At Kunshan American School, Carol Santos draws on a depth of experience to instill equity and understanding in teachers and students alike.
• Columbia University, Master of Education
• University of Pennsylvania, Doctor candidate in Educational Leadership
Carol has served in many well-known elite schools in the United States as principals, deputy principals and other leadership and management positions, including the top ten boarding high schools in the United States, Groton School, and Miss Porter’s School, an elite girls’ high school. In addition, Carol has served as the principal of a large public school in the United States for many years. Ms. Santos has extremely rich leadership and management experience in elite schools and large schools, as well as educational experience in cultivating students’ personalized development and success.
Even as a little girl, Carol Santos, the founding head of Kunshan American School in Shanghai, gravitated towards education. “I was that kid who went to school and came home and played school,” she says. “Some kids play with dolls or video games. I literally played school.”
So when an opportunity to create a school entirely from scratch in China presented itself, she was thrilled and excited. Dipont Education, a pioneering company in Chinese international education, was launching the school in a bustling province just west of China’s biggest city, Shanghai. Santos would be tasked with developing the curriculum, hiring staff, and creating the school’s philosophy. It was both a daunting prospect and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
With an established reputation in China, Dipont presented a perfect match for Santos, an experienced educator who also happened to have an appetite for challenge. Over the past twenty years, the company has set up almost thirty programs working with schools across China and has established four K-through 12 independent schools. It partners with leading British institutions like King’s College School in Wimbledon to offer a blended education to Chinese students planning to study overseas. Santos’ school, Huaer Collegiate in Kunshan, would be the first Dipont school to prepare students to follow a curriculum with distinctive American elements.
The company’s ethos chimed with Santos’ personal convictions, honed after decades in secondary education and leadership. For her, global education is the ideal education for any student. Dipont Education originated in China, and the company’s strong Chinese connections ground it in local culture while its vision for contemporary education aims to integrate the best of Chinese and Western practices. “It truly is two worlds coming together,” Santos says.
The Impact of Mentors
Santos has spent much of her career in teaching and leadership positions in top private US schools. Over the past 25 years, she taught at Westover, a private girls’ school in Middlebury, Connecticut, Groton School in Massachusetts, and at Miss Porter’s School, a renowned girls’ boarding school also in Connecticut. Most recently she was head of Centennial Academy, a public day school in Atlanta, Georgia, where she spearheaded efforts to improve the students’ academic performance and embrace a culture of excellence. Her dedication to young people is underpinned by her own early experiences. Although she was a good student, she says, “I didn’t always feel good about being a good student. And I didn’t always feel good about being a black girl. And that had to do with experiences in school and about school.”
Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Connecticut that was socio-economically mixed, Santos was targeted by others because of her high grades. Later, she formed part of a generation of students involved in “busing”— a policy of bringing black and economically disadvantaged students to schools in white neighborhoods, to encourage integration. Santos ended up being the only African-American student in her class. “We were very much aware that the families who attended that school didn’t want us to be there. As young people we were like, ‘We’re going to stick together.’ But I ended up on my own and isolated.”
As she went through the system, though, individual teachers offered a helping hand at pivotal moments, and helped to guide her path. When she moved to high school she initially decided to take less challenging classes so as not to attract unwanted attention and another socially disconnected existence in school. But one day, an English teacher overheard her in the corridor telling another student she would not study Shakespeare. The teacher was astonished that a talented student would make that choice and confronted her—ultimately calling her mom to voice her concerns. “The next thing you know my whole schedule was changed and I was in all these advanced college prep classes,” Santos says. She went on to study business, earning a degree in economics at the University of Pennsylvania and has a Master’s in Education from Columbia University. (She is also undertaking a doctorate in Educational Leadership at UPenn.) “That teacher really changed the trajectory of my life.”
Speaking on screen from her office in Kunshan, Santos expresses herself thoughtfully, giving weight and meaning to every word. Leaving her home in Georgia was not a straightforward choice. She has two children who stayed in the US, a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, but her son in particular urged her to seize the opportunity. She misses them a lot – and hopes it will be possible to return for her son’s graduation, in May. “He may have an online graduation and if he has an online graduation at least I’ll feel as though I have the same experience as the other parents. I won’t feel so far away.”
In spring 2019 Santos traveled to China, meeting colleagues and beginning to assemble a team. It was a daunting task, which she likens to building a plane while also flying it. The process was facilitated by an excellent, smooth-running leadership team. “That was a blessing, that we could trust each other,” Santos recalls. “I think that probably is a key element.”
Moving to a new culture brings its benefits and drawbacks. Santos has acquired a love of Chinese cuisine – noodles, and stews in which meat falls off the bone. But if you ask what is lacking, the answer is simple. “I’m from New England, very close to New York, we’ve got good pizza where I’m from,” she says. “I have to tell you I’ve been missing pizza since I moved to Atlanta because their pizza is not as good as it is up north in the States. But their pizza is better than Chinese pizza.”
As an American woman heading an establishment in China, Santos has brought fresh ideas to overseas schooling. Typically, in private international schools girls wear skirts or dresses as part of the uniform. But she pushed for the idea that girls could wear pants, sending photos of family friends to suppliers to convince them the right cut was possible. Despite its novelty, when winter fell, parents were clamoring. “I’ll tell you the parents and the girls are like, ‘It’s cold! Where are the pants? We want these pant options.’”
