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Cambridge Academy: Year Four and Five

It’s all coming together. Or is it?

You can read previous Academy posts here:

  1. Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
  2. Six Months In (September 2015)
  3. Year One (February 2016)
  4. Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
  5. Stocktake (March 2016)
  6. Shadoku explained (April 2016)
  7. Some improvements to the curriculum (April 2016)
  8. December 2016 update (December 2016)
  9. Cambridge Academy: Year Two and Three (March 2017)
  10. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2017 (March 2017)
  11. Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap (April 2017)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)
  13. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress (October 2017)
  14. The Academy Fluency Course (March 2018)
  15. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2018 (March 2018)

This year was a solid one for the Academy but we definitely had some ups and downs.

Mistakes were made (by me)

Let’s start with the downs: we screwed up badly not just once but twice. The first mistake was getting a bit cocky about the Academy and changing the way we explained it to existing students.

In the past we’d gone into each class with 6th graders in, introduced the Academy and encouraged them to join. Almost everyone did.

Last year, we asked everyone to come to a special explanation session on a Sunday, then asked them to come in again in January and line up to sign up for the days they wanted. Only about half the students joined.

This is a mistake we’ll be paying for for the next five years, as we have a year that is quite a bit smaller than it should be. Looks like we’ll have 22 second-year students next year, spread over three classes of 4, 6, and 12 students. Doubly regrettable because the Academy classes work much better with at least ten students in.

This year we went back to the original, more humble model and right now halfway through the explanations pretty much all our 6th graders have signed up. If all goes well we should end up with 28 first-graders in three classes.

The second mistake was delegating too much. As planned I assigned a teacher to each class, but then failed to monitor them as closely as I should have (in my defence we had some pretty serious issues crop up this year that took a lot of time at first and then burned me out later).

As a direct consequence of me not paying enough attention to how the classes were going, the current first-year classes in particular are not where I want them to be, and all the reading classes have gone slightly off course.

Nothing too serious, but changes will be needed next year.

But lots of good things happened too

Despite the lack of attention from me, the classes mostly went well and students learned a lot. We did Eiken last month at the school, and 78 out of 82 students passed the paper test. Last weekend we did interview practice, and everyone was basically okay to pass. This is very encouraging, as our student body is very mixed and doesn’t just consist of elite students.

We wrote 2/3 of the A3 output course, and it turned out really well. I’m proud of all our materials, but this might be the best one yet. We also finished one year of the A5 advanced course.

Very few of our students quit. We lost a handful to graduation and three quit, but we’re hoping to have a healthy intake and we also had four students join from outside. Hopefully that is the start of a trend 🙂

Student numbers

Junior high school 1: 28? (still in the process of pitching to parents)
Junior high school 2: 22
Junior high school 3: 30
Senior high school entry class (1-2 year students): 10
Senior high school advanced class (2-3 year students): 11

Pretty encouraging. It will be interesting to see how many of the new JHS 3rd years stay on into high school, as they were our first big year.

Also, the mathematically gifted among you will notice that this would give us 101 students, finally reaching our longstanding goal of 100 students in the Academy. Eventually I am hoping we’ll have something like 200 in the program (see below for how this may be possible).

Future plans

We’re going to rent the third unit on the ground floor of our building. This will give us all the car parking spaces (an additional four) plus get rid of the grumpy guy that used to rent it so no one will be complaining about our students going forwards. This extra unit will give us about 280 new class places and allow us to have all junior high school levels of the Academy, plus one high school level, every weekday.

I’m going to be much more hands on with the reading classes next year, and with the junior high school first year output classes. This will allow me to develop them a bit more and address structural problems (as well as train our teachers).

I’m going to take another leaf out of SEG’s book and try to find supplementary reading material for our beginner levels. At the moment the students read sets of readers with CDs, but I would also like to mix in picture books and other reading material that they might find interesting. A big work in progress.

We’ll finish the A3 course and start working on our final level, A4. We’ll also write a second year of the A5 course. This will complete the Academy materials, at which point we might start working on a course for elementary school students.

Outlook

The outlook is good. I am not going to be able to be as hands-off next year as I was this year, but I think the program will get a lot stronger because of that.

