"Vuelve a casa"
Asociación Escuelas Lincoln – an English-language school in BA province – is a thriving, academically rigorous institution made up of a diverse community of students and teachers. But that unique make-up creates its own set of unique challenges.
Every Friday in Gregory Hines’ fourth-grade classroom includes independent reading time.
Hines is a strong believer in fostering diversity and bilingualism, and encourages his students to bring in books in their home languages. Many will, of course, read books in English and Spanish, but there are also tomes in Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese and more. Sometimes they’ll ask each other questions about each others’ books, Hines says.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, can I see your book?’ And they’ll take a look at it. ‘Oh, that’s interesting. How do you read that out loud?’ And they read it out loud,” Hines says. “That kind of anecdotal contact with other languages is helpful.”
These are exactly the types of interactions Hines wants. Not only are his students reading, they’re learning about people and topics important to their culture and their families. It’s the most natural of incubators for cross-cultural interaction, understanding and appreciation.
Hines is far from the only one who thinks that way at Lincoln, the English-language private preparatory school in Buenos Aires province, where he’s been teaching for the past 14 years.
Lincoln, based in La Lucila, a town in Vicente López, embodies this philosophy: inspiring “globally-minded citizens” and finding “strength in bilingualism and cultural diversity” are among the first of its stated core values.
Within Argentina, Lincoln is an incredibly unique institution. Many say it’s the best school in the country. It routinely sends its graduates to the most elite universities in the world and its students score substantially above the global average for International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. But beyond this tradition of academic rigour is a distinct culture of diversity and a robust, inclusive community.
From American to international
Lincoln’s story begins early in the 20th century with a series of schools close to the capital — Lincoln School, the American Grammar and High School, Ward College — beginning and merging, until they settled into one final entity in 1952. In the 1990s this became The American International School, before the name was changed again to Asociación Escuelas Lincoln.
Today, AEL is a non-profit corporation directed by an annually elected nine-member board of governors and run day-to-day by a superintendent and principals at each of the three schools (elementary, middle and high schools). Graduates from its high school automatically receive Argentine and US diplomas, and have the option of earning an IB diploma as well.
The United States Embassy in Buenos Aires has long played an influential role at Lincoln. It was one of the school’s founders, and was a key player in its early history, as is evident in the evolution of the name itself. Today, the Embassy is still involved through events, university recruiting and select funding.
Lincoln still orients itself toward the United States in lots of smaller ways too, such as using American-English spelling. Until a few years ago it offered Advanced Placement (AP) courses. But other aspects of how Lincoln functions split the difference, like its northern calendar, which mirrors US and European schools but still keeps Argentine holidays and vacations.
In recent decades, Lincoln has become distinctly more international and less focused on the United States. The word “American” left the school’s name, and the word “international” made its first appearance. Official Lincoln materials use the word “university,” not “college.” The cafeteria offers a blend of international cuisine. In the mid-1990s, Lincoln began its IB diploma programme in addition to the US and Argentine diplomas each graduate earns. Around that time, says Eddie Levisman, a counsellor at Lincoln from 1992 to 2002 and now an independent international college counsellor and education columnist for the Times’ website, there was massive controversy when, to help accommodate the IB courses, Lincoln dropped US history from its course offerings.
“That was big,” Levisman says. “They were fuming, “We’re an American school!” Those were interesting times.”
This shift is also regional, if not global. Lincoln remains a member of the Association of American Schools in South America (AASSA), a network of schools across the continent through which Lincoln and its peers coordinate conferences, professional development and competition for clubs and sports teams. Many of the member schools, Levisman says, have changed their name to include the word ‘international’ instead of ‘American,’ and schools that never had US roots or schools with British roots also participate.
“The word American, in my opinion, is a misnomer at this point,” Levisman says.
Lincoln’s 21-acre campus sits along the Río de la Plata in La Lucila, and many of the classrooms offer spectacular views of the (not-so-spectacular) river and the nearby greenery of the Reserva Ecológica Vicente López. Everything is walled, gated and guarded around the clock.