She finds her Chinese peers inordinately polite and respectful—sometimes excessively so. When colors for the school uniform were being discussed, Santos made her choice and presented it to the school’s leaders. She soon sensed that something was amiss. “They gave me a palette and I made a choice, ‘Okay, that one.’ I could have picked that one or another one within that shade or family. It really was not that big of a deal to me.”
She could tell they felt uncomfortable about openly disputing her choice. But they didn’t need to be. “All they had to say was, we like this shade better than that one because it looks better on Chinese skin. I could tell it was a heavy thing to them and I think more so because they were concerned about offending me.”
A Warm Welcome
for Newly Arrived Staff
In September 2020 Huaer Collegiate School, Kunshan, opened its doors to nearly 600 new students, ranging from ages 2 to 15; the higher grades will fill through natural progression. In a video of the school, Santos sings out, “Good morning,” and the children shout their greeting back. “I am so happy to be here this morning and to see all of your lovely faces,” she says.
The welcome she receives on a daily basis delights her. “Because I’m the principal and head of the school, in US terms I’m like the president of the United States. They think I’m a superstar. If I walk down the hall, you should see how excited they get,” she says. “I just love them.”
It helped that Dipont offered extensive support when Santos arrived, guiding her through bureaucratic processes and helping her find a place to live. (She opted for a hotel rather than an apartment, just eight minutes’ drive from the school.) Even as Santos boarded the plane, she was receiving text messages advising her to make sure her luggage went all the way through to Shanghai. “They just take good care of you, even once you’re here,” she says.
Like many teachers who come to work in international schools, she doesn’t speak the language, but says she has found Chinese culture to be warmly welcoming. As a foreigner she inspires curiosity when she is out on the streets, with parents urging their kids to try out their English with ‘Hello.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by other expatriate teachers. Amy Loveday Hu, Head of Kindergarten at another Dipont school, Nanwai King’s College School, in the neighboring city of Wuxi, recalls a similar experience when she first flew to China in 2004. She bought a return ticket but never used the second part. “I found everybody so very welcoming. I wasn’t scared that I didn’t understand.”
Covid-19: An Unexpected Challenge
The arrival of Covid-19 swiftly imposed a need for resilience in the new school leader. She had gone back to Georgia to see family in January 2020 when reports of a new virus began to hit the news. It was meant to be a short holiday, but Santos found herself stuck in the US, conducting business and running meetings remotely. “I wouldn’t have guessed that I would be there for seven months,” she recalls. “Day one turned into day two turned into day three. It was seven months that I was in the US. And we forged on.”
Now she is firmly set on next steps. The school has a progressive curriculum and is committed to helping scholars flourish both within the classroom and beyond it, aiming to produce young adults who are healthy and globally aware. Its mission is to foster resilience, adaptability, ethical behavior and enlightened communication between Chinese and English cultures. These are qualities the school defines as keys to success, and its leaders want to encourage them not just among students but also in its staff.
Santos’ love of her students is clear — “they’re all special to me,” she points out. She hopes that the school will nurture the positive qualities already nascent in many of the young people she works with. One boy is determined to go to Stanford and develop a cure for Alzheimer’s. He turned down a formal leadership role in the school because he wanted other students to have their chance. “His character is so strong already,” Santos observes. “Clearly he’s a leader and already an active role model for his peers; and he’s already someone who’s an ambassador of the school.”
Santos encouraged another young woman to take part in developing the school’s art curriculum. They were initially introduced when the girl got in trouble for breaking school rules, but Santos understood that kids break rules for a reason. “As educators we know there’s usually something underneath that.” She looked for a way to connect, and when she realized she had a passion for art, invited the student to meetings with Idyllwild Arts Academy faculty where she could share her thoughts on the new art program. “I’m really looking forward to seeing her and what she becomes when she graduates from the school both in terms of her talent as an artist—but more so her voice, her voice as an artist and budding leader,” Santos says.
A Dynamic Community
Internationalized schools like Dipont’s offer unique learning experiences by immersing students in a hybrid environment, says Stephen Keown, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a senior leader at RDFZ King’s College School in the city of Hangzhou of eastern China. “You can very much see that our students are exposed to international personalities; and that exposure, even by itself, changes the character—the delivery and the environment—which is very enriching for them,” he says. “That, in turn, is really defining of the young people and how they develop as young adults.”
Since joining Dipont, Santos says her view of what global education entails has evolved, and it continues to develop as she learns more about her students. Essentially, though, she thinks it involves full immersion in another culture than the dominant one, and in which individuals are found in situations where, “everybody is giving up something and gaining from each other almost equally.”
Beneath Santos’ vision for Kunshan school is a wish to ensure that her young scholars learn how to contribute to the school’s culture and take ownership of it. In other words, becoming leaders in their own right. “Inclusion, opportunity, possibility, attention to all, to all scholars, all students,” are key, she says. “Meeting them where they are—but still keeping the same bar high no matter where one is at the time.”