‘Our students don’t live in an expat bubble’

In the latest instalment of My Spanish Career, we speak to Mark Pingitore, the director of the American School of Barcelona, about running an international school that is going from strength to strength despite the crisis in Spain.

'Our students don't live in an expat bubble'
The American School of Barcelona with school director Mark Pingitore (inset).

Mark Pingitore is very excited about the coming 12 months.

The school he heads up has just embarked on a €4 million ($5 million) building project involving a new centre for early childhood and elementary (primary) students.

At the same time, the American School of Barcelona (ASB), which teaches children from the ages of 3 to 18, is refurbishing its main building.

"It's like getting two new buildings at once," says Pingitore, who has been director of the ASB for four years now.

The new building is a visible sign of a school that is experiencing a boom.

"We are expecting 715 students next September. Last year that was 690, and two years ago, we had 650 students," says the American director of ASB.

Asked if he thinks the international school is doing so well precisely because of the crisis in Spain, Pingitore concedes this could be part of the reason.

"The fact that we offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) is obviously important," he says.

"This is one of the fastest-growing high school diplomas in the world," says the director of the two-year programme. "It's also among the most rigorous, and with its focus on critical thinking it really helps prepare students for universities."

"Plus it's internationally recognized. And we are now seeing more and more of our students applying to overseas universities — mainly in the US and the UK, but sometimes even to places as far off as Japan."

Does this mean students are planning on leaving Spain?

"Not necessarily," says Pingitore. "We also have students doing the Spanish selectividad (high school leaving certificate).

"In fact, our selectividad class coming through at the moment is very strong".

Looking at other reasons for the school's success, the ASB director also cites the school's use of English. 

"Although our students study both the Spanish and Catalan language, the rest of our curriculum is in English.

"We get quite a lot of students — from both Spanish and expat families — coming over from the state system at secondary school age," explains the director.

"Then there are the children of couples where one parent is Spanish and the other is a foreigner.

"All of these children have parents who think English is important and want to offer their children as many opportunities as possible."

Pingitore, for his part, has international schooling in the blood: his own education included stints in international schools in Haiti and Kenya because his father worked for the US State Department.

"I enjoyed the experience a lot," the school director says. "And it really helped me to see things globally."

This American, who says Washington DC is the closest he has to a home city in the US, started out his career in education as an elementary (or primary) teacher in New York. He then moved onto middle school where he taught social studies and history.

But his biggest challenge came when he set up a public middle school, also in New York.

"This was really satisfying in that I could choose all the teachers and develop a really strong team," he says of this experience.

Pingitore then moved to Barcelona, where he lives with his Catalan partner, a woman he met in the US.

He now runs the ASB, which operates as a not-for-profit Spanish foundation, and which is also accredited by the Spanish government.

"Our students don't live in a bubble," the ASB director says in response to a question about the possibly isolating effects of international schooling.

"There are international schools where this is the case — where up to 90 percent of the students are from elsewhere. But not here.

"The students here are about 60 percent expat children and 40 percent locals. Then, of these expats kids, only around 20 percent are from North America. 

"The rest are from northern Europe, from Germany and Scandinavia. We also have Italians, Israelis and Argentinians, just to name a few."

When it comes to teachers, meanwhile, 85 percent are from Canada and the US, with a sprinkling of Brits, Australians and New Zealanders adding spice.

These teachers usually stay three to four years, says Pingitore. 

They then either move on because they miss home, or because they are in a relationship, or as a result of a relationship ending.

A small percentage of teachers move on to where the real money is — the Middle East and Asia. But this is far from the dominant group.

"We have more and more applications from people wanting to move to Barcelona," says the ASB director.

"They could choose to live anywhere in the world, but they want to come and live here."

Pingitore puts this down to the cosmopolitan nature of the city, the easy access to nature and the fact that the city still has a lot of potential.

When asked by The Local whether he would classify the ASB as an expensive school — prices range from €8,220 for younger children up to €12,540 for grades 9 to 12, while a one-off capital fee of €4,250 is also charged for each student — the director pauses for a moment.

"That's quite subjective, of course. We are on the cheap end for international schools in Europe, but expensive by Barcelona standards."

The director explains that many of the parents are working professionals, including lawyers and doctors "but not the jet-set".

