Recently, I was asked by an international company that offers support to expats (people who are living in a country other than their own by their own choice) to submit an article focused on United States expats and the important task of choosing a school for their children overseas. Since I have readers who are either already expats or are planning to move their families overseas, I thought I would share the core points of the article here.
Each family’s situation and needs will be important factors as they embark on this quest. I hope the information in the following article will be of help to them, and perhaps of interest to other readers.
Choosing An Overseas School for Your U. S. Expat Child
by Paul L. Maxfield, Ph.D.
When my Brenda and I first left the United States and moved to Honduras in 1981, it was considered by our American friends as rare, exotic, and adventurous. (Actually, some of them thought it was crazy.) Today, most Americans would still consider it exotic and adventurous. But rare? Not anymore.
It is estimated by the U. S. State Department that approximately 10 million Americans are living in other countries. The advancement of technology and the popular move to remote working have swelled the numbers in recent years.
For United States expats with families, whether planning to move abroad or already living in another country, a major concern is what schooling options are available in the country. As a teacher, principal, and school director in three overseas countries for many years, I have encountered and met with hundreds of families looking for the best schools for their children. There are many aspects to consider. In this article, we will look at the various factors as well as give suggestions as to how to evaluate and make the best schooling decisions for your family. (I will alternate between “child” and “children” for ease of reading.)
YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS
The most important goals are your child’s well-being and success. So, let’s begin there. Let’s look at some initial questions to help you focus and bring clarity to your search for a school. As you later research and evaluate schools, these questions can help guide you through the process.
What are your child’s particular needs educationally?
Do they need a challenging curriculum?
How do they learn best?
Do they thrive in a creative learning atmosphere?
Do they need structure?
What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Do they need extra academic support?
Are there emotional or behavioral issues that need to be considered?
Drawing upon your knowledge of your child and being intentional in pursuing what is best for them will go a long way in finding the right place.
KINDS OF SCHOOLS
Next, let’s look at the typical kinds of schools available for expat children outside the United States. Depending on the country and where you will be located, not all these options may be available.
American Schools: These are schools either associated with the United States Embassy in the country or are private schools that utilize typical United States curricula. Instruction is in English. Classes in learning the local language are a regular part of the classroom experience, with different levels available. Emphasis is on both general and university-preparatory education. Student bodies are comprised of expat children from various countries as well as host country children. American school graduates can enter university in the United States and other countries.
International Schools: These generally use English as the language of instruction. They also offer instruction in the local language. The school generally follows a typical American curriculum but may utilize more international curricula such as the International Baccalaureate, a globally recognized university-preparatory program. Student bodies are comprised of children from many nations. Students should be able to transition to United States schools easily.
Bilingual Schools: These work to provide a quality education in both English and the host language. Emphasis is on learning both languages and in learning some content areas in each language. Your child may learn science in Spanish, for example, but social studies in English. Students should be able to transition to United States schools; however, there may be some challenges as the student will have learned certain content in Spanish and may not have the English vocabulary necessary at first.
Local Private Schools: Classroom instruction is generally in the host language with classes of English included in the curriculum. The English curriculum is geared toward learning English, not toward speakers of English. Students will usually receive little or no content in English, so transitioning to United States schools can be challenging, at least for the first year.
Public Schools: These schools offer the curricula required by the country’s Ministry of Education or similar government entity. Instruction is in the local language and is focused on preparing students with general education as well as preparation for university in the host country. It does not necessarily prepare students to enter university in the United States. The advantage of public schools is the total immersion of language and culture. Transitioning to U. S. schools can be challenging due to being in a very different curriculum. If the stay is brief, the transition should work; if the stay is long, moving to classes solely in English will be a challenge.
Online Schooling or Homeschooling: There are many online options where your child can attend school daily. Many families are experimenting with this option. Some utilize online schooling exclusively, while others combine it with some traditional homeschool methods. Many families who prefer a religious-based education either homeschool their children with materials brought from the United States or utilize an online school. Our grandchildren attend a marvelous online school with exceptional academic instruction and standards as well as an amazing sense of community and interaction. Families utilizing online school options will need to make concerted efforts to connect their children with other kids, whether they be from the host country or are other United States expat children, for social and cultural interactions.
So far, we’ve looked at your children’s needs and the types of schools typically available. Now, let’s turn our attention to researching the schools available in the city or area where you will be moving.
Thanks to modern technology, it is easy to research overseas schools. Every school worth considering will have a website that should offer you general information, photos, curriculum, philosophy, a glimpse sometimes at personnel, and other important information.
The first thing to do is use a search engine to see what schools there are in the area. Type in something like “English schools in Stockholm” or “international schools in New Delhi.” For example, “English schools in Lima” brings up a several links to such schools with their websites listed, as well as very basic information about each. Many times, these searches will include information on local bilingual schools or public and private schools also, even though they are in the host language.
As you search and read school websites, keep in mind what you concluded from asking yourself the questions above and see which schools appeal to you and your children. Dig deep into the websites to get as clear a picture as possible.
Here are topics to be aware of as you read school websites. Not all of these will be important to you, nor will the websites address all of these.
