From Babice to the whole world

You would be hard-pressed to find another school like this in the Czech Republic. Here, kids from rich families and children’s homes alike learn together. “We have the widest imaginable social gaps between students,” says Petr Chára, Vice-Principal of the Open Gate eight-year grammar school in Babice.

What do your admission tests include?
Our admission tests are broken into three parts: a non-verbal IQ test, a conventional test of academic aptitude, and a personal interview. We attract quite a few candidates; we don’t set any precise criteria in advance, as most of the candidates always place above the threshold that we do set. The kids don’t take dictation or do equations; they tackle math problems that require logical thinking. Reading comprehension is also important.
We primarily want the children to be able to think. Through the interview, we also want to identify their motivation -- the reason they want to be enrolled at our school, or to see whether the child will be able to cope without mom when living in the dorms.

Why are high-income parents opting for your school?
As far as I have gathered from the parents, one of their reasons is the fact that we have a mix of children, not just the children of the elite, in addition to our proven results and our very attractive campus. Some of the parents who have their children here have even partly adopted another kid from a challenging background or from a children’s home, who then regularly visits them on weekends. We explain to everyone that socioeconomic background is not an issue for us, and that what the children are like, and their approach to learning and to life, is the only thing that matters to us. We focus a lot on bringing up decent people even outside the classroom.

How can children from problematic environments enrich those from average and more well-to-do families?
People who have personal experience running in more affluent circles can see that some of their children are not maturing in the right direction. Such people want these children to be in an environment that will give them a sense of solidarity amongst their peers and across generations. In our school, these children can meet classmates who come from less fortunate family backgrounds but are equally, if not more intelligent. In addition, they have a guarantee of a high-quality education at our school. When 11-year-olds join our school, they frequently do not even speak English, but eight years later at the age of 19, they already are young gentlemen and ladies who are fluent in two world languages, hold an IB diploma, and can go to virtually any university in the world. An important role is also played by the wonderful location selected for our school; this was Mrs. Renáta Kellnerová’s decision. We are in the countryside here, but close to Prague. We have a healthful natural environment here...

How do you pick your teachers?
Either through our own contacts, or by organizing competitions. When we hear of someone who is good, we approach them. When we call a competition, 50 to 60 candidates sign up. Three qualify for the final round, and the main process only starts at that point. For example, all our employees must pass a psychological examination.

Don’t you have to cope with bullying?
The most that has happened here is that a student wrote something nasty about his classmate on Facebook. We tackle such things here from time to time.

How is it possible in such a heterogeneous mix of students? At one end of the range, you have students from very affluent families, while at the opposite end you have students from children’s homes and socioeconomically challenged families. The rich ones don’t look down their noses at the others?
That’s just not the case. These concerns appeared, naturally, in 2004 when the project was taking off, but they have turned out to be completely unfounded.

What was the key to your success in this respect?
It’s about the overall design of the program, and not only its educational part but also the part devoted to upbringing. The school fee is ‘all inclusive’. Students have just about everything here, ranging from accommodation and meals to clothing and sports. Nobody can show off anything in excess of what the others have. When we go skiing, we provide the skis for everyone. When we go on a biking trip, we have bikes here. When we go camping, we have tents here. Nobody can say, “I’m not going skiing because I don’t have skis” -- which is quite normal in mainstream schools. For example, we have resolved the question of laptops by buying fifty of them.

Are the school uniforms that your students wear related to what you just said?
One of their purposes is [to create] the sense of belonging. Another strong line of motivation is, understandably, to erase social differences, which currently are the heaviest stumbling blocks at many schools. We have the widest imaginable social gaps between students, but thanks to the uniforms and the whole system, we don’t have to cope with such problems here. And we take the same approach to all children: you are intelligent, we have accepted you, and some of you are fortunate enough to have parents of means who are able to pay the school fees, while The Kellner Family Foundation pays the fees for others. But we don’t go any further on this.

And the kids themselves, isn’t this an issue amongst them?
We recently hosted the regional round of the Logics Olympiad here. Sixth-year students spent two hours chatting with the parents of the kids who arrived here for the competition. And, of course, the parents did ask about social differences. I remember one of our students and her classmate standing next to each other; he turned to her, asking: And you are supported by the Foundation? He’s been her classmate for five years and yet had no idea.

What is your system of instruction?
We are very committed to presentation skills. We teach the kids to speak in front of people and to give presentations. The teacher speaks less, the kids speak more, and a lot of debate happens. Teamwork is another point. The kids will spend their lives working in teams. And since our school is geared towards opportunities for attending higher education institutions in the English-speaking world, the kids have to do very extensive writing here; British schools are obsessed with essays. Relationships with teachers are also important here.

How do you pick students from socially disadvantaged environments?
At the very beginning, we approached regional authorities’ welfare departments; they keep track of all such children and their academic records. We also approached all of the heads of children’s homes to ask them to pick out the kids they thought had the most potential. Some of them even came here to spend a weekend. In November 2014, The Kellner Family Foundation’s staff organized ‘mock admission tests’ for kids in the Zlín, Olomouc and Moravian-Silesian Regions. Now that we’ve been around for ten years, some of the heads themselves take the initiative to refer talented children to us. What frequently happens too is that the initiating agent is the children themselves, who bring their parents here, in particular those from socially disadvantaged environments. It’s often beyond such a mother’s wildest dreams that somebody would give her CZK 470,000 for annual school fees. On the other hand, I have to note that the Foundation has the capacity to sponsor many more children; however, there are not that many children who are able to meet the admissions criteria.

