raising a traveling tribe: enrolling kids in a {different} school system

by Tina on August 19, 2013

in Denmark, family, Morocco, Moving Abroad, Raising a Traveling Tribe

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School has started here again in Denmark and maybe it has for many of your kids as well.  It is usually around this time every year that I become more aware of the differences between our US school system and the one of our host country, though sometimes even within the same country school systems can vary widely.  Many of my friends have told me horror stories of sending their kids to local schools and the agonizing pain of watching their kids struggle through new cultural norms.  In Spain, kids might fear getting beat up on the playground and feel a constant pressure to look perfect.  In France, the teachers are rumored to be downright mean at times to any student who does not excel and I’ve even heard from some parents that a child might even be called stupid, though I cannot verify whether that story was true or not.

During our time in Morocco, the kids were expected to sit in their seats and not move or talk for most of the day.  Lunch included a quick bite, and if they were lucky, a five minute recess where they could run around the courtyard before returning to their seats for a few more hours of memorization.  At times I wondered if we were making the right choice for our kids by sending them to a Moroccan school rather than a private international school, especially when my daughter came home telling me that the kids wouldn’t leave her hair alone and had stolen another one of her erasers.  And I nearly pulled them out of their school when Hailey told us that one of her teachers had hit her when she didn’t answer a question correctly.  But instead, I learned to put her hair up when she went to school and kept her school supplies basic.  I also spoke with the principal about the physical abuse and the teacher was fired the next day (and my kids were never hit again.)

It wasn’t all bad, though.  In fact, we have discovered through many conversations with parents raising their kids in a variety of countries that even though every system has it’s flaws, each one of them has it’s high points as well.  For example, some days Hailey misses her very special teacher from Morocco and the handwriting my kids had was insane!  (Thanks to hours spent every week practicing their cursive because who would ever want to print in French?!)

Here in Denmark, I find it a little unnerving that kids are not regularly tested, but the Danes believe it helps kids stay more focused on learning for the long haul rather than memorizing something for a test and forgetting it five minutes later.  And this year in 6th grade Hailey has a three hour cooking lesson, though she is a little sad to be giving up the swim lessons she had every Friday in 5th.  In 3rd grade, Parker is starting English class and he just went on a three day trip to the woods with his class.  They have art, woodwork, long periods of gym class, and so many more electives that are quickly disappearing in many systems around the world.

In the end, we believe that enrolling our children in local schools helps them learn the language and more importantly, helps them feel at home in our host country.  Our kids are not on vacation or having a little fling here in Denmark.  This is their home and we really wanted them to be able to have national friends rather than always feeling like outsiders.  One small disclaimer I will say is this, if kids are going to be moved around frequently, which is the case for many families working with the military or embassies, I do not recommend enrolling them in local schools.  I believe there has to be a deep sense of “buy in” for kids.  There is no reason for them to suffer through months of language acquisition only to be pulled out a few months later.

What about you?  What do you think about the idea of enrolling kids in local schools versus private international schools?  Have you experienced any of the advantages or disadvantages of a different school system?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Maja August 19, 2013 at 1:06 pm

We live in Norway and my kids love going to their norwegian local school. The german private school in Oslo costs a lot of money and is far away. I would need a better paid job and in addition I had to work in Oslo. No thanks. All the friends of the kids are in the local school, so thats quite cool. The norwegian school is not bad, the teachers are great and in my eyes the norwegian school is the better one. Discipline is not that important! :)

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Kelleyn August 19, 2013 at 1:35 pm

My children prefer The school system in Europe compared to the states. They like the shorter school day and the freedom they have on the playground. Their also seems to be more respect between teacher and student in that their are not so many of the stupid rules that we have in the states. We had only one issue with my son getting a bloody nose in Switzerland because he was being teases by the other students for being an American despite him speaking perfect German. The principal took care of it!

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Tina August 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm

@Maja Yeah, I think Scandinavians are on to something. The schools are pretty awesome and my kids love it, too!

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Tina August 19, 2013 at 1:58 pm

@Kelleyn Yes, the freedom is great, even though it was hard for me to get used to at first!

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Lorena August 19, 2013 at 2:22 pm

What a great post, Tina! It really got me thinking about the future. In Bolivia the local education system has very, very low standarts, so we enroled Rodrigo in the “Franco Boliviano” (French International School) and we are really happy with the decision. He had never studied French before and the first weeks he struggled with that, but 8 months later the little guy answers “oui” and “d’acord” when I ask him to do something, ha! They have a veggie garden and a kitchen (they recently baked bread for the parents to have breakfast at school the next day!), and kids of many different countries attend the school, which is fantastic. He is also more lively and participative, and we are suspecting that he was being bullied in his school in Madrid. I guess we will stick to the French School in our future postings, but I also think no school is identical to the other, even if they belong to the same system, so we’ll see what future brings… :)

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Celena August 19, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Thanks for your post- it is very fitting today! My husband and I are thinking of moving back to Copenhagen and are debating the international school/Danish school thing. I appreciate your insight.