We will be in a position to recruit hundreds of new students next year, including almost 100 new Academy students, so we will need to start working on advertising for April 2020 from now. It’s going to be intense but also kind of fun 🙂

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Cambridge Academy: December 2016 Update

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Academy beginner book section (YL0.1-0.7)

You can read about the Cambridge Academy in previous posts:

  1. Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
  2. Six Months In (September 2015)
  3. Year One (February 2016)
  4. Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
  5. Stocktake (March 2016)
  6. Shadoku explained (April 2016)
  7. Some improvements to the curriculum (April 2016)

Well, a lot has happened since my last post about the Academy (July 2016). We have had several schools visit, and I have talked to lots of people, and I have realised that in order for someone to start a program like the Academy in a school, the following four conditions are necessary:

  1. the desire and autonomy to begin a program
  2. the knowledge of ER to explain it to teachers, parents, and students
  3. a critical number of junior and senior high school students
  4. a large amount of money for books

So far I haven’t talked to anyone with all four of these, so we are putting our plans to license our system on hold. After all, if there are no potential customers it doesn’t make much sense to develop a product, right?

I’m still very happy to answer questions and give what advice I can though -feel free to leave a comment on this post or drop me an email.

Progress Report

We’re approaching Year Three for the Academy, and a lot is going well, and some things are going less well. We haven’t seen the growth I was hoping for (100 students are still out of reach), but we have a solid 70-some and next year is looking somewhat hopeful to break three figures.

1. Shadoku/Students that didn’t do shadoku last year

Our new first year reading curriculum incorporating shadoku is working extremely well. This year’s first year students are possibly doing better than last years’ (who are now second years). The second years are struggling a bit and I am trying different things to help them out, including having them re-read at a much lower level, etc. Not sure if the situation can be fixed completely, but at least we’ll do better going forwards.

We’ve also bought a lot of new books, particularly at the intermediate and advanced levels. Still not enough, but much closer to being able to meet our students’ future needs.

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Academy intermediate book section (YL0.8-2.9)

A few of our students are really taking off with their reading, breaking the YL2.0 barrier and becoming more independent and motivated readers. It’s wonderful to see.

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Academy advanced book section (YL3.0~)

I would say that somewhere over half our students are doing really well, and most of the others are doing okay. Maybe 20% are not doing well, and I hope some of them can be salvaged. Most of the ones who are not doing well started off badly, and I wasn’t skilled enough at the time to notice or help them.

2. Student reading targets

I’ve also noticed that students that read a certain amount are doing well, and those that read less are not. Using this data, I have come up with provisional weekly targets that we’ll start using next year with our students:

JHS1 2000-5000 words a week (100,000-250,000 words a year)
JHS2 3000-7000 words a week (150,000-350,000 words a year)
JHS3 4000-10000 words a week (200,000-500,000 words a year)
SHS1 4000-10000 words a week (200,000-500,000 words a year)
SHS2 5000-15000 words a week (250,000-750,000 words a year)
SHS3 6000-20000 words a week (300,000-1,000,000 words a year)

Based on these a student that joined our program in JHS1 and stayed with us until the end of high school would read 1,200,000 to 3,350,000 words. I predict this would provide them with some pretty decent English skills. The targets include in-class reading as well, so students with decent reading speeds might be able to clear the target just by reading in class for 55 minutes a week.

These numbers are provisional and we’ll probably adjust them after working with the students a bit next year. Looking at our current student data though, they seem reasonable. For comparison, in my university classes I require students to read 8,000 words a week to pass the course and 25,000 words a week to get a top grade.

3. Original junior high school output (speaking and writing) curriculum

We’re currently working on making our own curriculum for junior high school students for the output (speaking and writing) classes. As I mentioned in the improvements to curriculum post, the output classes have actually proven to be extremely important, and in the future we’ll be recommending students take both classes if at all possible.

Reading classes are much more profitable, but so far the results of students that only take reading are not satisfactory so we’ll have to abandon that idea as a profit centre 🙂

We should have the original curriculum for JHS1 ready to try from April, and then develop year two in 2017 and year three in 2018. Using the new curricula, we will now place junior high school students in their equivalent year class instead of trying to stream them by ability. High school students will be streamed by ability/level.

4. Assistant teachers

We have a couple of assistant teachers this year. They were students in the program last year, and are now attending local universities. We asked them to help us out as part-time staff.

The huge advantage of recruiting assistants like this is that they are very familiar with the system. It’s a win-win: we get dependable and skilled assistants that we know and trust, and they get to continue their English studies while doing fairly well-paid and interesting part-time work.

Best of all, this model should be fairly sustainable: I would expect we’ll have at least one suitable student per year graduating and we can keep them for four years while they are at university.