What is the ratio of sponsored and paying children?
It is 60:40 in favor of sponsored children. We apply affirmative action: When two kids score the same results in admission tests and one of them has applied for support while the other has not, we give preference to the applying kid. This is usually a shock for parents from well-heeled families, but our project is primarily about philanthropy. And although the school fees are high, we are not running a business. Mr. and Mrs. Kellner have to date spent about a billion crowns from their own private resources on the education of children in the Czech Republic. The development of the campus, fifty million crowns annually to sponsor talented children, etc., and they also run the Universities project, in which some of our graduates are also involved: they pay for their studies abroad, e.g. in Oxford. Some 11 million crowns are spent on this every year.

What else does the Foundation pay for?
We are in a situation for which we are really grateful and which markedly differentiates us from other schools. For example, Mrs. Kellnerová asks us whether we need something. We answer that a new gym would be useful in the future. And Mrs. Kellnerová writes: A gym? Wouldn’t an athletic center be better? And then we receive a financial gift and have a multi-purpose athletic center built. As regards the environment for our kids, there’s no skimping at all, and these costs are not passed on to the school fees. It has been the same for ten years.

Is Mrs. Kellnerová also involved in the school’s operation?
At the very beginning, eleven years ago, she participated in the process to select the people who would contribute to the whole project. She was the sponsor and the visionary, and it was up to the selected team to carry out her ideas. For the first two years, we kept in touch every day; once the school was opened she would come to Babice a few times a week to meet the school management and, sometimes, the teachers. Today, we communicate – write and call – as needed; she most frequently meets Peter Nitsch, the school’s Principal. She is on the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and therefore knows all our kids from socially disadvantaged environments. I’ll tell you, it takes a strong person to even read many of their stories.

What are the typical stories?
For instance, orphaned kids, alcoholic parents, or parents in prison; kids from children’s homes have lived very sad stories. We have students who live with their ill and infirm grandparents and so a, say, 13-year-old boy takes care of the household chores. He in addition knows that his grandfather will probably not live to see his grandson graduate. Two or three extreme cases can be found in every class. Thanks to this school, thanks to having friends here, such students can be as successful as kids from normally functioning families. It is that sort of interaction.

Do you also have students who have problems with learning and even fail?
They don’t fail, but we part with them. Over time, the Foundation has found out that it cannot give the children complete freedom. The Foundation is spending considerable amounts on their education but in exchange, it wants the children to try hard. At times, it also sets certain criteria for some students: like you have to maintain a B average. Where you tackle this with the parents only, it’s easier. You tell them straight that their child is not trying hard and that it’s all a waste of money. We part with two students per year on average, usually after the fourth year so that they can transfer to a different, four-year high school. We have very ambitious children here, and so it’s actually pretty easy to lag behind. But we know that the students with whom we part are then the stars at other schools.

If your students are ambitious, how do they fare after they graduate?
On our website, you will see the school at which each of our students is enrolled upon leaving Open Gate. Basically all our students head for universities in the Czech Republic and abroad. Exceptions exist; some of them take a break for one or two years. But we keep telling our students to ignore the school’s achievement charts. We tell them, you yourselves are your own charts. If you want to enroll at this or that particular university but are not accepted while everyone else was, you are bound to be unhappy, although our school has an excellent success rate in percentage terms. Go and follow your goal, but set the bar at a clearable height. And have a plan B. Not everything turns out ideally in life.

Half a million in school fees
The idea to provide equally good educations to talented children regardless of their social status sprouted in 2002. Instruction at the Babice eight-year grammar school started in September 2005; initially, one class was opened each year, and later two classes in each year. Every class has 18 students, of whom some live in the dorms while others commute. Beginning in the fifth year, most of the subjects are taught in English. Students take both the Czech school leaving examinations [matura] and the International Baccalaureate examinations. Students from children’s homes, foster and broken families or low-income families are sponsored by The Kellner Family Foundation of Mrs. Renáta Kellnerová and Mr. Petr Kellner. The Foundation spends some CZK 50 million in grants every year. In 2010, Open Gate was extended to include a Czech-English primary school, with annual school fees of CZK 155,000. At the Open Gate eight-year grammar school the fees are CZK 470,000 per year when the student lives in the campus or CZK 236,000 when commuting. The campus also features a swimming pool, a multi-purpose athletic facility, an outdoor sports arena, a theater and a library. Children have a choice of after-school activities and clubs dedicated to sports, the arts, and a variety of interests.

Petr Chára (43): Since 2004, Vice-Principal of Open Gate School in Babice near Prague. He graduated from Charles University’s Faculty of Sciences in Prague and is a certified examiner for IB economics examinations. He has been a teacher, lecturer, and business executive in his career. He is married and has a daughter (13) and a son (9).

Author: Pavel Baroch

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