Colegio Nueva Granada (CNG) is one of South America’s most recognizable and prestigious international schools, located in the Colombian capital city of Bogotá, Colombia. Under Dr. Eric Habegger’s leadership as school director over the past nine years, CNG’s reputation has grown even further, with the school being recognized by Advanc-ED for its commitment to continuous improvement, an extremely selective faculty appointment process, increased numbers of international students, and an ambitious campus improvement development plan. SchoolRubric’s Ryan Sagare recently traveled to visit CNG and visited with Dr. Habegger about his accomplishments at CNG and vision for the future.
Thanks for joining us today. I’d like to start by asking if you could tell the SchoolRubric community a little bit about yourself and your background.
Interestingly enough, I started my education as an international student - a global nomad. I came with my family here to Bogotá, Colombia in 1963 and attended CNG as a first grader. I remember learning how to read at CNG and the classroom still exists where I first attended the school. Our family went back to the States and I went off to college and became an English teacher, and my first overseas teaching job was here at CNG in 1985 as an eighth grade English teacher. Then my wife and I left, got our Master’s degrees, and CNG called up again. I came back to be a high school principal from 1991 to 1995.
We traveled the world and went to the Middle East. We went to Japan, coastal Venezuela, and Paraguay, and then the job opened up at CNG. I have been the director here for nine years and both of our children have graduated from CNG - so I’ve been a student, a teacher, an administrator, a parent, and school head.
Since your experience at CNG and Colombia has spanned several decades, can you describe some of the significant changes you’ve seen, both at the school and in the country?
In the 60s and 70s, probably 90 percent of our school population student demographic would have been expats. When personal safety and security became more challenging in the 80s and 90s, that completely shifted. Embassies and multinational corporations would not bring dependents into Colombia. So when I first started at CNG, probably 95 percent of our student population was Colombian. We learned to love Colombian culture and make super connections with students and families. Those were very special times in the 80s and 90s although obviously issues with narcotraficantes and la guerrilla were certainly challenging. However, our overall Colombian experience was wonderful and that’s what brought us back in the future.
That demographic [90 percent Colombian students] has significantly changed today. Ten years ago, we were about 65 percent single passport Colombian student, and now that’s down to 47 percent. So over the last two years for the first time in probably 50 years, our majority population holds a different passport than a Colombian passport.
You’ve been at CNG for the past nine years. Can you talk about what you would consider to be some of the school’s biggest accomplishments during your tenure?
I’d say the biggest accomplishment starts with the quality of teachers and administrators. We had about 150 applicants to CNG back in 2010, but over the past three years we have averaged almost 4000 applications for approximately 25 openings each year. So we’ve really made significant advances mainly because of the incredible quality of educators who want to come to CNG and want to come and travel throughout Colombia and Latin America. And as we know in the international school world, the quality of teachers and administrators is in essence the quality of the entire program.
The rest of it is in the details. For instance, in terms of the rigor of the program, we started with about 200 students sitting for Advanced Placement exams on a given year at the high school level. This past year, we had 750 exams sat and our highest ever student performance in CNG’s history. So that’s quality teachers working and day in and day out and students rising to the challenge. All of our indicators have gone up over the last nine years.
Another accomplishment that I’m very proud of in terms of what our educators have done is that in our last accreditation visit two years ago CNG received the highest index of education quality in Latin America as evaluated by Advanc-ED, the world’s largest accrediting agency. So again, a testament to the hard work of teachers and students to achieve that significant honor.
So I’m guessing the number 320.40 must ring a bell.
It certainly does. That was our overall assessment rating - and that’s across 47 different indicators. So a great accomplishment by the school, the community, and our educators.
Specifically, what would you say are some of the leading indicators that made CNG stand out from an accreditation standpoint?
Probably within the accreditation report, the number one theme that came through by the seven-person team that evaluated CNG was our commitment to continuous improvement. In 2010, students, teachers and parents reported concerns about the quality of the academic program, the quality of our teachers, and discipline. We put all those aspects on the table - we said, “Houston, we have a problem and we need to improve it. Here’s our action plan and we’re going to put that action plan in place. We’re going to evaluate [the action plan] using a variety of different metrics and find the results.” And as a result, we had about two-thirds of our students concerned about bullying yet today that is under 2 percent. We had about 82 percent of our students in 2010 who were concerned about the quality of our academic program, and today that is less than 1 percent. So we faced issues. We went after them. And that commitment to continuous improvement is what drives CNG day in, day out every year and we ask our community to participate. We listen and then we address those issues that most impact teaching and learning.
When we took a look through your website, one of the things that stood out to us was a focus and stated commitment to diversity. In a more specific sense, how does that actually manifest itself here at CNG?
