Saipan International School is a testament of how parental involvement in a span of 20 years has literally grown from a mom-and-pop operation to one of the premier schools in the CNMI, according to the school’s director emeritus, Roland Johnson.
SIS is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, as it was in September 1994 that the school, then located in a two-story apartment in Oleai, first opened its doors to 45 students.
Johnson said the school was actually borne out of necessity after the owner of Smith Preschool and Preparatory Academy told parents of her students in 1993 that she was leaving. Ingelein Smith at the time was taking care of 25-30 children in her small Papago school.
“We didn’t have many choices then. It’s either you go to Catholic schools or public schools here. I think there was not even a Head Start then,” said Johnson.
Led by Clifford Grauers, an executive from Hyatt Regency Saipan who had some experience with an international school in Singapore, a small band of parents started meeting regularly and planted the seed in what would eventually become SIS a year later.
“We were very primitive then and everything was done on a voluntary basis, from repairing the building, to electrical work, to fixing chairs and desks, they were all done on as-needed basis. We also didn’t have that much money then and it was the real issue. But as the English would say, we muddled ourselves through it,” said Johnson.
Other key members of the group that set up SIS were the signatories of the school’s articles of incorporation. These are people Johnson and SIS headmaster Dale Jenkins refer to as the school’s founders. They include Dennis Yoshimoto, Patrick K. Calvo, James Weathersbee, Virginia Villagomez, Pauleen Burger, and Bibine Forrester.
SIS also owes its existence to the school’s first principal, Karen King, a retired teacher from California who, Johnson said, was the person who recruited SIS’ first teachers.
By 1996, the burgeoning school had outgrown its original Oleai home and, with the help of Victoria Vaughan, SIS transferred its campus to a bigger and more ideal location in As Lito, where the current school now stands.
SIS’ first building at its new campus in As Lito—a Quonset hut—has since been named after Vaughan’s father and is known as Akiyama Hall.
The school would later add a middle school/administration building, music building, and the Tan Siu Lin Building, which was donated by the Tan family. Incidentally, Dr. Tan Siu Lin, the family patriarch, also serves as director emeritus, along with Johnson and Betty Johnson.
Dr. Dale Jenkins, who assumed the Headmaster post in 2004, said he always admired Johnson and company’s gung-ho spirit in establishing the school and marveled at how it has grown the past two decades, essentially adding a grade level each year.
“The founders had a very clear definition and very clear philosophy of the school that it was designed as a small school with individualized attention. It would also develop academics, social, physical, and a whole-children type approach. All board members are parents and they literally own the school.”
Jenkins said that level of parental involvement in running SIS’ affairs has become the tradition of the school and that approach has succeeded well beyond their wildest dreams.
Proof of that is SIS students have been accepted to some of the best schools in the world and are doing very well.
“It’s fair to say we’ve become more academic. That’s why all the students here take up as many as five Advance Placement courses to help them prepare for university or college. Many also choose to take an additional AP course, which makes a total of six AP courses, which is a very rigorous academic load.”
SIS is not only about books. It also encourages its students to be involved in sports and service activities.
“The school has always had a great tradition of physical activity so our sports teams are very involved and our kids are really into sports, whether it be volleyball, basketball, soccer, and the likes. The issue there is not so much focusing on sports and winning games but developing sportsmanship and also learning to work with people in cooperative groups.”
Jenkins is also proud of the school’s “Destino Peru” program, where high school students go on a study tour of the South American country, with Mili Chavez Saiki chaperoning them. Saiki is part of the school’s administration staff.
“For the past 10 years Ms. Mili leads our students to experience the people, country, and culture of Peru. That has made a tremendous impact on the students because they go there for three weeks. They’re not just tourists as they actually go in and contribute their time to hospitals and orphanages. Many come back and say it’s a life-changing experience for them. It’s not just a vacation, it’s more of a study tour.”
Among the challenges the school has faced in recent years, Jenkins said, is the federalization of immigration, which affected SIS’ enrollment figures. Fortunately, the school was able to adjust quickly and has benefitted with the help of SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which is a U.S. government database that allows schools and federal immigration agencies to exchange data on the status of international students.
“Federalization of immigration affected us but we became involved with the SEVIS organization to develop the ability to issue the I-20 status forms that lead to gaining a student visa. We were the first school on Saipan authorized by SEVIS to do that. We ended up with more non-immigrant student visas. Residents still make up two-thirds of our student population but one-third is now made up of nonresidents.”
Jenkins said the influx of nonresident students has been a blessing because they have brought a lot of diversity to the school and helped enrich it.
Another blessing Jenkins is thankful for are the continued donation of Education Tax Credit by local businesses and individuals to SIS.
“ETCs are the lifeblood of schools on Saipan. We’re very fortunate in having companies and people helping us. Every dollar that they give, that’s one less dollar that has to be paid for by tuition. ETC donations help schools have high-quality programs that we could not afford without them. Some international schools charge over $30,000 per year for tuition but in part, because of the ETC we are able to keep our tuition rates much lower. We are very grateful for each gift of an ETC donation that we receive."
An SIS achievement Johnson is especially proud of is the school’s continued accreditation with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. SIS first got the WASC’s nod in 1998 under the term of then principal Rachel Udstuen.
“WASC has recognized SIS’ academic excellence by giving it the highest possible accreditation terms of six years that runs until 2017. As a school, that was a big goal. If you get accredited, you’ve arrived!”
Johnson and Jenkins said the future bodes well for SIS, which is planning to expand its scholarship to elementary students who are born in the NMI.
“Plans are to continue to refine what we have. We are developing our use of technology in education and how it helps individualize each student’s learning. We’ve been here for 20 years now. We now want to offer an elementary scholarship program, which is aimed at reducing tuition for our elementary students who are residents of Saipan and make it more affordable for them,” said Jenkins.
He said the scholarship could be worth as much as $2,000 for qualified elementary students.
After 20 years, a four-fold increase in the original number of enrollees, and more than 50 high school graduates, Johnson could now say that the SIS experiment has been an unqualified success.
“From worrying about what our kids are going to do in school to 20 years later and SIS is one of the premier schools on Saipan. This is the fruition of all of that and it’s pretty remarkable!”