“It’s more than just the view or the fields, there’s a feeling of flowing niceness here,” Hines says.
Within those walls is a veritable scholastic paradise. The Mansion is the centrepiece, the oldest and most unique structure and where the administration is headquartered. But each school has its own building, and within each is an educator’s toy box. Teachers have flexibility to customise their classrooms how they’d like, from the heavily carpeted and colourful sanctuaries of the elementary school to the precise grid of desks in high school.
“You were the owner of your classroom. You had all the materials, whatever books you needed,” says Matilde Flesc, a Spanish teacher at Lincoln from 1985 to 1997. “It’s not often that happens in Argentina.”
In 2018, it’s far more than books. Lincoln provides students through Grade 6 with their own personal device and has an arsenal of other equipment, such as cameras and drones. The school has computer labs and advanced software for graphic design and media editing. The recently opened MakerSpace offers opportunities to learn introductory robotics.
And the campus has everything a student needs: classrooms, libraries with books in three languages, playgrounds, athletic fields, a cafeteria, a gym, a pool, a theatre and more. The near-constant security and available facilities means students have a place to stay after school to do homework or socialise. Blanca Serra, Lincoln’s operations team manager, remembers one student who had fallen asleep in the library and leaving with her late at night, hours after even extracurriculars had ended.
Learning and developing
This cornucopia of resources is just one dimension of the framework that supports a tradition of high academic achievement. First there are the teachers, who currently represent eight nationalities and are in a constant state of professional development. There are annual conferences where teachers and even students share tips and how to improve the educational experience, and Lincoln has a programme where it works to get its teachers PhDs in education.
“The teachers really seem excited about teaching,” says Haika Dehart, a parent with children who currently attend the school. “They challenge the kids and make them think. They do a really good job staffing qualified teachers as well as those who just enjoy teaching.”
To strengthen the Lincoln experience in and around the classroom, Lincoln has faculty and staff committees to devise and implement new curriculum, programming and overarching strategies and philosophies. Stacy Wallace, Lincoln’s dedicated health teacher (a rarity in international schools, she says) heads up many of these efforts.
“As a teacher, I like to move to where someone is going to be a bit more innovative,” says Wallace, who began her teaching career in her native Australia and arrived at Lincoln by way of Uganda and South Korea. “They just seemed to do things that the other schools I’d been involved in hadn’t necessarily done.”
Gratitude Week occurs every September. Lincoln employs dedicated learning coaches who support teachers in and out of the classroom with both language and content. The school is constantly creating new extracurricular opportunities, such as its own TED programme and MakerSpace. And since the 1980s, Lincoln’s community service programme has worked to build schools and spend time teaching in marginalised communities nearby and across the country.
“They learn a lot from people that are suffering and having a very difficult time,” says Emma Bousquet, an Argentine teacher who chaired Lincoln’s languages department for over two decades in the 1990s and early 2000s. “This opens your mind a lot.”
To help fund the scheme, Lincoln hosts International Day each year, its own worlds fair in which members of the Lincoln community show off their home cultures through food, music, dance and clothing. Parents also play a key role in going beyond the school, mainly through the organisation Parents at Lincoln (PAL), which handed out AR$90,000 to fund 13 different initiatives last year.
These aren’t the only activities available outside of class. According to the 2017 Lincoln annual report, roughly three quarters of Lincoln students across all grades participate in after-school activities. These include traditional sports teams, dance classes, student government and the student newspaper, plus STEM options such as Science Club and the MakerSpace Club. And these experiences sometimes include travel — last year the high-school boys basketball team visited Brazil, and a group of fine arts students participated in a festival in Chile.
Diversity and community
Yet none of this is different or superior to the offerings of other elite private schools in Argentina such as Northlands or St. Andrews. But among Lincoln’s 750 total students, K-12, are 46 nationalities, of which only a quarter each are from Argentina or the United States. Though English-speaking nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom, and regional neighbours like México and Colombia are common, students come from nearly every continent and speak dozens of languages. Few have simple backgrounds. For example, one former student was born in Chile, has an Italian father, lived in Egypt as a child, went to university in the United States and now lives and works in Argentina.