And does the school feel a responsibility to the community because of the crisis? Does it, for instance, offer scholarships to students in need.

"Not at this stage," says Pingitore. "Although it's something we are looking at." 

The ASB is, however, engaged in a range of projects to help the local community. These include food and toy drives and helping a local hospital with fundraising.

High school students from ASB also go around to local schools and help young children with their English. 

"As an educator, you never want to see cuts to education," says Pingitore of the drama affecting the Spanish education sector.

"In the end, it's the children who suffer as a result".

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My Swedish Career: ‘You need to win the hearts of the Swedish people to be able to succeed’

After moving from Nigeria to Sweden, Arinze Prosper Emegoakor struggled with adapting to life in Sweden while staying true to his cultural roots. Now he's starting a business with the aim of telling stories about his African culture and identity - through socks.

My Swedish Career: 'You need to win the hearts of the Swedish people to be able to succeed'
Photo: Maria Stenström

Arinze had tried living in Sweden before returning in 2011, but it was only on his second stint in the country that he felt able to settle down.

“When I was 20 years old, I travelled to the Netherlands and met my ex-wife there who is Swedish”, he recalls. “I lived in Sweden for a short period, but I couldn't stay. It was too difficult for me to adapt to the environment. But I came back, and since 2011 I have been living here in Malmö.”

After joining a kickboxing-gym in the southern city and going out every night to build a social life, Arinze joined the Pan African Movement for Justice. The organization aims for equality for people of African descent in Sweden, and it was here that he found a purpose in his adopted country.

“I got involved in the Pan African Movement for Justice and became a board member of that organization. That provided me with a strong network of people that motivated and educated me. These people are doing something positive in society. That started my journey in Sweden,” he says.

After moving, Arinze remembers struggling with his identity and finding a balance between staying connected to his roots and adapting to his new environment.

“Being raised in Africa and having lived most of my life in the western world, there was a constant struggle about what I believed in and who I was”, he notes.

“The environment in which I was raised and the Swedish norms are very different in terms of how people express [themselves] and how they see things. I want to be a contributor to this society. I don't want to sit and observe. How do I do that and still keep to my core values? How do I adapt and not attract any unnecessary attention? Being an African man while also being a member of Swedish society was hard at first.”

It was all about finding a comfortable balance, something he now thinks he's achieved: “What I did was accept who I am and who I have become. Through my journeys and my stay in Sweden, I've become a hybrid of culture and identity.”

“I cannot completely behave or act like I was in Africa because of the culture and norms in Sweden. But I still have my original values. I mixed my values with the norms of Swedish society. That is the balance.”

During his childhood in Nigeria, Arinze spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who he credits with introducing him to the power of storytelling.

“I found that the people don't usually say 'do not steal' or 'do not lie', but people tell you stories”, he says. “In this story, the thief will get what he deserves. There's a powerful message there. Through storytelling, you take up these values automatically.”

His roots in the Nigerian Igbo culture inspired Arinze to start his own sustainable bamboo sock company called Akụko. And he has put the power of storytelling at the core of the company.

Through the colourful collection of socks, he hopes to start conversations and tell the story of his culture.

“Through storytelling, movement and style esthetics, we make people curious to find out more”, he says. “The design of my first collection is inspired by a musical instrument called ogene, which is a kind of gong. In my village, it is used to call for meetings. When people want to call for a meeting they tell the town crier, and he will go around to play the ogene to gather people.”

Akụko isn't the first business Arinze has started. He learned valuable lessons after starting up an entertainment company for Afrobeat music in 2014.

“We had shows in Malmö and Stockholm. It was fun, but we failed financially”, he says. “I started to wonder: why did we fail? I found that the Swedish people aren't easily impressed, especially when you're an outsider. You have to be humble and connect to them. Win the heart of the people, connect with the society and community around your brand. Go for value and the money will come.”

Arinze hopes that his work on his second business, and its roots in his native culture, will inspire more people of African descent to follow their goals and dreams. “

If they want to start their own business they should go for it”, he says.

“They need to see more people who are like them doing positive things. We can inspire the next generation to do so, be role models. I have documented the blueprint of my journey, and I'm ready to share it with anyone that needs tips about how to crowdfund or how to start up a business. People can always contact me for support on how to realize your their goals in Sweden.”