Dreams of a School Come True - The Story of NIS
Founded by enthusiastic and supportive members of the community in the early 1960s, NIS has been able to develop with the changing needs of our students from our little corner of the outskirts of Nagoya for 50 years. What we have changed to become from then, and where we will surely grow to be from now, mirrors the economical growth of the region and the changing makeup of the international population of Nagoya we serve. What has remained constant, however, is the belief as a community in the importance of doing whatever is needed to ensure that we can deliver the school mission to each student who calls NIS home.
It was difficult to envision a school like NIS in the early 1960s. Immediately following World War II, Japan was busy rebuilding and readjusting. The waves of missionaries, military personnel, and employees from foreign companies arriving in Nagoya, an industrial city cradled between two larger metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, naturally needed schooling for their children as well.
After the temporary U.S. military-run Nagoya American School (NAS) closed in 1957, the options for an education taught in English were extremely limited. Lockheed, one of the first American companies to move in to the Chubu region, stepped into the gap and formed a school in the neighboring prefecture of Gifu that ran until 1963. When it closed, the small Canadian mission-based Apostolic Christian Academy (ACA), which operated out of a home in Chikusa-ku suddenly became the only option in the Chubu region for an English-based education. Parents grew concerned and began to think of options and dream of a new school, as ACA was bulging at the seams and it became evident that a non-sectarian school with no other purpose but to serve the entire international community was needed.
Creating a School out of Nothing
At the same time, Japan was buzzing in preparation for hosting the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, the first to be held in Asia, and the final tracks were being laid to connect Nagoya in a high-speed rail link with Osaka and Tokyo. The future was looking bright for Nagoya, and local business leaders began to recognize that if Nagoya was to become an international city, it also needed an international school. It soon became evident to the group of parents that they were not alone in their dream.
Dr. David Smith, the director of the Nagoya American Cultural Center, was an important ally for the idea of a non-sectarian international school from early on. He met with parents and shared their idea of a school with key people in the local Nagoya business and government. After months of dreaming, Smith convened the first Board of Directors meeting for Nagoya International School (NIS) on December 18, 1963. A timeline was set out and classes were projected to start in September, 1964.
Everyone quickly discovered that it was not, however, an easy undertaking to start up a school. As described by Arlene Kelly in 1964, one of those concerned parents, NIS was nothing more than an idea shared by a group of parents and there “were no teachers, no money, no building, no equipment, no supplies, nothing!”
Largely due to the efforts of Smith, support poured in from groups such as the U.S. State Department, various mission boards and denominations, and leading figures in the Nagoya and prefectural governments. Priests from Nanzan Gakuen contributed educational expertise while the American School in Japan (ASIJ) provided assistance in curriculum development and supplies. The American Consulate procured supplies from various military schools, and Smith set up appointments with Aichi Governor Mikine Kuwahara and Nagoya City Mayor Kiyoshi Sugito, both of whom pledged their support. Kentaro Funatani of the Nagoya Branch of the First National City Bank of New York (now known as Citibank), Tomohiko Mizuno, president of the Nagoya Japan-America Society and Tomio Taki, president of the Takihyo Corporation, were also enlisted in the cause and would play key roles in the years ahead. Momentum was gathering.
In addition to the support given to the school by Smith and the U.S. State Department, the support from local business and government leaders was pivotal. Indeed, if it had not been for Aichi Governor Kuwahara’s belief in the vision of the school, NIS may not exist today as the prefectural government contributed much to the school’s establishment and long-term viability. It may have been a risky political move, but one the governor seemed to fully support. Clark Offner, who served as NIS board chairman three times, recalled later that when the governor was told by bureaucrats and assembly members that there was no precedent for making a governmental grant to an international school, Kuwahara said, “If there is no precedent, I will set one!”
Despite having no permanent home yet in the plans, NIS opened for the first day of classes on September 8, 1964 in an abandoned school building on loan from Nanzan Jr. High School in Showa-ku. After months of intense planning, fundraising, and recruiting, a school had been born. There were 84 students representing seven nationalities. Using a quickly-pulled-together curriculum in an unused building with a condemned second floor, there likely were more than a handful of parents who wondered secretly if the school would even last very long.
The opposite happened. In fact, from decisions about religious affiliation, student uniforms, placement of the U.S. flag and the Pledge of Allegiance, and the use of school facilities for the community, the leaders chose to keep NIS as an independent, community-based, international school, and to strive to benefit the entire community. They also quickly realized that a mission statement was needed and chose to use the U.N. Charter for inspiration. Little did they know that decisions made then would lead to the shaping of a school culture that would last through to today.
