July 11, 2016

Transitioning Back to an American School after Three Years in South Africa

"We are trying to decide which school to send our children to in Johannesburg, do you have any advice?"

Many of the emails I get from prospective expats begin with this question. I can appreciate the importance of it - where your children go to school determines where you go looking for a house, and looking for a house is the very first important to-do on  your Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist.

As I've told you in a previous blog post, International or Local School, the way we chose a school for our kids in South  Africa was anything but well-thought out or scientific. We simply kept driving by Dainfern College on our way in and out of a cluster of neighborhoods our estate agent wanted to show us, and the kids milling about looked so pretty in their school uniforms. And many of them were walking to and from school! That fact alone was enough to sell me on the idea, and so we chose to forego the American International School of Johannesburg that our company would have willingly paid for and enrolled the kids at Dainfern College, a South African private prep school. We did not regret it for a moment afterwards. These were the most enjoyable three years for me in my kids' school careers. That alone should count for something, right?

If you're in that same position we were in at that time, where you need to pick a school in South Africa and are overwhelmed with all the factors to consider, I advise you to read Everything You Need to Know about South African Schools, which addresses a multitude of all the concerns you likely have.

But the worry about the transition back into the U.S. system is a concern deserving of its own writeup. The reasons expat fret so much over the choice of school is not only a desire to secure the best education for their children during the next several years. Of more importance is often how they fit back into life at home once the expat assignment is over.

Because so many American expats have questions for me regarding that transition, I wanted to summarize our own experience for you. I'm not saying yours will be the same in any way. All I'd like to do is give you a level of comfort that things will most likely turn out alright for you, even if you don't make the simplest or most convenient choice.

Our kids transitioned well, even after three years of a "weaker" South African curriculum. A few months ago as the school year was coming to its end, I was invited to several awards ceremonies at our middle and high schools. Even though in a comparison of South African School Awards vs American School Awards South Africa wins by a mile, the fact that my husband and I continue to get to go to them is rewarding in itself. It shows that the South African private school curriculum doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage.


Our two middle children on their way to accept high school top student awards

In fact, I would say the diverse experience probably helps more than hurts. There was a bit of a catch up period right after we'd moved back, especially with U.S. history and math, but nothing crucial. Our oldest was in the middle of 11th grade when coming back, and for that reason only we had everyone go back the half year rather than forward, so he could start grade 11 from beginning rather than middle. For that, he had to repeat the 2nd half of 10th grade, which was incredibly boring but helped him take more AP classes in gr 11, have time to obtain his drivers' license, get his first paying job, and take the PSAT - all rites of passage for an American teenager. He ended up being accepted into 8 universities, one of them in the Ivy League, and received multiple scholarships. If anything, the South African private school experience helped his resume because it made him stand out a little bit more. It certainly made for a good college essay.

Our second son, because we made everyone go back the half year, had to go back to the second half of grade 8 in middle school, even though he'd already been in high school in South Africa (high school goes from grade 8-12 for a total of five years in South Africa). It was probably a mistake, as he was much more mature than those middle schoolers, and it took an entire year for him to find new friends once he was finally in high school. He might have been better off moving up to the next grade, and the school certainly would have let him.

Our girls had just finished grades 6 and 4 respectively, and we had them repeat the second semester of those grades. Again, there was no academic reason for this - it had mostly to do with preserving our family symmetry trickling down from oldest to youngest. Their school would have let us enroll them in grades 7 and 5. If  you're American and worried that time in a South African school will "derail" your kids' path through school so that they lose a year when coming back, don't be. Most schools will take them back into the grade they would normally have been in, and academically there is generally no need to repeat a year.

But what do the kids say, you might wonder? It's a valid question. My kids would be the first to tell you that South Africa was behind academically. Especially in math. And they resented that. They didn't like having to catch up when thrown into these classes. Would they have preferred to never have left the "American track" so that the transition would have been smoother? No doubt.

And yet as a parent I see other aspects that my kids wouldn't consider or value. The fact that exams in South Africa rarely included multiple choice questions but required long-form essays. That kids only rarely scored above 80%, making that feat all the more meaningful, no grade inflation there. They weren't prepped for tests like here with sheets that listed exactly what was going to be on the test. They weren't told how to keep their notebooks or take notes - much more was left up to them, from a much younger age, so they were able to become more independent learners. A South African "Matric", the equivalent of an American high school diploma, is a nationally standardized examination, meaning a particular school can't dumb down as they please. Passing your Matric and getting a few distinctions is a pretty big deal. And, my favorite: The school put a huge emphasis on polite behavior. I remember coming back to the U.S. and dropping the kids off the first day of school, when a door almost hit me in the face because the kid in front of me didn't think to hold it open. I was more surprised than annoyed. In three years in South Africa I had been utterly spoiled by the "Good morning, Ma'm" I would hear left and right when walking across campus. All these are non-academic values that I, in hindsight, value much higher than mere academics. For all I care they could have not progressed past long division and I still would have loved all the other things they did and learned.

The bottom line: Yes, transitioning back to the U.S. is most definitely easier if you've remained in the American school system via an international school. It'll be as if you've never left. Whereas if you've temporarily left the American school system, it may take a bit more effort, especially in that year between 10th and 11th grade where which grade you enter into makes a difference. Before South Africa, I never would have considered adding an extra year to our kids' school careers.

But to close with my words from an earlier blog post: 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?

To read more stories about transitioning back into the U.S. system from abroad, read my article in the Wall Street Journal, Expat College Admissions: A Bit Like Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. If your timing is such that your child may finish high school in South Africa instead, you might find interesting advice in Finishing Matric in South Africa - Then What?