5. The next steps

Right now we need to do a few things before the end of the year. I would like to write a student guide to the curriculum that explains what they need to do. I think this will help students and their parents get more out of their classes.

We also need to buy some more books, although we can probably slow down a bit now.

Another stocktake will have to happen at the end of the year and book purchases to fill in holes.

We’re going to need more shelves soon too.

We’ll also be taking over another school and inviting their students to join our program from April. Hopefully this will build up our numbers a little bit.

All good stuff. I’m really looking forward to how the Academy develops as we go into our third year.

Anyone else working on extensive reading systems? Any questions or comments?

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Selling a Language School in Japan

But what’s it worth?

house for sale

Many people in Japan think about opening their own English school. Some people actually do so. But what is the end game? What happens when you no longer want to operate your school?

One option is to sell it.

There are many things to consider when selling a school. I’ve been doing a bit of research on this recently, and it’s been interesting and a bit discouraging 🙂

Valuation

This is probably the hardest aspect of the whole thing. There is no easy way to decide how much a business is worth. Ultimately it comes down to how much someone is willing to pay for it, and whether the owner decides to accept that price.

Some metrics I have heard about are a price per current student, or a multiple of net annual profit (2-5 times seems possible).

Whether the school is a company or just privately run by an individual would appear to make a difference (it’s more valuable as a stand-along company).

Having the owners involved in teaching or admin roles makes the school less attractive, as the students may be there because of the personal connection and may leave when the owners do.

Any assets held by the school may be added to the purchase price, but most teaching materials or furniture probably aren’t worth very much second-hand.

Taxation

Now even if you manage to sell your school for an acceptable price, the government is going to want its share of the proceeds.

There appear to be two possibilities here. If the school is incorporated and was bought then capital gains tax might be payable.

If the school was privately held then income tax would be payable. Looking at national income tax, the brackets seem to be:
-under 1,950,000 yen 5%
1,950,000-3,300,000 yen 10%
3,300,000-6,950,000 yen 20%
6,950,000-9,000,000 yen 23%
9,000,000-18,000,000 yen 33%
18,000,000-40,000,000 yen 40%
Over 40,000,000 yen 45%

You would also have to add inhabitants tax of around 10%.

What this means for us

Well, my wife runs a small English school. We are considering a number of options for when we are no longer willing or able to run it, including selling or giving it to a family or staff member, selling it to a third party, or closing it down (and donating resources to local schools or organizations).

My research indicates that most schools seem to be bought and sold as fire, or forced, sales, when an owner needs to sell quickly as they are leaving the country. This results in low prices paid for schools.

For us, selling for three times net annual income doesn’t sound like a great deal, particularly if we do the work to make the school run without our day-to-day input. Once you consider the impact of taxes on the sale price, we’d be better off running it for another couple of years and would be able to save more than we would get in a sale price.

It’s not even much of a jump from a hands-off business to one that you could monitor remotely.

I guess if we ever reached the point where we didn’t want anything to do with the school I guess we could sell, but even in that situation I think I would rather sell to an owner operator and amortize the purchase price over a number of years, possibly by securing an advisory role. This would probably reduce taxes and increase the eventual gain from the sale.

Anyone have any advice/experience on this topic? Am I completely wrong on anything?

Edit: Steven N. posted this great article by Dean Rogers (who is a really approachable and helpful person) on the Facebook page. Well worth a look.

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Cambridge Academy (six months in)

Extensive Reading for Secondary Students Part 2

Well, we’ve been running the Cambridge Academy for about six months now.

150426 Cambridge Academy prep 1

Academy classroom

Cambridge Academy (see previous write-up here): so far so good. We’ve run into some problems and changed course a couple of times, but the program is shaping up and it’s time for a big recruitment push. In this post I will talk about some hiccups we encountered, solutions, and future plans.

Problems so far

1. We still don’t have enough books

2. Some books don’t have commercially available audio

3. We don’t have a coherent program beyond the beginner level (over YL0.9)

4. Some students (10%>) are not performing well

5. Writing activities are not a good fit for an extensive reading class

Solutions

1. We continue to buy books and process existing ones (label and put into database and reading checklists) so that students can use them. We’ve probably doubled our existing readers since April and will probably continue doing this for the foreseeable future. Practice is making better, and our processing is getting much quicker now.