Year two opened with an enrollment of 104. In addition to a myriad of details needing to be determined – including finding a Headmaster – searching for a plot of land and raising the funds to both pay for it and construct a building remained the key objective for the board. After coming up short with options that didn’t work out in Nagakute and Nisshin, again, thanks for the support of Kuwahara, NIS was able to finally negotiate the purchase a series of plots of land belonging to 16 farmers in Moriyama-ku.
NIS had found a rice field to call home, but now needed plans for a building and funds to pay for it. The school hired Antonin Raymond, a former protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, who proposed that a circular building be the centerpiece of the NIS campus. After much discussion, the unique design was given a green light and a groundbreaking ceremony was was held on July 26, 1967 to kick off the construction.
The impending move to Moriyama was helping NIS develop its identity and it marked a transition from a startup school to an accepted institution. Diverse groups such as the Lions Club, State Department, and the Lutheran Church demonstrated confidence in NIS by making sizable donations to support the building project. However, due to a lack of funds, the entire circular structure was not fully constructed, leaving one-third for later. Raymond’s campus plan, however, has guided facilities decisions ever since.
The 1968 graduation ceremony held in the new building prior to construction being completed was both a celebration of the achievement of the students who were graduating and of the whole school community which had worked hard on the building project. Years of planning, negotiating and fundraising were complete. It had been a remarkable run for the young NIS and an inexperienced Board. In the course of five years, they had envisaged a school, bought land, built a campus, and seen their first graduating class.
After steady growth at the new campus in Moriyama, NIS appeared to be on solid footing. Over the next few years, enrollment gradually increased, and accreditation by the Western Association of School’s and Colleges (WASC) boosted the status of NIS as well as confidence in the school’s long-term future within the community. The remaining portion of the circular building was completed, and a new gym, preschool/kindergarten building and faculty housing were also built.
The school was not prepared, however, for the oil shock that sent a tremor through the Japanese economy and the effects on NIS were immediate. Enrollment suffered and it became a struggle to balance the books. It took a few years for enrollment to climb back up.
The recovery of the Japanese economy, although slow, was a good sign for NIS. The optimism was confirmed by news that Boeing would be settling thirty families in Nagoya over a five-year period. After a difficult couple years, it was thought that NIS was about to rebound. The arrival of more corporate-sponsored foreign families was a sign that NIS’s fortunes were on the mend and that the international community in Nagoya would continue to grow as the 1970s came to an end.
Yet in the early 1980s, NIS found itself in trouble. Despite the arrival of new families, enrollment continued to shrink.The strengthening of the yen was certainly part of the problem as it was expensive for foreign firms to maintain a long-term presence in Nagoya. The effect on the school was subtle at first, but soon the numbers revealed a troubling problem. NIS faculty worked hard to offer a good education, but they were under-resourced.
According to Zenichi Yamada, the business manager at that time, the mid-1980s brought NIS the greatest challenge it had ever faced. During the first oil shock ten years earlier in the early 1970s, enrollment dipped but had quickly recovered. This downward trend, however, was more dramatic and more troublesome than the previous decade. Having risen to an all-time high of 313 in the late seventies, enrollment had dropped to below 200 in just a few years and by the middle of 1985 the school was in critical condition. Newly hired Headmaster Don Bergman realized that if NIS was to survive, it had to become less dependent on foreign students and allow more Japanese to enroll.
The school rebounded as the enrollment doors were opened, and the increase in numbers resulted in a balanced budget. Money was still tight, but with enrollment growing and the financial health of the school being restored, confidence was building that NIS would survive again. The growth would continue for five years until the enrollment would top out at a staggering 400.
In hindsight, it is clear that this change saved the school, but it was not known at the time that it would also cause a growing strain caused by the swelling number of students and the erosion of English standards. Many felt NIS’s place in the community was being tarnished due to the out-of-balance ratio of Japanese- to English-speaking students.
There was friction in the community. The two-decades long journey of growth through two economic downturns and subsequent dips and surges in enrollment had put an enormous amount of stress on the school community, not only from the perspective of facilities but also in terms of program. The Board began asking serious questions about its mode of operation and decision-making process. The school needed to regain a sense of collective vision, refine its structures, and develop policies that would endure through uncertain times. Support began to grow for a comprehensive process that would involve all members of the community in determining the future direction and strategy of the school. In the mid 1990s, as Japan’s economic bubble had burst, the school found the courage to reflect on its own values and vision and realized that a road map into the twenty-first century was needed.
Strategic Planning I
The Board took strategic planning seriously and ensured the process was a thorough one; a professional consultant was brought in, and students, teachers, parents, administrators, board members, and trustees were all invited into the dialogue. The plan took many months to write and the result was a values-driven strategy that would frame decision-making from the classrooms to the boardroom. Importantly, the plan clarified the roles of the trustees, the board, and the headmaster. Final legal authority would be with the Board of Directors. The Trustees became an important advisory group, while the Headmaster was given the powers of a chief administrative officer, responsible for day-to-day operations and the hiring of staff.
