'Golden cage' in the Swiss Alps

national March 30, 2015 01:00


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LOCATED in a quiet mountainous alpine village about 100 kilometres from Geneva, the Leysin American School in Switzerland (LAS) serves as a “golden cage” for its students. And that provides an environment suitable for its students to improve academically and emotionally, the boarding school’s executives say.
Members of the Ott family, who have run the school for three generations since its establishment in 1961, expressed confidence that its location as well as its teaching and learning methods contribute to the school’s success.
“Leysin is like a golden cage. We are like a big family,” said Christoph Ott, who is head of operations of the co-educational boarding school. 
He said LAS teachers act more like a coach than a lecturer and they encourage students to learn like they are playing games. Teachers and staff members are designated as “faculty parents” for students – who mostly come from wealthy and successful families – to teach them life skills, from doing laundry to financial matters.
He was backed by his father, the school’s chairman of the board Steven Ott, who said: “We can do this because we are in a small town.” 
He said schools in big cities like Zurich find it more difficult to do what LAS is doing.
Leysin village is located about 1,400 metres above sea level – a two-hour drive from Geneva. Its only connections with nearest towns below are via a long and winding road and a tramway that climbs steep slopes. Another link is by helicopter, if an injured skier needs emergency treatment after a serious accident.
“This place is really connected to nature. The Swiss have taken good care of the scenery,” said Sigrid Ott, 99, who is affectionately called “Grandma Ott” by the school staff and students.
She said Switzerland had many benefits to offer foreign students, including multilingual cultures, a stable democracy, safety, as well as a pleasant natural environment.
Having travelled from the United States to Switzerland at the end of World War II, she and her late husband Fred, who died in 2007 at age 93, co-founded the boarding school in the scenic alpine village over half a century ago.
Head of school, Marc-Frederic Ott, who is Sigrid’s grandson, said teachers serve more like coaches for students and they could achieve that because they live in the same dormitories as the students.
LAS, where English is the language of instruction, currently has 340 students from more than 50 countries, including Thailand. 
In its latest “academic profile” report, the school claims that between 2010 and 2014 99 per cent of its students were accepted by colleges or universities worldwide. The report lists more than 300 of those institutions, including leading ones in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and other European countries. 
Unlike many other private schools in Switzerland that are owned by financial entities, LAS is majority-owned by the not-for-profit Foundation for the Advancement of International Education, which was set up by Steven and his wife Doris Ott, who is the school’s administrative director. 
“Our primary objective is not to make profits,” Steven said, adding that members of the Ott family get monthly salaries like the other staff. 
Steven, who is Sigrid’s son, said that the family planned to pass the baton of managing the school to the fourth generation.
He and his wife live in a modest two-storey house with his mother located a few minutes’ walk from the school’s Belle Epoque campus, which is housed in what was the historic Grand Hotel building and providing a panoramic view of snowy mountains.
Switzerland education 
Switzerland has become the country of choice for many parents who want a good education for their children in a safe environment with high academic standards. 
“Switzerland has always had a good reputation for hotel schools. But more and more parents are looking to Switzerland for secondary-school education for their children. The schools also have become more aggressive in promoting themselves in Asia and Thailand,” Aphichart Assakul, an independent educational consultant, said last week. Parents are now looking beyond favourites like Singapore, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom for boarding schools, and Switzerland stands out.
Switzerland’s academic standard is acceptable throughout Europe, he said. The country is famous for the international baccalaureate (IB) programme, which originated in a Geneva international school in the late 1960s and has been adopted in more than 100 countries, including Thailand.
The benefits of studying in Switzerland are the “truly international environment” and multilingual culture in a country where French, German, Italian and English are spoken. Also, Switzerland is one of the safest places to live, work and study.
Aphichart went to a Swiss boarding school and his teenage son is now doing the same. Thai teenagers studying in Switzerland say they have learned new life skills and made friends with youths from all over the world.
Twelfth-grader Napat Suttapong, 19, said studying overseas has “opened a totally new world” for him. He now can speak six languages, including Russian, and is learning French. He is a member of a dozen clubs at the school.
The youngster is studying the IB |programme at Leysin American School in Switzerland (LAS), which is about a two-hour drive from Geneva.
Note: The writer flew to and from Switzerland with Swiss International Airlines.

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