Processing new books

Processing new books

Processing new books involves the following steps:

  • open box, remove plastic wrapping etc.
  • find YL/word count information
  • label books with SEG labels
  • input book information into our reader database
  • copy CDs and put away the masters
  • put books and CDs into ziplock bag sets
  • add book/set information to reading checklists
  • put books on the shelves

The two major problems are if books don’t have YL/word count information, and if books don’t have CDs/audio. Right now we guesstimate YL and count words if the books are short enough. For longer books we try to find the word counts online. This site is great to find US-published series.

2. For books with no commercial audio available, we have been making our own by reading the books out loud into an iMac using Audacity to produce mp3 files that we then burn to CDs using iTunes. So far this is working very well, but it takes quite a long time and we still have over 500 books to make CDs for!

Recording audio

Recording audio

3. None of our students have gone beyond YL1.0 yet, but a couple of them will reach it soon. Before that happens we need to make sure we have enough books for them to read. Another problem is what to do about audio. I suspect that by the time students go over YL1.0 audio will be less important, but I am not 100% sure.

The other question is whether to continue grouping books into sets or to move to having individual books. If individual books, what will the checklists look like? I suspect all of this will get worked out over the next six months or so.

4. We have two problems with some of our students. The first is that a small number of students (two or three) seem to be exaggerating the amount they read or reading in a very perfunctory way (just looking at the pictures). I’m not sure how much of a problem this is, as they may well still be getting some benefit from the audio input. If it is a problem, I don’t really know what to do about it. I have tried talking to them, asking them about the content of books, and had them read the books out loud to me, but I am still not happy about the situation. Work in progress.

The other problem is potentially more serious. So far only one student seems to have run into it. Basically the student seems to have hit a wall around YL0.3, and is reporting that they cannot understand anything in the books at that level. I have tried talking to the student and explaining that it’s not necessary to understand everything but rather important to try and catch familiar words and think about the meaning, but I am not sure how helpful that was or how to solve this if it comes up with other students. Another work in progress.

5. Our initial model bundled extensive reading and writing practice (through weekly writing assignments) into one class, with speaking activities in the other. However, this model has several important drawbacks and we’ll be changing it in the future. Our ER classes have up to 12 students in them, so checking each student’s writing in 55 minutes is really hard and quite stressful for the teacher. Checking writing assignments in the ER class also means that our teaching assistants cannot take the class (they would be able to if it was just ER). Finally, having writing assignments in the ER class makes the class more stressful and less fun. Students are worried about finishing their writing instead of just relaxing and enjoying the reading class.

From next year we will include the writing assignments in the communication class (output), while the ER class will focus on reading and listening to the accompanying CDs.

Future plans

We have a few plans not mentioned above. The first and most important is that now that the program is getting into a half-decent shape, it’s time to try to expand it and recruit more students. So far all our students joined from within the school. Only half a dozen or so joined the school once the Academy was running, and we haven’t been actively advertising the course.

Advertising business cards

Business cards for advertising

From this week we will start actively trying to recruit new students, through our new Academy webpage and various advertising campaigns. Our goal is to have 100 students in the Academy by December 15th this year.

Planning the website

Planning the new website

Our website is getting a bit dated so we plan to get a new one made in November this year.

We are also going to explore whether the ER class is a standalone product. At first we went off the SEG model, which pairs an ER class with a communication class, but my friend DE suggested that the ER class might be our main product, with the communication class as an optional extra. This would be much easier to provide logistically, so I am excited to see if it is true over the next couple of months.

Another thing that we need to work on is making the ER classroom more comfortable. Right now it is set up with school-style desks and chairs, but we are planning to make more of a cafe-style with more comfortable chairs and funkier design/lighting/etc. Ideally it should be a welcoming space that students want to spend time in, and prospective students are attracted to. Work in progress, but I hope to post some pictures in the next update.

We need to find another couple of teaching assistants so we can train them before expanding the number of classes. We’re looking for 2nd-year university students at the moment.

Eventually we are hoping to open new branches in other parts of the city. I think that will be an option once we have 200 students at the original location. Another work in progress!

Any questions or advice? Please comment below.

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British Hills in Fukushima

Some corner of a foreign field…

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I finally had the chance to visit British Hills in Fukushima last weekend. If you are not aware of British Hills, it’s basically an ‘English village’ run by the Kanda Foreign Languages Group that doubles as a hotel and language training centre. They are located in the mountains of Fukushima, 25 minutes drive from the nearest convenience store!

The resort was running a special summer tour for teachers (basically a PR exercise) and I was able to join it alongside 28 other teachers. We spent about 24 hours there, arriving on Friday morning and leaving on Saturday morning. It was extremely interesting and worth doing if you are thinking about taking students there. The study visit costs about 12,000 yen, which basically covers the food and transport costs. Accommodation and lessons would be much more if you were paying (more on prices later).