School culture: Basically, this means the way things are done at a school. It can include dress code requirements (uniform or no uniform), religious practices, student behavior norms/discipline, classroom expectations, quality of interactions between teachers/students/parents, cleanliness and campus appearance, general vision of excellence, and anything else that is part of the schools’ life and practices. Inherent in school culture are the quality of communication and shared values of the school community.
Diversity of student body: Are various cultural groups represented? How important is diversity to the leaders of the school? Is there evidence of stereotypical thinking or actions? Does the website show diversity?
Professional and educational levels of teachers: Are teachers United States certified? Are they locally certified? Are staff members well-trained? Are there hints at how the parent community feels about the staff? Does staff receive ongoing professional enrichment?
Local language instruction: How demanding is the curriculum? How many classes per week are in the host language? Are the host language classes taught by native speakers? What are the expectations for expat students? Are separate classes offered for beginners in the language?
Technology: Is technology integrated into the classroom and curriculum? In what ways? What are the expectations technologically for students? What hardware or software would a student need to be successful?
Library services: Is there a physical library? Are children allowed to check out books? Does the school provide any sort of online library service to students?
Extracurricular activities: Does the school participate in inter- or intra-school sports? If so, what sports are available for students? When do sports teams practice? What other extracurricular activities are available?
The Arts: Does the school have a music program? What does it include (band, choir, individual lessons, etc.)? Is music a regular part of the school curriculum? Are there regular art classes? Is there a drama program? What is the overall importance of the arts in school culture?
Reputation: This is probably best researched by talking with people in the community or parents who have their children at the school. Sometimes a school’s website will post awards or achievements or comments by parents or students that will give some clues. What do people think of the school? Does it have an excellent, good, or poor reputation?
Transportation: Does the school provide bus service? Is this an additional cost, and if so, how much is it per month or annually? Ask in which parts of the city the transportation service is provided. (Note: If possible, you will want to choose a school that is generally in the same part of the city as your home. The shorter the school commute or bus rides each day, the better for your children.)
Admissions procedures/testing: What is the application process? Is placement testing required? What tests are used? Is there a waiting list for entry? What documents or information are necessary from the child’s present or past schools?
Daily schedule: What kind of daily schedule can your child expect? How many teachers per day will the child have?
Counseling and support services: Does the school have a counselor? What services does he/she provide?
Rates of student entrance to universities: This is for primarily older students or students who will be completing high school while at an international or American school and plan to enter university in the United States. What percentage of graduates enter university? Are university-credit classes or advanced placement classes available?
Gifted or highly capable students: How are the needs of gifted and talented students met?
Special needs: Are programs available or individual accommodations made for students with special learning needs? If so, what are they?
Homework expectations: How much homework can be child expect? In many cases, more homework is expected in overseas schools than in U.S. schools. It is helpful to know in advance what the expectations are.
School calendar: What is the school calendar? Some countries run a March – November school year, and some run a typical American school calendar: August/September – May/June. Some run variations of both types. Notice when the major school breaks are so you can coordinate any family travel plans.
Accreditation, school associations/networks: Does the school have accreditation from a United States accrediting agency? Is it part of a network of American or international schools? Accreditation requires meeting high standards and maintaining them – so being accountable to the accrediting agency helps to ensure higher quality instruction and school performance.
Sense of community/parent support networks: Can you sense a feeling of positive community from the website or during your campus visit? Are there parent groups who actively support the school through events, programs, etc.? Is there any indication that parents support one another, especially in transition times?
Support of expat students’ needs: Does the school mention meeting the needs of third culture kids (children raised in a culture other than that of their parents) or expat children? Are there any programs or events designed to help such students transition to school as well as to the culture? (Recommended resource: Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Amongst Worlds by Ruth E. Van Reken and David C. Pollock. Available on Amazon.com.
Tuition and Fees: What is the annual tuition? Are there payment plans or discounts for multiple children? Are there other fees that occur during the year?
After you have visited the websites of schools, make a short list of those that seem to be the most likely possibilities. These are the schools you will investigate further through visits to the school, video calls, phone calls, or email communication with the schools.
If possible, make a trip to the country and visit your potential schools in person. Nothing substitutes for an on-site visit to a school where you can see education and community in action. School personnel are accustomed to these visits, so make an appointment and enjoy a tour and a session of asking questions. In addition to the questions above, others will naturally surface as you tour the school.
If you are not able to visit on-site, set up phone or video appointments with the school principal or counselor. At the least, initiate email correspondence to facilitate answering your questions.
Selecting your children’s school is a major decision. It can be a deciding factor of whether a family stays long-term or short-term, and it can have significant impact on the family’s adjustment to their new life.
MAKING THE DECISION
For most parents, once they have communicated thoroughly with the school personnel on their short list schools or visited the schools in person, they instinctively know which school best fits their children and their family. It cannot be overstated that an on-site visit to schools is preferable.
*Keep the children’s needs in the forefront.
* Visit websites and communicate directly with the school personnel.
*Visit the schools if possible.
*Ask all questions that come to mind.
*Weigh all the answers and information.
*Make your decision.
Including your children in as much of this process as possible is advisable, especially if your children are Grades 4 and higher.
Approach the process as an adventure, have fun looking at the possibilities, and enjoy your new experience in the country.
Thanks for joining me for this blog entry.
Until next time.
This is Paul, a Part-Time Expat turned Full-Time
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