By Ashley Brazzel
Ask the average student about school and you may hear “school is school.” Ask a student from Atlanta International School and your response is likely to be different. That’s because AIS is not your run-of-the-mill school.
Opened in 1985 as an independent, non-profit, secular school, AIS provides a global perspective on education to some of the world’s brightest pupils.
Since 1995, the school which houses kindergarten through grade 12 has sat unassumingly among the quaint houses and sparse lawns of North Fulton Drive, in the Garden Hills neighborhood of Buckhead. Nestled in the heart of Buckhead behind a mix of high-rise developments and condos, the building that once held North Fulton High School appears to be like all others. However, a quick stroll through the 14-acre campus reveals otherwise.
AIS is a diverse community with an equal mix of American and international students. Fifty percent of students are from the Atlanta area, while the other half comes from over 60 countries around the world. Similarly, around 30 percent of the student body comes from homes with two American parents, and 20 percent comes from homes with one international and one American parent, with the remainder coming from international families.
Headmaster Robert Brindley said the multicultural aspect is very important at AIS. He said it prepares the students for real life and helps them to understand what it means to work in an international environment.
Not surprisingly, such a universal population requires faculty that is just as diverse. As a result, instructors are heavily recruited overseas, although a fair share comes from local areas as well. In all, instructors represent over 30 nationalities, each teaching courses in their native language.
“We do that so that we can get a real mix of teachers,” Brindley said. “It costs money to do this, but faculty is absolutely key.”
Though, that’s not the school’s only selling point. What sets it apart from others is not simply its eclectic blend of students and teachers, but rather its different approach to scholastics. AIS is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, one of only five schools in the United States to follow the IB curriculum from four-year-old kindergarten through grade 12.
The IB program is meant to encourage lifelong learning, independent thinking, and international-mindedness, among other things.
Although AIS is the only independent IB school in Georgia, 21 high schools in the state offer the diploma program, 10 of which are in metro Atlanta.
“The Diploma Program is excellent preparation for college,” Brindley said. “We haven’t found one college that wouldn’t prefer a diploma student.”
Although the rigorous pre-university courses aren’t taken until high school, challenging study begins in primary school. According to AIS, it is the first school in the world to offer three primary school dual language programs, English paired with German, French or Spanish. Beginning in kindergarten, students learn all the traditional primary school subjects: language arts, science, mathematics, etc. in two languages. Courses in English and the other language alternate daily.
Why such a big focus on foreign language? Brindley said learning in a foreign language enhances students’ cognitive abilities and even improves their math and English skills. Students are also thought to be better risk-takers, as they realize they do not know everything.
“The curriculum is lenient,” he concluded. “It’s just in another language.”
In middle school, only Social Studies classes are conducted in English, French, Spanish and German, while language and literature classes are taught in the appropriate language. In addition to modern language, Latin is a requisite course in grades six and seven, and Mandarin is offered beginning in eighth-grade. Upper school students follow a curriculum designed to prepare them for IB courses.
“We don’t set the standards,” Brindley said. “We have to meet other standards. There are no breaks in how we teach. Students all have the same workload. It reinforces the work ethic.”
Despite the demanding curriculum, most things around campus are lighthearted. Primary school pupils buzz about the playground. Colorful class projects and autographed sneakers hang on display in hallways. And on any given day, students are likely to receive visits from diplomats, dignitaries and officials, such as Congressman John Lewis and the European Union Ambassador to the U.S., John Burton.
But such is to be expected from a school whose mission is grounded on the “Joy of Learning.”
“It’s about attributes just as much as academics,” Brindley said. “Most kids fail not just because of academics, but because of attributes.”
With so much activity going on, the school’s long-term priorities are to better accommodate their 900-plus students.
In 2001, AIS secured a 50-year lease of the North Fulton Drive campus and purchased additional acreage on Peachtree Avenue. In January, the City of Atlanta Zoning Review Board signed off on the school’s rezoning of its Peachtree Avenue property to allow special use for educational purposes. And to date, the campus master plan, which includes a new primary school facility, has also been accepted. Although houses are currently on the newly rezoned land, Brindley said the only thing left for them to do is begin their fundraising efforts.