Lincoln’s middle-school principal, Jeff Voracek, is from a small town in the US Midwest, but says his children feel more American than Argentine. A current Lincoln student holds three passports, none of which are Argentine, even though he’s spent a large part of his childhood here. The list goes on.
This international population is why Lincoln places such importance on producing “globally-minded citizens.” It’s why the first thing Lincoln teachers or parents will say about a classroom is how it’s not uncommon to have a dozen or more nationalities represented. And it’s why Lincoln has more in common with international schools in 100 different countries around the world than it does with its Argentine peers just down the road.
This type of environment has plenty of advantages. Without a true majority/minority dynamic, for example, the pressure to assimilate into a dominant local culture is negligible. And this concept has been so central to Lincoln’s identity that it’s had a cap on the number of Argentine students admitted.
“The idea was, if we open the gates for anybody to come in from Argentina, then we lose internationalism,” Levisman says. “That philosophy is so essential to what the school is and always was.”
Though it might disadvantage Argentine families, it’s a conscious decision for the school to stay in its own lane and double down on what it’s known for.
Inside the classroom, this internationalism translates into a truly unique learning environment. The natural diversity of opinion, just by nature of the diversity of backgrounds, is astounding, Wallace says. For many of the topics she teaches, it enriches the learning experience. For example, a common teaching device involves assigning students a viewpoint to argue for or defend, but at Lincoln, Wallace says she doesn’t need to mandate anything, because a plethora of opinions already exist. And for many, this trains students to see the world in an accepting light.
“Everyone who attends schools like Lincoln is absolutely used to the diversity, so they are very accepting,” says Lucrezia Rigano, who attended Lincoln for all four years of high school and lived in half-a-dozen countries before that. “Compared to other communities, the international school kids community is one of, if not the, most accepting on a racism/prejudice spectrum.”
Though many students stay for only a few years, Lincoln has used its common diversity and globalism to build such a strong sense of community that many remember it as a special place where they made lifelong friends. Despite different backgrounds, the common narrative of being a fish out of water in a new culture has helped form family-like relationships, even when students only have a few years together, Flesc says.
“Lincoln really plays to that by making an environment that’s nurturing — we’re all different, we’re all new, we all need a friend,” Dehart says.
Powerful experiences, at a price
This incredibly diverse, supportive and comprehensive learning environment comes with side effects. The first is cost. A year’s tuition at Lincoln ranges from around US$15,000 in elementary school to US$30,000 in high school. And that’s not all. Each year, re-enrollment costs several thousand more. Elementary school students must wear the official Lincoln uniform, which families buy themselves. High school lunches in the cafeteria cost AR$160 a day. If individual transportation doesn’t work, the private after-school and after-extracurriculars bus systems can cost up to AR$6,000 a month. And though Lincoln loans younger students a personal device, beginning in seventh grade, families are responsible for providing the required devices themselves. Most high schoolers have their own laptops.
“You’re identified with being very rich because most of the people who come from Lincoln have everything paid for,” says Alicia Baines, a British-Argentine senior at Lincoln.
This isn’t a relevant barrier for families whose employers pay education costs or who have moved here to take a high-paying opportunity. But it would dissuade a middle-class Argentine family looking for the best education possible and a strong preparation for university abroad for their bright children.
Tension between Argentine and expat teachers is also a problem. For at least a large part of Lincoln’s history — current conditions are unconfirmed, though one teacher did reference a robust benefits package for expat faculty — Lincoln has paid non-Argentines significantly more than Argentines. Beyond salary comparisons, expat teachers have had benefits such as health insurance, living accommodations provided by the school and a paid-for trip home once a year that Argentine teachers haven’t had. The children of both groups can attend Lincoln for free.
