Finding the right school for our kids during our family’s year abroad factored heavily into our choice of location. For a number of reasons, we ended up choosing a private, bilingual school. Nevertheless, once we were in Monteverde, I found myself eyeing the cute neighborhood public school in Cerro Plano. I wondered how our kids’ experience would have been different had they gone there. Certainly they would have learned even more Spanish.

Fortunately, our friends, the Marx-McGill family, just got back from a semester in Monteverde where their kids, Eli and Jasper, attended the public elementary and secondary schools. Sarah, the kids’ mom, generously answered my questions* about their experience:

KATIE: Tell us about your kids–their names, grades, and comfort levels with Spanish before you left for Central America?

SARAH: I have two sons, Eli and Jasper, ages 17 and 12.  My older son’s comfort level with Spanish was quite high.  When he was younger, he had attended school in French for three years, plus he had taken four years of Spanish and traveled to Spain, so he knew that he could navigate the world in Spanish.  My younger son was in a completely different situation.  He hadn’t studied any Spanish at all and had never gone to school in a language other than English.  Since I am fluent in Spanish and have taught it on and off throughout my life, I was able to start working with him on basic vocab and phrases in the two or three months prior to our departure.  He and I also attended an intensive language course in Guatemala for two weeks before arriving in Costa Rica, which I would highly recommend as it took some of the edge off the first shock of not understanding what people were saying to him all day long.

KATIE: Did you have any particular academic goals for their semester abroad in Costa Rica, or were you mostly focused on immersion?

SARAH: We really went into the experience focused on language acquisition and cultural immersion.  We weren’t particularly concerned about the content for other subject areas.  Both my sons said the academic level at their schools wasn’t quite what they were used to back home, especially in math and science, but for us this really wasn’t a concern. What the boys gained in language skills and cultural experience was way more valuable than anything they lost!

KATIE: Did you do any homeschooling to complement their time at school? 

SARAH: We did do some homeschooling for my younger son.  The school day for his elementary school was quite short, 7-11:30am most days, so this allowed us plenty of time for an on-line algebra class in the afternoons.

KATIE: What did a typical day at school look like for Jasper and Eli?

SARAH: Elementary school includes grades Pre-K to 6 in Costa Rica, and high school includes grades 7 to 12. We had one child in each type of school and their school days looked quite different.  Elementary school for Jasper started at 7am and ended by 11:30am or 12:30pm depending on the day. The elementary school day included breakfast, lunch and two short recesses along with rotating classes that lasted about an hour each.

The secondary school my older son attended allowed students to graduate with a certificate in a “professional skill” along with a high school diploma – professional choices included accounting, ecological tourism, and restaurant and hotel skills. Eli’s school day started at 7am and ended at 4:30pm each day.  The students had academic classes on two and a half days of the week and professional skills classes on the other two and half.  Academic classes included math, English, Spanish, civics, physics, and history, along with an optional music class.

Even though Eli’s school day was rather long, he did not find it particularly stressful. In fact, since there were no extra-curricular activities after school, in many ways the school day ended up seeming shorter to our family than school days back home.  Lunch was included for free in the schools (along with a free breakfast at the elementary school) and both of my sons commented on how much better the food was than in their schools back home!

“Going to school in Costa Rica was not only a good cultural experience, but also a great language experience. Everyone was very welcoming.”

–Jasper (age 12)

KATIE: How did teachers respond to your kids? 

SARAH: The teachers at my younger son’s elementary school couldn’t possibly have been more welcoming of him and of our whole family.  They were truly wonderful to work with!  We had purposefully chosen a very small elementary school with approximately 50-60 kids in grades Pre-K through 6.  This meant that it was very easy for my son to find his way around and to get to know teachers and students, even in his first few days.

In general, the attitude of Costa Rican elementary teachers towards their students reminded me much more of preschool and kindergarten teachers in the US.  They greeted the children with hugs and smiles each day and seemed to see them as members of an extended family as opposed to just students.

Eli’s description of his teachers: “In general, I couldn’t have asked for a friendlier staff. They seemed to take genuine joy in having me there and giving me a great experience.” His teachers modified assignments for him, spent time helping him with his Spanish, and invited him to help out in the English and math classrooms so that he could gain more exposure to other kids.

