Finding the right school for your child is possibly the most important decision you will make in planning your family’s adventure abroad. It will likely determine where you live and how happy your kids are. And, as we all know, if the kids are happy, then the adults are often happy.
Questions to Consider When Choosing a School
At first, the process of choosing a school can feel overwhelming, but here are a few important questions to get you started:
- How important is it that my kid keep right on track academically during our time abroad?
- Is having my child learn the local language my biggest goal for the year?
- Do I see this language learning happening in a full immersion environment (likely a public school) or am I expecting she will receive supports as a second-language learner (likely private, unless you find yourself in a highly developed country that has experience with immigrants or other language learners).
- Is it important to me that my child is immediately happy at school, or are we willing to go undergo some emotional turmoil for the first few months as my child adapts to a new school environment/language with the prospect that he will come out having learned more in the end.
- How comfortable are we with with more traditional pedagogy (ie. a lot of drilling and memorizing)? Limited teaching resources or books? A short school day (the case in many public schools around the world)?
- Do I have the time/interest in homeschooling?
- Am I willing/able to invest financially in my child’s school year abroad?
As I discuss in the financial planning portion of this website, school decisions sometimes defy the budgetary expectations you might have for a country. For example, if my family had gone to Spain for a year, we likely would have sent our kids to free public school. Instead, we opted to spend our year in Central America, in part due to the lower cost of living. The only trick: after digging deeper into our school options in Costa Rica, we decided it was important to us to send our kids to a private school. As a result, the vast majority of our annual budget is being spent on tuition. So, given the whole picture, is life here in Costa Rica still more affordable for us than it would have been in Spain? Probably, but before we wander too far down the path of finances, let me share with you how we picked the right school for our kids.
My Family’s School Search Story
For a moment, my husband Tim and I considered homeschooling, but he and I both wanted and needed to work during our year abroad, so homeschooling wasn’t very viable for us. Besides, exposing our kids to Spanish was perhaps our primary goal for the year, and doing that without a school as our base would be difficult.
We greatly admired the stories of families who enrolled their kids in public schools abroad. What better way to learn the language? But the more we read, these experiences (particularly those in less developed countries) sometimes involved bullying, or even frustrated teachers who lacked compassion for kids who weren’t fluent in the local language. I was reminded of public schools I had visited in Tanzania, where corporal punishment was still the norm and teachers were paid so poorly they often didn’t show up to work. Perhaps this full-immersion experience would work for our kids when they were older, but at 6 and 9, we worried it would cause them too much stress. In the end, we accepted that this would be our year of private education.
Finally, location and landscape factored into our decision-making process. The fact is, we’re pale-skinned, nature-loving people who aren’t made for life on the beach, though we do love hiking in mountains and forests.
Our Final Decision: Monteverde Friends School
In the end, Costa Rica’s Monteverde region, encompassing several villages straddling the continental divide and home to a world-famous cloud forest reserve (as well as a few private schools), started to look like a great match for our goals. Six months before our departure, Tim and I had the good fortune to make a scouting trip to Costa Rica. We spent full days observing at two Monteverde schools—the Monteverde Friends School, and the Cloud Forest School.
We really enjoyed our visits to both schools. The Cloud Forest School, known in Spanish as Centro de Educación Creativa, is located on a beautiful 106-acre campus with primary and secondary forest. There was much that we admired about the school: a full half of the day is taught in Spanish, the focus on environmental and placed-based education was quite apparent with students working in the garden in one class and learning bird calls in another, and kids played hard. This last point was particularly fun to observe as we explored the trails on campus and spotted students on their own in the forest, climbing trees and hauling dead wood around to build yet another fort.
We also enjoyed our visit to the Monteverde Friends School (MFS). Founded in the 1950s by a group of American Quakers who were seeking a less militaristic society, MFS, like the Cloud Forest School, is now a bilingual school that serves a population of mostly local kids with some visiting foreign students. Strengths of MFS included the small class sizes; a strong sense of community; teacher retention; the teaching of Quaker values including non-violence, simplicity, and and environmental justice; and the regular mixing of young and old students at daily assemblies and end-of-the-day clean up.
Though the decision was a difficult one, we were delighted when we settled on the Monteverde Friends School. With this decision, we finally knew where we would spend our year.
Find yourself intrigued by our story, but still wondering how you could possibly afford either the time or money to take your family abroad? Check out my page exploring costs.