International or Local School?

March 12, 2013

Choosing the right school for your child when moving to South Africa is one of your top concerns.

I know this because my rather ancient blogpost Private Schools in Johannesburg is among the top five most read on Joburg Expat. I've written many other posts about choosing a school, but now that we have relocated to the United States, I feel like I should give my readers an update on our kids' transition back into the American school system (I already discussed parts of it here)

Hopefully this will help prospective expats (and not just to South Africa) navigate the treacherous waters of school choice.

As I've told you before, we made a decision to enroll our kids in a private South African school, not the American International School of Johannesburg (AISJ), when we first arrived in South Africa in 2010.

I like to think that we had a ton of good reasons and made a very informed choice but, truth be told, it came down to this: 

It was mid-morning on the first day of our look-see trip. We had just driven by Dainfern College for the third time, going in and out of various surrounding neighborhoods to check out potential homes. Out of curiosity, but mainly to pass the time, I idly asked: "Is that a university or a school?" The kids looked awfully small, but the term "college" threw me off. Our relocation consultant assured us it was a private school with grades going from K-12. "Do we have an appointment?" Noisette wanted to know. "No, just at the American School tomorrow," was her answer.

"Let's make an appointment," we sort of threw out. Just to check off all the boxes and making sure we did our due diligence. We were pretty sure we'd pick the American school. It's what everybody did. Except the location of this one was almost too good to be true, considering we were also sure we'd live in one of the adjacent estates.

By the end of the next day the we had reversed ourselves and settled on Dainfern College. We had seen AISJ without being overly impressed (I later learned the admissions office there has a reputation of doing a poor job, not necessarily reflecting the quality of the school), and we had toured Dainfern College and were blown away. Noisette, in particular, absolutely LOVED being addressed with good awfternoon, Sir as we rounded each corner and bumped into a succession of school-uniformed kids who all greeted us in their South African lilt.

My list of pros and cons was born later. The choice, then and there, was made entirely based on good manners and an accent.

Fast-forward three years later to March 2013. Our kids are now back in the fold of the American school system, albeit a year behind where they would have been had we not moved to South Africa and opted for the local school. They are currently repeating the second semester of the school year they just finished at Dainfern College, which together with the half-year they already repeated moving there, makes up for one grade.

Some of you will be concerned to hear this. Perhaps you'll now stop reading and head straight for the AISJ website, not wanting to entertain any thoughts of sacrificing a school year.

However, if you read on, you will learn that we have absolutely no regrets. I don't think the kids do, either. Our decision for the repeat was NOT based on academics. They are finding the work here very easy, in fact easier than there, and not just because of the grade. This is due to the American way of testing - lots of multiple choice, you are told exactly what will be on the test, and there is not much room at the top for improvement (vs the SA system where an 80% average is considered excellent and anything above truly exceptional). Our kids seem to be rather ahead in terms of independent learning, essay writing, and public speaking, as well as the art of looking after their own extracurricular interests.

Neither was a repeat suggested by the schools here. The kids could have just jumped back into the middle of the next grade, based on their age, without anyone raising any flags (there was some paperwork I had to gather for our 10th grader to make sure he was given the proper credits, and I will elaborate on that process at some later date). It was entirely our choice.

A choice that was based on a few factors. We were trying to make the transition easy, put them in a grade where they weren't always the youngest and smallest (as before our move to SA), and give them plenty of time to find new interests without having to focus too much on school work. But mainly we wanted to give our oldest a chance to start 11th grade from the beginning rather than the middle. This will give him a chance to enroll in the oh-so-important AP classes and have more time to immerse himself in the college application process.

I'm not entirely sold on the merits of AP classes. In fact, some universities have found that students who have taken them do not show any more proficiency in college than the ones who have not. But I figure while we're participants in the rat race of college applications, we will have to play that game, and racking up AP classes is a part of it, like it or not.

The problem with kids transitioning from abroad during high school is that you cannot start AP classes mid-year. At least not at our school here. This would have made Zax lose the entire 11th grade year in terms of AP classes and possibly lessened his chances with universities who look favorably on kids who have six or more. He would also have had to take the SAT and ACT tests right away, and started visiting college campuses, all while learning how to drive. There is also a two-year language requirement that he would have had a hard time fulfilling, though I guess we could have somehow had him test out of that given his German background.

The other problem is your GPA. American schools insist on counting every bit of work during high school towards the average you graduate with, putting an emphasis on completion instead of proficiency. While they gave him a lot of credits for his South African courses (enough, in fact, to almost graduate), they counted only as pass grades. While this is good if you have bad grades, it doesn't give you a chance to beef up your GPA by taking  honors level classes and achieving high marks in them.

So, to get to the all-important question:

If you have children in high school, and particularly in the later years of high school, I would agree there is a strong argument for sending your kids to an American school - first of all, to keep the school year in line with home so you don't get that half-year shift, and to make sure you have access to those AP classes or an IB curriculum. It will make the transfer much easier, and there won't be any risk of "losing" a year.

Especially if your posting in South Africa is limited to a specific time and you already know your return date ahead of time, as well as where you might return to, staying in the same school system will be the easiest (and quickest) path.

None of this applied to us. We might as well have stayed for two more years and our eldest could have finished his schooling with a South African Matric, and then decided whether to take that to an American or South African (or European) university. Or our next posting might have been to Timbuktu. Although, in that case, I'm sure schooling would have been the least of our worries.

The thing is, expats often don't know when or where the next posting is coming, so why not take the scenic route and make sure you immerse yourself fully into whatever is on offer at the moment, and trust that it will make you into a well-rounded person, no matter what the actual "curriculum" says?

Life does not follow a curriculum. There is no set career path to happiness and fulfillment. There is no course in Curiosity and Lifelong Learning, there is no Master of Cultural Awareness (at least that I'm aware of). Degrees and exams are only a part of your education. What happens all around you and what you make of it has the biggest impact on your life. If you're determined not to veer from a chosen path when taking on an expat assignment, you might as well not take it at all.

So our kids "lost" a schoolyear, but we've come to the realization that "losing" is relative. What harm is there in extending your school career by a year? When measured against all the experience you gain in a foreign country (which might be more "exotic" if you go the local route - just think of the language element in countries where you have that), I say it's worth it. Our kids seem to be doing just fine the way everything turned out.

Of course the jury is still out on what will eventually become of them. Come and check back with me in ten years for an update.

For further reading on a "global" education and the benefits of stepping out of the American system (and perhaps even saving money that way), I highly recommend "The New Global Student" by Maya Frost.

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