How we pick an international school
Updated: Jan 25
Before I had kids, the availability of good schools overseas was just about the last thing on my mind. As soon as I got a kid, however, it became Priority Number One. Why?
It’s not that I’m picky about where my kids get their early education—probably not until they’re a lot further in their school careers. My oldest is attending first grade and to be honest, I wouldn’t mind if he was taught under a mango tree. I think that would be pretty appropriate given that his favorite things are being outside and looking for sticks.
Still, ultimately I can think of few things more important than sending my kids to nice, good, safe schools. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but if I had to rank my priorities schooling would score very high. My husband and I are aware we went to mediocre schools and we turned out okay, but that doesn’t mean we want to send our kids to mediocre schools too.
Few American Foreign Service families send their brood to local schools. Why would they? The embassy pays for the considerable school fees of private schools, so for many families it’s a big opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Then again, some families shun the international schools. They’re adamant that regular schools are best for learning the local language, and often use as a secondary justification that they want their kids to hang out with “normal kids” instead of fancy private school kids.
I’d give this some credence. After all, kids are likely to speak way better Spanish in a 100% Spanish-speaking school than in a bilingual school. And who wants their kid to mingle with snobs who say awful things like “I know your family isn’t rich”? Still, in my experience kids are kids, and you can’t avoid a small rotten apple here and there.
In bigger, more international capital cities there’s typically an American school, which in Berlin is called JFK and happens to be a public school, and also an international school. Many capitals also have British and French schools from what I’ve seen—cute uniforms included.
So far, besides location, my main criteria for selecting an international school is the language spoken there. My kids are really young so I don’t think they‘d retain German if they learned it now. Thus I prefer they speak English at school and focus on developing their Dutch (my native language, although I tend to forget) at home.
Here in Berlin many American families send their kids to JFK, where kids get a big dosage of German. Especially for older, monolingual kids it’s a great opportunity to acquire a new language. I haven’t quizzed them on their German language skills yet, but I haven’t heard them complain about it either. It’s cool how they just seem to go along with it.
Curriculum and diploma
Once my kids get older I guess I’ll have to decide whether they should graduate with an American diploma, and take the SATs, or if they should go for a baccalaureate, in case they’d like to study in Europe. Remembering my own exams I know the latter is a lot of pressure, but the benefit is that it grants you automatic access to lots of terrific European universities, including all the Dutch ones.
But I know there’s also a big chance we’ll spend a lot of time living in DC, so getting them used to the American curriculum might make practical sense. We’ll see.
How hard is it to switch schools?
I get asked a lot if it’s hard for my kids to change schools every couple of years. So far they’re just excited. Just look at that huge cone of candy and toys my son is holding in that picture—a German tradition, apparently. They see it as a big promotion to go to a new school and don’t think it’s weird because their friends move on too.
Yes, I’m fully aware it won’t always be this way. They will grow up and get attached and, opinionated as they are, will undoubtedly have lots to say about the schools they want to attend. But that’s going to be a while I think, considering how happy and accepting they have been until now. In their minds, this is simply how life is—people speak a variety of languages and move countries every few years.