students can see and do things to complement what they’re learning in the classroom.

January 2021

Just two years ago, ISB made the transformative decision to establish a long-term plan managing our impact on people and the planet. A five-year roadmap was drawn up with firm targets and commitments. One of the commitments was to be open and transparent about our progress in becoming more sustainable. On January 11, we fulfilled this by publishing our first Sustainability Impact Report, covering the 2019 calendar year and documenting breakthroughs in recycling, energy use, and community awareness. ISB was the first international school in the world to publish such a report.

After a resurgence of Covid-19 in some areas, we were once again forced this month to limit campus activity to help control the spread of the virus. Many grades returned to online learning. While this was an unwelcome development, the community accepted it as necessary for public safety and banded together to ensure that the challenging and joyful learning continued.

Students, teachers, and families were prepared for this eventuality. ISB was among the first schools in the world to move online after the emergence of Covid-19, back in early 2020. That experience, together with the mammoth amount of work faculty put into contingency planning, made for a new and improved online learning program.

BEIMUN 2021 flags

February 2021

On February 27, loudspeakers boomed out that global crisis had struck. Students responded calmly and with impressive improvisation to this simulation, a tradition of Model United Nations events, at the 28th BEIMUN – Beijing Model United Nations.

ISB has been hosting BEIMUN since 1993, but in 2021, this was a unique BEIMUN for unique times. The event, which is entirely student-led and enjoys a reputation as one of the best high-school Model United Nations conferences globally, was held entirely online. The move ensured the continuation of BEIMUN and opened it up to more students. Over 600 delegates from 35 schools in 10 countries dialed into Microsoft Teams for this academic mock-up of one of the world’s most important diplomatic organizations.

MUN see students debate solutions to real-world problems. These events always look to focus on the weightiest of contemporary issues. And we all know what the big one was in 2021! BEIMUN students inspired ISB’s international community as they faced off against Covid-19 and related issues.

PTA 2020

March 2021

After months of restrictions for social distancing, we were able in March to resume our sports programs that play such a big part in ISB life. Our young athletes threw themselves back into practices and soon started playing fixtures against local schools. Special measures remain in place providing for community safety, and we are of course following all relevant guidelines from our local authorities.

Students were also busy this month browsing and selecting 2021-2022 High School courses from the exciting menu that ISB had put together. The range of courses Grades 9 to 12 will be studying next year is unparalleled in its range, flexibility for students, and combination of traditional subjects and modern, interdisciplinary programs.

This was a great time for families looking for a leading international education in the Chinese capital to join a virtual open day at ISB. We maintained our open house tradition and offered prospective new members of the community an online tour of the facilities and an introduction to the transformative experiences taking place across campus every day.

A lot of credit for the ISB community staying strong and together goes to ISB’s Parent Teacher Association and Booster Club. They had faced a lot of challenges since the pandemic struck, with restrictions on gatherings and campus access. But by this point, these parent leaders were emerging with renewed passion for their cause, organizing a whole range of events and fundraising initiatives.

April 2021

With dramatics, dance, and musical performances by students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, April’s ISB Fringe Festival was a celebration of all the performing arts happening here. Theater around the world has been heavily impacted by Covid-19, so the Fringe Festival was an especially welcome opportunity for ISB’s artists to shine. Research shows the value of performing arts as part of a balanced education, and ISB doubled down on this principle with its investment in new theater facilities and the huge effort staff put into organizing this festival.

ISB redesigned its famous All Stars swim meet into an innovative format that allowed participation to grow to schools on four continents. Organizing the Global Virtual All Stars consolidated ISB’s position as a top center for swimming.

ISB also runs one of the region’s leading Chinese programs in an international school, and on April 24 it helped support the wider learning community by hosting hundreds of Chinese language educators from more than 10 countries for an online conference.

The annual Seniors Parade this month gave the community a chance to celebrate graduating students’ achievements. As usual, universities worldwide were happy to offer our students places, and we couldn’t have been prouder of the way ISB Seniors weathered disruption in the crucial later stages of their school careers.

At the other end of the grade levels, the Elementary School was awash with color on April 30 for the 16th annual CASTA (Celebrate and Share the Arts) festival. Each Elementary student had an artwork on display in the CASTA exhibition, and Elementary performing arts classes gave shows for the on-campus community. Enjoy a sample of their work in this article.

Seniors Parade 2021

May 2021

ISB supports its talented students to take part in prestigious competitions around the world, and May held two great examples of meeting high expectations in such events. Grade 8’s Alex H out-calculated more than 100,000 fellow mathematicians from the United States and other countries to qualify for the MATHCOUNTS finals, and High School filmmakers by this point had numerous student Oscar statuettes to line up after success in film festival season.

Talking of awards… judges of one of the world’s most prestigious design competitions gave prizes to ISB’s new facilities. Towards the end of a year in which students and faculty had loved learning in the new spaces, the A’ Design medals proved that ISB’s convictions about using world-class architects to build world-class buildings were right.

Over the weekend of May 8 and 9, ISB hosted 200 students competing in ACAMIS track and field. With teams traveling from the Chinese cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Nanjing, and fans cheering from the Stadium, we’re so happy that lively sporting events like this can once again take place at ISB and other schools in China. 

June 2021

ISB has closed out its 40th anniversary year in style this month. At the start of 2020-2021, we announced the launch of a Birthday Gift Fund to support student initiatives and learning aligned with the school’s newly refreshed Mission and Vision statements. ISB community members including the Board of Trustees, parents, staff, and alumni gave over 200,000 RMB to the fund, generous in the knowledge that the money would be distributed as special grants.

The Birthday Gift Fund Committee reviewed funding applications and has now begun assigning grants. Among the first lucky student groups were two High School clubs working on a sophisticated radio-controlled airplane and providing free education for underprivileged local children. As with the Maker’s Club and Empowerment Through Self-Esteem Education, Birthday Gift Fund money will give plenty of other student groups extra freedom to explore their passions and give back through service learning.

On June 11, we held a dedication ceremony for the Early Years Learning Community (EYLC), one of the new facilities we have been enjoying all year. ISB’s youngest students played a central role in the ceremony, with each EYLC grade presenting a special project to dedicate.

Have a good summer everyone!

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