Obviously the diversity piece is important to both our Colombian and international school community be- cause of the realization of what our world is like today and what it’s going to be, which is multinational work teams working 24/7 where in multinational companies you’ll start with a project and that project basically will follow the sun around the world. And when I talk to so many of our parents who are in business, industry and the diplomatic corps, what they tend to share with me is they can readily find high quality people in their various areas of expertise within their companies or organizations, but where they struggle is whether those people have the interpersonal skills to work with other diverse people in work teams. And so I think our community understands and values that reality where 30 years ago so many of our parents would have had Colombian companies but now they’ve sold those companies and they’re working with big multinational groups.
Changing the tune a little bit, I’d like to chat about your neighbors - the foundation that CNG has started. What is this program all about?
Our foundation school started 15 years ago. It started because members of our community were looking up and seeing that we were doing charitable acts for events that happen in other places - an earthquake in Mexico, a flood in Bangladesh. And it really forced some reflection and thinking and the thought was here in this city, we have needs - and one of those needs is the neighborhood literally a half mile south here of the school where it is the displaced people of Colombia who have to leave their regions in many cases because of violence. And one of the issues that we saw was that the mothers had to go out with their husbands in order to try to make work or stay at home with the children which would certainly impact the economics of the family. And so our school established a daycare and worked with those kids so the mothers could join their fathers and help advance the economics of the family unit.
We fell in love with those kids and we thought, “how in the world can we stop their education after only two to four years?” As a result, we began to build a purpose-built facility here on campus and added at grade level each year. At the moment, we’ve had three graduating classes get their education at the fundación which is supported by donations from our entire school community.
That’s great. Are the students at CNG involved in any way with the foundation?
Yes. Every grade level will have interactions with their fundación hogar counterparts - their peers. That could be read-alouds at the primary level. In middle school, that could look like a recycling campaign. In high school, that might be the two senior classes working together to build picnic tables so that the foundation students have the opportunity to eat their cafeteria meals outside on nice days.
Every grade level will have an even playing field interaction during the year with the foundation students. One of the wonderful aspects is to watch, for instance, has been the Destination Imagination competition - the foundation kids beat the CNG kids, so that demonstrates that everyone is capable whether you are born into a very well-to-do family or a family that’s had challenges in life. Education can even the playing field. And that makes a big impact, I think, on both communities in a very positive way.
It seems like CNG has some ambitious capital improvement projects going on with its facilities. What projects are the school currently working on?
Sure. About 15 years ago, there was a class-action lawsuit in Bogotá on the eastern slopes of the entire city across 50 miles. There was a building moratorium as a result of this lawsuit, and CNG has not been able to lay one single brick in those 15 years. The courts overturned that [moratorium] a year ago due to the fact that CNG has been here on this site since 1959 and therefore have due process rights to build.
We therefore we put together a seven-building master facilities project plan which addresses infrastructure needs as well as innovative learning spaces for the future. We will have a bridge for safety reasons crossing the Circunvalar which will be done here in May. We will have a cafeteria because right now we have one cafeteria and we start lunch at 10:40 a.m. and we end at almost 2 o’clock - we don’t want the cafeteria to drive the academic master schedule. We’ll have a new sports center, a new high school, a new early child center as well as a performing arts center theater and black box. So we’re really to allow facilities to expand what students and teachers can do in terms of the learning environment, and we’re already underway with three of those projects (the bridge, the cafeteria, and the sports complex and transportation logistics center).
We touched on this previously, but perhaps you could speak a little bit more about the changing demographics at CNG. It seems pretty interesting how the school has actually grown its international population at a time when most international schools are seeing higher and higher numbers of host country students.
When I came in 2010, I took a real targeted approach with the board related to developing a very clear admissions policy. With the school wanting to ensure diversity for our Colombian community as well as international population, we capped the number of Colombian students by percent in every grade level. We also decided to decrease the number of students in the school from 1,850 to where we are now at around 1,710. Although with a master facilities plan we could grow, we receive about 850 student applications every year and we accept about 160 students. We therefore decided to focus on the diversity within the school and not grow the school versus potentially becoming less diverse as a result.
So between that specific targeted admissions policy as well as the fact that CNG became more and more the school of choice as our academic program and quality increased, it’s sort of like you build a quality program and they shall come. And that’s what happened. We were getting about 80 percent of embassy populations and now we’re getting around 95 percent of those populations. And in that regard, the rich get richer: better quality programs, higher college admissions, more demographic diversity. It’s a very positive cycle for the community.
You mentioned earlier that you are extremely selective with your students and I know that this extends to the staff you hire as well, but that doesn’t really happen unless there is increased visibility and interest from prospective staff members in CNG. How have you been able to systematically attract more top talent?