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Weirdly, we had British weather the whole time: misty and cool. The resort is in the mountains at 1000 metres altitude, so it’s much cooler than the surrounding area in summer. Apparently they get up to 2 metres of snow in the winter though!

The schedule for the visit

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The event was extremely well run, and we had a number of the sales and management staff (including the President) come up from Tokyo to join in. To be honest, it was an extremely full schedule, and we felt a bit rushed. There was no time to walk around or relax on the tour.

The facilities

The buildings and grounds at British Hills are probably the best thing about the place. The whole complex is beautiful and is very ‘English’ in a stereotypical way. Lots of lawns and Edwardian houses. It definitely fulfills its role as ‘an English village in Japan’.

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The main building housing classrooms, the Refectory (dining hall), swimming pool, gym, etc.

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The tea shop, which we didn’t have time to sit down in but looked good.

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The dining hall, modeled on an Oxbridge college Hall.

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One of the student dorm buildings.

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A common room in one of the student dorms.

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The pub.

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The tuck shop, which I was initially excited about, and then very disappointed with. None of the snacks are British!

Lessons

During the tour we were able to attend or watch the following lessons:

  • Introductory lesson/orientation (English)
  • Tour of main building (English)
  • Tour of dormitories and main student building (Armory) (Japanese)
  • Information about B.H. study programs (Japanese)
  • Survival English (English)
  • Lesson Observations (2) (English)
  • British Table Manners (Japanese)
  • Calligraphy (English)

My impression of what we saw is that the Japanese orientations (PR pitches) were pretty good, the content lessons in English and Japanese were very good, and the language lessons in English were pretty poor. The lessons I saw (which I presume are the best lessons) struck me as something a first-year ALT might do. Lots of running but most students are not doing anything for most of the time. I was expecting much more and this was the most disappointing aspect of the visit, particularly as students pay 3000 each for these lessons, so with a full class of 20 you are paying 60,000 yen to have students do criss-cross for 90 minutes.

The calligraphy lesson we took was very good, as was the lecture on table manners. I imagine the cooking lessons would also be fun.

Based on what I saw, the language lessons are not worth doing, but the culture and craft ones might be.

Food

We had three meals on site.

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Lunch was fine. It was filling, hearty, inoffensive, and kind of British.

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Dinner was excellent.

Breakfast was fine, buffet-style like a hotel. Not great quality but filling.

Staff

The staff were without exception all great. Friendly and welcoming, there was a really nice atmosphere throughout the site.

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Some of the teaching staff.

Apparently there are twenty-three foreign teaching staff, and twenty other foreign staff on site. As the resort is open all year round, they presumably are working shifts and taking holidays. My impression is that there were not as many foreign staff as I was expecting. To be honest, they were kind of thin on the ground. British Hills, at least while I was there, did not deliver the kind of English immersion I was expecting.

The resort did have Japanese staff that were doing their best to interact with visitors in English, but the few interactions I witnessed seemed a bit forced and the resort staff’s English was not perfect, even when dealing with junior high school students. Of course, this would not be important outside of the context of an English immersion experience.

Overall though, the friendliness and warm atmosphere was a credit to the resort.

Prices and Location

Now this is the killer. The resort is located about 40 minutes drive from Shin-Shirakawa shinkansen station. The resort operates shuttles, but I’m not sure if you have to pay for them. From Sendai, it’s basically two hours door-to-door by shinkansen, or three and a half by coach.

The prices, both to stay and for lessons, seem a bit high to me. The resort has a high season (July to September) and a low season (the rest of the year). Prices are slightly lower in the low season. There are also different prices for schools, universities, individuals, and groups. It’s all very confusing.

My impression is that it will cost 15,000+ yen to stay and 3000-5000 yen per class per student. They seem to be empty in the winter, so it may be possible to negotiate a better deal then.

Overall

I was both impressed and unimpressed with British Hills. The facilities are amazing, the staff are really friendly, it’s inconvenient to get to, the prices are a bit too high for accommodation and ridiculous for lessons, and the language lesson quality is poor.

Overall I would not write it off, but you would have to be very careful when designing your program to make it worthwhile. I get the feeling their standard packages would be a poor value.

It was an interesting couple of days though. Thank you British Hills for the invitation and the hospitality, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to take some students there at some point.

Has anyone else visited British Hills? How was it?