Jasper grad.png
Jasper is joined by his family–Eli, Brian and Sarah–at his sixth-grade graduation in Costa Rica.

KATIE: How about your sons’ peers? 

Our experience in Costa Rica was that people of all ages were unfailingly kind.  Students went out of their way to introduce themselves to both boys beginning on the very first day of school and included them in activities right from the start. Soccer at recess was a highlight for my younger son from week one, and my older son was eventually invited to join an after-school soccer club once the rainy season let up.

KATIE: Did your kids participate in any extra-curricular activities? 

For the most part, there were not really extra-curricular activities sponsored by the public schools. Private club soccer was the main sport and both boys were easily able to join teams. I was able to get involved pretty quickly with the parent group at the elementary school, helping to plan sixth-grade graduation and repainting the school. Participating in these activities was a great way to give back to the community and to get to know other parents as well.

KATIE: What was the biggest challenge your family faced with your kids’ schooling in Costa Rica?

Apart from finding school uniforms part way through the school year (which was pretty darn hard!) and a slight delay in getting Eli enrolled, most things went really well.  I can imagine that if my high-school-age son hadn’t already spoken Spanish quite well it would have been harder. There are not any Spanish-as-a-Second Language services available that I know of and they did expect Eli to jump in and get to work academically right away.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Costa Rican public school year and the American public school year cover different months – March to December in Costa Rica as opposed to September to June in the US.  When we arrived in Costa Rica in September, both my children had to repeat the end of a grade they had already completed in the US, though this worked fine for us given our goal of language learning.

KATIE: What was the most pleasant surprise? 

SARAH: The lovely, welcoming attitude of the staff at both schools and especially at the elementary school!  We couldn’t have felt more included, and appreciated, even arriving half-way through the school year and needing some additional accommodations to get the kids settled and started.  Without any exaggeration, I can say that I felt like part of an extended family during our time at Jasper’s school and that I miss the teachers and staff there every day!

“I had an absolutely wonderful experience with the schools in Costa Rica. Kids and teachers alike were super helpful and friendly, and happy to have me there as a part of their school. My Spanish benefited hugely in terms of fluency, accent, and colloquial language, things you can’t really learn in a classroom.”

–Eli (age 17)

KATIE: A common misconception on the internet is that Costa Rican public schools won’t allow foreign kids admission in their public schools. You clearly debunked this myth. Was enrolling your kids complicated and do you have advice for families who wish to follow in your footsteps? 

SARAH: Enrolling my kids was actually not very complicated at all.  I had heard the same rumors about Americans not being allowed to enroll in public schools, so I started phoning schools as soon as we began to consider a sabbatical in Costa Rica.  All five schools I spoke with gave me the same information and requested the following for enrollment:

  • birth certificate
  • passport (all assured me a tourist visa was okay)
  • grades from their previous school (transcript)
  • immunization record.

Once we arrived, they asked for proof of residence, which was not hard to get from my landlord, and if I were to do it again, I’d bring social security cards.

I would certainly recommend that parents phone Costa Rican schools ahead of time. If you don’t speak Spanish, you will probably need someone else to make these calls for you, since few of the staff I encountered spoke fluent English.  All of the schools I spoke with initially encouraged me to send my kids to the private bilingual schools in town, but once I told them that I didn’t want a bilingual school—that I wanted a Spanish-only school—and that I was quite prepared to offer my children whatever help they needed with their Spanish at home, none of the schools were anything but helpful!

KATIE: What advice would you offer to families considering schooling options for their older children during a family gap year or semester abroad? Are there particular question they should be asking themselves?

SARAH: Mostly what I would say is, if you are even considering the public schools and if your kids are excited about learning Spanish, go for it!  If public school doesn’t work out, there are almost always private or homeschooling options you can explore later. The cultural experience for both my kids was amazing.  And while they may have been lost and confused at times, they both gained tremendous self-confidence from realizing what they could do and accomplish even when their language abilities were significantly curtailed.

KATIE: It sounds like your family had a really rewarding experience. Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us, Sarah!

SARAH: Pura vida!

*Some of Sarah’s responses have been edited for length.