The emerging strategy also focused the admissions policy on English-speaking students. Newly appointed Headmaster Charles Barton, who spearheaded the planning, ended one of his updates to the Board with a note saying, “The power of the process must not be underestimated as an agent of transformation and betterment.”
Thirty years after being founded, NIS was experiencing a rebirth. The strategic plan became the glue that held NIS together in many areas. The challenge however, was again slumping enrollment in addition to a more rigorous admissions policy that the strategic plan called for. At the core of the new admissions policy was a focus on English proficiency for all students, thus prospective students were refused admission if English standards were not met. This also meant the immediate discontinuation of the Japanese-style preschool, which ran from April to March. The whole school was affected; the percent drop in Japanese nationals over the course of a decade, went from 64% to 42%. With it fell overall enrollment.
The board was presented again with another pressing decision that was needed to be made. After the Great Hanshin earthquake, the school determined through seismic testing that the existing gym was no longer suitable for long-term use. The board had to choose to either reinforce the current, old structure at a significant cost or tear it down and build a new building. The Board decided to replace it with a new gym and modern classrooms. Debate over the design split the Board into two camps — one group felt the school should reflect Japanese sensibilities and be a functional facility similar to other schools in Japan. The other group wanted a more creative design that would inspire the students.
A few years before, such divergent views would have destroyed the decision-making process. But with the new streamlined management style guided by a clear strategy, the dialogue was constructive. Finally a design was agreed that fused functionality and inspiration together in a revolutionary, wing-like design. The community rallied to support the project through fundraising and lots of elbow grease.
It was a difficult period for the school with the largest building project in its history underway coupled with declining enrollment. But the school stood its ground, and when the Wing Building opened in 1999 to much fanfare, enrollment had stabilized and the school community was able to breath a sigh of relief. The completion of the new building was a crowning moment and NIS was again revitalized.
Barton counted the Wing building as one of the school’s most significant achievements, “not simply because of a beautiful new building on campus, but because it represented a maturing of the school.” Against the difficult backdrop of the early 90s, the Wing building was a symbol of NIS not simply surviving, but emerging stronger, more robust, and purposeful.
Probably because of the impact the building had on the community, and partly because the remaining buildings were getting older, the school again soon realized that a facilities plan for the rest of the campus was needed, particularly in the event of any enrollment growth. While not being able to increase the school’s footprint, NIS was able to completely renovate and modernize the remaining facilities five years later in 2004, and then again complete the renovation of the field another three years later in 2007.
Strategic Planning II, Turning 50
Fast-forwarding to now, after another round of Strategic Planning and further facilities improvements and with student enrollment at 340 representing 34 nationalities, NIS has come a long way from when it was in an abandoned, old building to now - a burgeoning community within an active campus. NIS has been able to flourish despite the ups and downs of the Japanese economy, and our diverse student body perhaps reflects a more diverse local economy. It has not always been easy, however. Enrollment dips and spurts have challenged the school’s leadership to maintain a flexible yet sturdy approach to maintaining a balance of available funds with an eye to the potential for growth at any moment.
Perhaps the biggest change of all is a shift from an original “American”-based curriculum to the more globally-minded “International Baccalaureate” program. The program reflects the ability of the school to evolve with the changing needs of our community, and has significantly enhanced school culture. This goes hand-in-hand with recent and planned enhancements in the school facilities that are driven by changing program needs.
How will the school evolve over the next decade? Not everyone, of course, feels that change is good. Schools must always determine the pace of change, and this is a difficult decision for all school leaders. Some, of course, feel that the pace of change is slow and long overdue, others worry the pace of change is too fast. These discussions are no doubt similar to discussions surely had in the 1960s. Such is the case with all school communities, particularly within a transient community where nurturing a diverse school community with people coming and going is no simple task. NIS has been fortunate to have a supportive community guiding us to this point.
The newest students on campus today, the preschool class, are members of the graduating Class of 2029. In many ways, the questions now are still the same as they were 50 years ago – needing to find ways to fund program development, how to better train and provide for dedicated staff, how to fund facilities enhancements, how to deliver our mission to all students, and how to be ready for the next economic growth or decline.
But NIS is on sound footing, built strong and thoughtfully by our founders, who surely would be proud to know that we have lasted – indeed, flourished – for this long, through thick and thin.
* Excerpted from Big Ideas: The Story of Nagoya International School, written by Lowell Sheppard, published by NIS, 2004