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Janice Wyatt August 19, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Well said/written, and very insightful! I agree that if you’re in your host country for a shorter amount of time (2-3 years), the International private schools are the better choice given the language issues. But if you’re there for a longer amount of time the advantages of learning the language and developing local friendships far outweigh the cons.

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Victoria August 19, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Great discussion blog post.

We’ve done the local Dutch school system, international English school and now a US school. He attended the local Dutch school for 4 years and it helped my son to have the most perfect local accent Dutch, was fun, easy going and the children were not pressured to start reading and writing at too young an age. On the downside, there was always an ‘Us and Them’ feel – my son was one of 3 English children at the school. The last year he was pretty tough on him and he was very excluded from birthday parties and playdates. His friend was severely bullied without any real help from the teaching staff.

The International school was wonderful, welcoming and we felt as a family so happy there (sadly it was for just a few months). My son loved it.

Now at a US school (IB program). Love the stimulating and challenging curriculum and dedicated teachers. Hate that the recess is only at lunchtime for 20 minutes outside and after 15 minute lunch break – no morning or afternoon break. Children are not meant to sit still, focus and concentrate for such long periods. No wonder so many are diagnosed with ADHD these days – they have no time to burn off any energy outdoors.

If we were to relocate again (to a non-English speaking country), my preference would be for a international school, particularly as my son would be a teenager then.

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Tina August 20, 2013 at 10:45 am

@Lorena I am so happy to hear that your little Rodrigo is so well adjusted and has found such a special place to learn! I can just hear him speaking French and I love it! Do you speak Spanish with him at home? I hope you will continue to have great success with the French system, but so true about every school having to be judged along the way. We have a French International School here in Denmark too… hint, hint! :-)

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Tina August 20, 2013 at 10:45 am

@Celena Oh, good! I’m glad it was helpful! Feel free to e-mail me if I can help in any other way!

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Tina August 20, 2013 at 10:47 am

@Janice Yes, but doesn’t the embassy try to also help families experience the local culture/language as much as possible? Some of our friends here were offered Danish courses.

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Tina August 20, 2013 at 10:53 am

@Victoria Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! I’m so sorry to hear about the bullying your son’s friend dealt with. We dealt with that a lot more in Morocco, but were very thankful that the teachers really took our kids under their wings and treated them like their own. I don’t think it would have stayed that way as they go older, though. I’m very thankful that the school here is adamant that no child can hold a party and invite kids from school without inviting all of them. Our kids are included in everything and made quick friends. They have a strict no-bullying policy and are very watchful over it.

If you move when a child is a teenager, it is almost unfair, unless there are very special circumstances, to enroll them in a local school. Moving a teenager overseas for the first time isn’t something I would generally recommend anyways, simply because it’s just too hard on them. (Unless they are going back to somewhere they are familiar or already speak the local language.)

Maybe others would disagree though?

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I Love Gifting August 20, 2013 at 1:48 pm

What a coincidence Tina! My next column in The Copenhagen Post touches on the same topic. Though my dilemma was more about having an early start versus a solid foundation. After a year in the Danish kindergarten, we’ve enrolled my daughter into an international pre-school because right now Denmark is a pit stop for us, not a final destination. The international school is working out very well for her and we’re glad we made the switch.

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Tina August 24, 2013 at 8:21 am

@I Love Gifting So glad to hear that it’s working out well for her! Sometimes the path is not always direct!

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Jackie February 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm

It is such a hard decision, but we (so far) have been so pleased with our kids studying at a local Moroccan school. We feel like it is such a beautiful and huge gift we can give them to learn languages when they are so young! (My kids are 6, 4, 2). It has not been without problems, and sometimes it’s hard not really knowing or understanding what they are doing or learning at school, but our kids are happy here and really see it as their home because of their relationships at school.

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Sophie April 13, 2014 at 9:26 am

Agreed with Jackie about not knowing what the kids are doing at school. We are French and have been living in Australia for 6 years and have decided to enroll our kids to the local Aussie school. They absolutely love it. It looks similar to the scandinavian system, small groups, plenty of recess and art/sport activities. The only problem is that they don’t have text books so we don’t know what the lessons are about.They also take very few notes (they’re 6 and 8 y/o). Communication about the curriculum is very succint. We are possibly moving to Copenhagen soon. As much as I want my kids to fit in, etc. I think I will put them in the French school this time, just to be able to follow better what they’re doing and also to be able to help with homework.
Love reading your blog btw, very good insight and good preparation for us before our big move.

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