In general, I think more and more with social media and the fact that international educators are fairly well connected, it’s amazing how so many candidates are able to pinpoint the top five or ten schools in a region. And as candidates begin to leave CNG to go to other international schools, they’re telling their colleagues which are the better schools in Latin America. Again, it’s a factor of the rich getting richer the stronger your program is seen. For someone who wants to come to Latin America or who is looking for a specific type of professional development environment where they know they’re going to grow and get better, what they view is important when they see and talk to teachers who have been here and think, “Wow, that’s a pretty good teacher. That must be a good school.”
Our brand recognition and name recognition continues to build and it gets cycled again and again. This year, about 20 percent of our new hires were hires that were connected by word of mouth and referrals from either teachers who are currently here and who said “Hey, we’ve got an opening in third grade and middle school math - you have to apply. We love it here.” Or they are people who have heard about us from colleagues around the world and say “I was told that if I want to go to the top school in Latin America, apply to CNG.”
I’ve heard that you have a bit of an unorthodox interview style. Can you tell us a little about your logic behind that process and what you’re looking for from candidates in your interviews?
You’re asking me to give away trade secrets... but part of that came out after being a principal for 13 years and working with four different directors on three different continents and watching their interview styles.
I saw more and more that most schools use a more scripted interview approach, and what I found was that in a scripted interview approach you find that candidates appear to care so much about curriculum, instruction, assessment and kids - but it’s because you’re asking leading questions related to those areas.
So we flip the interview and for the first half hour, the candidate is in complete control and they ask questions about what’s important for them to know because in the other interview style which tends to be also 30 minutes, they’re asked questions and maybe they get to ask one question at the end. We wanted to flip that because we have found that their questions tell us more about them than them answering a scripted interview question. You know exactly what’s on the top of the mind of that candidate, what they really value and what is important. We find out five times more information about that candidate than if we ask scripted questions for an hour because it’s a tape recorder for them. They’ll have 10 interviews a day at a recruiting fair that all blend in together and at the end of the day they can just repeat and replicate it, so we find that the initial flip interview really gives us a sense of their psyche.
CNG appears, at least reputationally, to be one of the most recognizable schools in not only Bogotá but also Colombia and Latin America. Given that, what do you think your role should or shouldn’t be in improving education as a whole in Colombia and perhaps even on the international stage?
Our vision statement talks about improving students’ learning through mind, body and character - and the key part is through leadership and service. If we’re not doing it as an institution and asking students to do it for themselves, then it’s a mismatch. We have to demonstrate and model for students our commitment to leadership and service.
So for us, one of the areas that we are best known for - actually worldwide - would be for our learning center. We have 50 full time faculty and staff providing comprehensive special education services for mild and moderate to severe learning needs. We help those students go off to college - 99% percent of all of our students go off to college and universities. So we have become an education site and model school for schools around the world to look at our practices, our programs and our policies. We’re also passing on information as asked by Advanc-ED and the College Board related to our character education and service learning programs through the fundación.
We’re also sharing information about our Capstone projects, because some of our students have done some incredible projects through their research and are making an impact in the community around us. I’ll give one example - a girl did a project looking at women in prisons here in Colombia and what she found was that many did not know about all the social services available for women, so she developed an app that women can download on their phones to look at all the services available for things such as spousal abuse, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse... and the list goes on and on. Those kind of projects, I think, have put CNG at the forefront in terms of recognition for the way we’re approaching education and having students understand that it’s not learning for learning’s sake but the impact it’s going to make as they leave these walls and go on in life - and I think we’ve been recognized for those types of efforts and their effectiveness.
Just a couple of more questions. What is the school governance model and structure at CNG?
We have a seven member elected board. Three are elected on a two-year cycle and the other four on the other cycle so there’s always continuity. CNG has fortunately had a long history of board stability and board interest in director longevity. It’s very difficult in international schools to advance programs with significant board and head turnover. If you look at the model of flagship schools in every region you’re going to find the following factors: One, stable board structure. Two, longevity in school administrators. Three, tuition that helps ensure program excellence and quality costs. It’s difficult when a school community wants excellence but doesn’t want to pay for it. Those three factors in place with that governance piece being critical are so important. We also have one board non-voting member and that is the U.S. Embassy appointed representative to represent our U.S. mission population. And that’s our board structure.
Last question - your predecessor, Barry McCombs, was here at CNG for 13 years and you’ve been here nine. That’s an amazing run for an international school director - how much longer do you plan on being at CNG?
We just talked about governance, and one of the aspects that is very important to the board and myself is to advance the school significantly and there’s still work to do. The board recently extended my contract now for another five years, so I’ll be here 14 years and maybe beyond that because I love the school and this community. It’s an important place for the Habegger family and we still have much left to accomplish. My goal is to serve this community for as long as I can by helping the school continue to advance with quality teaching and learning.