Thursday, October 27, 2016

Finding a school and community in a foreign country

We have gotten a quite a few inquiries over the past month or so regarding schooling abroad, so we would like to address the subject as best we can. The first step is choosing the city where you'd like to live. This is important, for your new city abroad will be more like entering a relationship than you might realize. For us, finding a walkable city with character, other expats and access to modern comforts were important factors. During our road trip to Argentina we narrowed down our top places to live as a family to a handful of locations. Understand though, there are many other towns outside of this list that might be a better choice for different circumstances:
Granada and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua 
Cartagena, Medellin and Filandia, Colombia 
Chachapoyas, Peru
Cafayate and Maipu, Argentina 
Boquete, Panama 
Playa del Carmen and Guanajuato*, Mexico (see below)

   We realize there are other wonderful places out there like Costa Rica, Chile and Ecuador to name a few. However, for our circumstances as a family, the above short list represented clear standouts for us. We have experience with each of these locations with exception of Guanajuato, Mexico. We met several people who have lived in Guanajuato for years and spoke highly of the cute, safe, and colorful hillside community. Regardless of the city you choose, we recommend linking up with people in the city prior to going there. On many social media sites there are "Expat" groups that provide excellent insight and recommendations on the areas you might be interested in visiting.
   As a foreigner you could take your child to most public schools in Latin America and drop him or her off for the day without issue. In fact, we spoke with some long term (5 years on the road) French travelers in Argentina and they routinely entered their kids into public schools so that mom and dad could have time off. They were never denied access to school and in most cases the schools asked if they could let their kids stay longer. The schools saw foreign kids as an enriching event for the classes. Public schools in Central America are equally as open, however if you want a decent education than you may want to choose a private school. This is not because private schools have better teachers it is because the public schools are literally bursting at the seams. For example, it is quite often the case where a class consists of 50 or more students per teacher. We have even heard of a school near us where a teacher had 70 students in a classroom designed for 20. Under this weight of humanity nobody benefits and is quite depressing to see and one can only imagine how depressing it is to actually attend. Contrast that to our daughters private school where the average class size is just 12 students with a fully bi-lingual curriculum at $150 a month per student.  
   Obviously some places are better than others and which city you embrace is ultimately your choice. Just remember, choose the wrong city and the entire adventure turns to a nightmare. For us, we wanted our kids to experience something totally different, with less stress, and with the added benefit of learning another language. Having found a city where we parents, and our daughters can thrive is an inexplicably good feeling. Shoot for the stars when selecting your next city. Why not? If you are leaving anyway, might as well make it a dream come true!
   Okay now allow me to gripe a bit, hopefully for your benefit. Not all expats are burnouts. We have met a lot of very successful parents at our school, from practicing physicians, chefs, videographers and so on. We have spoken about the stresses many children face back in the modern world with real examples from people we know. We fathers question the sanity of it all. We never had the mountains of homework the kids have today, and we turned out alright. Some parents rationalize the stress load by saying it is different now, and their kids need to know more. For them I say, "Adios" and is one of the many reasons why we left the modern world to begin with. It is as if some parents can't see beyond their own stressed out life to see their child, in the most beautiful time of their lives, childhood. My physician buddy works two months a year in the U.S. and lives the other 10 magnificent months over here with his appreciative wife and kids. He rearranged his life so that he could live and is now the envy of his colleagues. There are too many children burning out by the time they hit college which is precisely the moment one shouldn't be burning out. After all, nobody ever asks for your middle school GPA when you get older. Children deserve a break as much as the parents. Stepping back, taking a year or two off so that you can visit a country and reconnect is the best therapy a family can do. Now I am getting off my pulpit.
   Prior to leaving the U.S. check with your school administrators to see if your child wants to continue their curriculum on-line. This would mitigate any retesting upon re-enrollment if you choose to go back to the U.S. Also there are a ton of on-line learning sites that are cheap and really good in case you like a community but the schools are not the best. We homeschooled for a year while we were on the road. Though my wife didn't prefer homeschooling our kids really learned a lot and tested right back to where they were supposed to be when we got back to Texas. Where there is a will, there is a way. Remember to clearly identify what you are looking for in a community abroad. Do you want yoga or cafes or open spaces or big trees with monkeys? These are the type of questions that need to come first, and when answered truthfully and from the heart, all else will fall into place.
School kids on the Selva Negra farm. 
School kids in Granada celebrating the anniversary of a community library opened by generous expats. How's that for positively impacting the world? 

Students at a cyber cafe learning how the world and the internet works.

Girls caring for a student who wasn't feeling well. In the states the nurse would send the child home, here their friends help her feel better. I am happy that my daughter not only saw this but participated in the caring .

Kids are wonderful the world over. 

Friday morning meetings are important times to regroup. 

School function on the shores of lake Nicaragua in dry season.

Alice in Wonderland play for the end of year performance.

End of the play, the kids received standing ovations.

A wonderful privately run community school in an extremely poor barrio neglected by government for years. This is Education Plus which nurtures little ones with food for the body and the mind. Please consider donating

The happiest kids.

European volunteers helping children at Education Plus. 

Consider volunteering abroad on your next vacation as a way to pay it forward. Warning: you will receive more than you give and experience random acts of kindness, you may even smile uncontrollably.
Carlin from Germany volunteering as a teacher at Education Plus. 

Charlie the dog wanted in on the picture too. 


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