Unique Learning Opportunities in Canada – German International School Toronto
By: Anton Rizor
Mark Benkelmann is the Principal of the German International School Toronto. Situated in Bloordale Village, the school offers unique learning opportunities to students from all backgrounds. The school is a private, co-educational, German immersion school that combines the German (Thuringia) and Canadian (Ontario) curricula. The school is one of two full-time German schools in Canada and offers classes from Kindergarten to Grade 10. I had the opportunity to interview Principal Benkelmann about the school, the differing school systems and his life in Toronto.
DKG: What is the German International School Toronto and what distinguishes it from other private or public schools in Ontario?
Benkelmann: The German International School Toronto is part of the network of German Schools abroad. There are 140 German international schools around the world. The main goal is to display a realistic and modern image of Germany to the host country and offer education in the German language. The school is partly funded by the German government. Germany expects its schools abroad to offer high standards in education and management. Therefore, all schools are regularly inspected and evaluated by German authorities regarding their educational and administrative quality. The German International School was awarded the designation “Excellent German School Abroad” in 2015.
DKG: What curriculum do you teach?
Benkelmann: Since we offer the German ‘Mittlere Reife’ after the successful completion of the10th grade, we have to teach a special German curriculum. So particularly, from Grade 5 to Grade 10 we are based on the German curriculum. While all German Schools abroad, in the Northern Hemisphere are based on the same curriculum, our curriculum is enriched by Canadian content. The best example is language. Students and families from Germany are obviously interested in a high quality English language education. Canada, being a bilingual country, also has a strong connection to language, particularly French. To reflect this importance to Canada, we begin teaching French at grade 3. This results in our students not only being bilingual in German and English, but also competitive with their peers in French. We also have quite a bit of freedom in the way we structure our kindergarten education. At this point, we really try to combine the two curricula. So we have the same kindergarten structure as other Canadian schools (i.e. pre-kindergarten, junior kindergarten, senior kindergarten etc.). The kindergarten is fully bilingual with educators solely speaking English or German. I have studied kindergarten concepts in Ontario closely and to combine these elements with traditional German models allows for a great experience.
DKG: What are particular differences in the kindergarten structures?
Benkelmann: It is an educational goal for German Kindergarten that children develop independence. The Canadian system is not as independence oriented. This is a particular instance, where it is important for us not to be stuck in an intercultural trap, because it would not be feasible to have a purely German or Canadian approach in order to be attractive to all perspective families
DKG: What is the make-up of the student body?
Benkelmann: The school is a rather small institution. Our main student body originates from children whose parents are on foreign assignment. The second largest group is from parents with German roots, but we also have a smaller number of Canadians. However, we try to internationalize our school more and thus attract a wider variety of students. In order to so, we have increased the share of Non-German instruction time to 50% in Middle School (Grade 5 to Grade 10). As a German school, we will not increase this share further beyond 50%. However, this change has already paid dividends as some parents made their decision of sending their children to us dependent on the increase of Non-German instruction time. This reflects our intentions to be more attractive to Canadian and international parents.
DKG: What would be the benefits for Canadian parents to send their children to the German International School Toronto?
Benkelmann: Our education here is competitive with most of the private or public schools in Toronto. However, our main benefit is that the school is bilingual, meaning that we are striving for all our students to be fully fluent in German and English. This offer makes us quite attractive, yet we do still struggle with awareness as do many other small private schools. The specificity of disciplines beyond Grade 4 provides are students with a significant advantage in academic and intellectual development. Thus, they may leap ahead of their peers and when they do decide to rejoin them, they are in fact holding the advantage.
DKG: How are the plans of extending the school to a full twelve-year education progressing?
Benkelmann: The plans are currently “on ice”. Our strategic plan dictates that we decide whether we want the extension within the next two years. The traditional German school abroad is a full twelve-year education leading to the German International Abitur. I am totally convinced of German curricula content and the German International Abitur is a highly interesting offer. However, we are uncertain if this would help us in the Toronto market and therefore we are also investigating other options like the International Baccalaureate (IB).
DKG: Do you think it is feasible to expand the school?
Benkelmann: I do not think that we could do an extension in this building, because we are quite limited in space. A lot of public and private schools offer a strong community through a variety of extra-curricula programs. As a small school, it is difficult for us to compete with us.
DKG: What are some of the ways in which you have an edge over other schools?
Benkelmann: Through a very strong kindergarten and primary school education we want to attract students from a very young age to be part of the bilingual experience here. It might be difficult for someone to enter a bilingual school system at the age of 10, even though we do offer a variety of individualized language support. Moreover, we are introducing a so-called “Character Concept”. This is particularly based on the German word “Charakter”, which means slightly more than the English “character”. Here we have another example of incorporating Canadian ideas into the German system, as the aspect of building character, leadership, empathy etc. is not focussed on in a German public school. This is different in the Canadian system. So with the beginning of the new academic year we will introduce this new concept and fill it with life through our extremely talented teachers. This offer is unique to Germans, but also an extension to what Canadians are used to, so I believe it is quite attractive to all.
DKG: With English becoming more and more internationalized, what do you think is the value of the German language and education? And how does that impact the school?
Benkelmann: Canada is a bilingual country, where both languages are internationally recognized. Thus, the Canadian parent is naturally interested in language education. Moreover, around the world parents interested in education are particularly interested in language and STEM (or in German MINT) subjects. Germany, and we as a school, are traditionally very strong in the STEM subjects. Moreover, there is plenty of research that proves the usefulness of a bilingual mind. So learning a second language at an early age is of significant value and German is particularly useful. There is research that shows that knowing German has the most positive impact of all second languages on future salary. The reason for that is twofold. First of all, Germany is a global player, politically and economically. There are many German companies that are attractive employers and in order to work for them, German is a valuable asset to have. Secondly, German distinguishes students from others. Oftentimes students learn languages that they are surrounded by. For example, in the United States, there is a lot of students that learn Spanish. However, that means that Americans compete with other Americans that are already bilingual or are learning at the same pace. So making an anti-cyclical decision here and learning German, distinguishes students and gives them an edge over their competitors. So there is significant value for German language in the world.
DKG: Personally, what motivated you to come to Canada in particular?
Benkelmann: I am a teacher, who is attracted by change. Many teachers in Germany tend to stay at one particular school for decades. I, on the other hand, am very interested in learning how other schools and school systems work. Everything at my previous German school was perfect, however there comes a time where I felt like I needed a change. Going abroad was always a dream and when the opportunity arose to become principal here, I jumped on it right away. Firstly, because being a principal was obviously a responsible and interesting offer. Additionally, Toronto has always been a city I wanted to experience closer. Canada is a dream country to many Germans, including myself.
DKG: What fascinates you about Canada?
Benkelmann: One thing is the enormity of Canada. These vast distances are impossible to understand for someone, who has never been in countries like Canada or the United States. Earlier this summer, I was on vacation in Alaska and while many were confused what I wanted in a place where there is nothing really, I responded that this magnitude of “nothing but nature” simply does not exist in Germany. Moreover, I love and am fascinated by the melting pot that is Toronto. Toronto is a fantastic place to live. I think that Toronto moves beyond the average social boundaries. I believe Toronto and its multi-ethnic society with an understanding of difference, yet a sense of unity, could be a role model for the rest of the world. I think that being a citizen of Toronto means a lot to those living here, including myself, and I think that the society here is further ahead than any other Western society.
German International School
980 Dufferin Street
M6H 4B4 Toronto, ON