But by far the biggest side effect is in Lincoln’s curriculum. The school is accredited to offer a US diploma, Argentine diploma and an optional (but popular) IB diploma. That’s a lot to coordinate for one school; requirements start piling up quickly. On the US side, Lincoln follows the Common Core standards. The Argentine Education Ministry has its own demands. Wallace, for example, must cover US- and Argentine-mandated health topics in the correct years. And true to its location, Lincoln students have Spanish classes every day.
“The school does have to blend the two worlds together, which is not always easy,” Hines says.
With two-year IB courses thrown in the mix, the routine act of planning a class schedule is now a challenge. Students complain about what they see as illogical requirements, like the vaguely named cultural studies course and the Spanish-language arts course. And this isn’t just a student grievance — it’s mentioned in Lincoln’s 2017 annual report.
“You wish the government would just leave us alone, but they don’t,” says Nelson Ruseler-Smith, an Argentine-American senior at Lincoln. “I don’t think anybody really gets much out of that.”
These square pegs in round holes are only exacerbated by an unavoidable negative of Lincoln’s model: the high turnover rate of students and staff. Building on material hypothetically learned in earlier years isn’t an option. But more than that, on an emotional level, friends are ephemeral, only physically close for as long as a family happens to be staying.
Move past those negatives and Lincoln still offers an incredible educational experience. But in some ways, these abundant resources and welcoming sense of community make Lincoln too perfect. There’s literally no reason to leave campus. Going to class? Head to Lincoln. Want to play a sport or join a club? Stay after school at Lincoln. Need extra tutoring? Find help at Lincoln. Ashley Bell, an Argentine-Canadian senior at Lincoln, says her father explored options for her to play sports away from the school, but they ultimately decided against it because Lincoln had everything they needed.
Pair this reality with the diverse and largely non-Argentine make-up of the Lincoln community and the result is ‘the Lincoln Bubble.’ In other words, expatriate members of the Lincoln community, especially students, often don’t need to engage directly with Argentina as a society if they don’t want to. Take Baines, the British-Argentine senior. She feels Argentine, she’s an Argentine citizen and she’s perfectly bilingual. But her days are filled with English, both at home and at school. She has Argentine friends, but no-one with whom she’s constantly speaking rioplatense. As a result, she says, Argentine humour is hard for her to follow. And she’s not an outlier.
“I wouldn’t say we’re disconnected, I just think we’re definitely more comfortable in an English setting,” Baines says. “I would love to interact more with the Argentine community. When I meet Argentines I almost put more effort in just to bridge that gap.”
Contrast this with the story of the Dehart family, six Texans who moved to Buenos Aires three years ago for what they knew would be a temporary stay. Haika Dehart enrolled her two youngest children in an Argentine private school and her two oldest in Lincoln. She’s happy with both experiences, but sees distinct differences between them. Her two oldest haven’t had nearly the same degree of Spanish immersion, but their friends are from all over the world, she says. Not so for the other two.
“My two younger kids identify themselves more as Argentine than American,” Dehart says. “It’s been really neat to watch them be fully immersed in it. They don’t have accents. All their things are Argentine.”
Many families Lincoln caters to, like the Deharts, know they’ll be in Buenos Aires for a limited amount of time. Often they are permanent expat families, moving from country to country, following the work of a parent as a career diplomatic or executive within a multinational company. But the Dehart approach is the exception. With so much constant change, these families need stability where they can find it, and around this need has grown a sort of “archipelago of globalists,” an international community of expats who have more in common with each other than the country in which they happen to live.
Baines calls it the “international mishmash.” She shares more with friends who now live in countries around the world like Indonesia or Japan, she says, than Argentines who attend a school nearby, even one with a similar academic pedigree to Lincoln.
As Hines puts it, the most comfortable place for this population is a specifically third culture space — they can struggle to identify with even their home country. He relates what a French friend who spends much of his time in Argentina once told him about how his French friends couldn’t understand his global lifestyle.
“I guess there’s an expression there: ‘Don’t you feel like you’re halfway sitting on two chairs? Isn’t it uncomfortable?’” Hines says. “And his response was, ‘Well, but I have two chairs.’ I think that’s an interesting way to look at it.”
"Vuelve a casa"