On choosing a school

On choosing a school

It’s that time of year… where moms in our expat chat groups find themselves in a panic because they’ve just found out that NOW is the time to have their 2 year old start interviews in order to register for school next year.

It’s not quite as simple as heading down to the neighborhood public school with your water bill to prove you live in the district. There are a lot of options, and you have to decide it while your baby is still in diapers!

So what do you need to consider when choosing a school for your child?

Language

This often comes as a surprise – Arabic is not the educational language for most private schools in Lebanon. So the first question you need to ask yourself is which language do you want your child educated in – French or English?

We chose an English medium school, which means our children take Math, Science, English of course, and all their specials (PE, art, etc) in English. Arabic is taught as a language, as is French, and eventually (starting grade 4 for us, this depends on the school and the system) social sciences such as history and geography are taught in Arabic.

For us, this was an easy choice – neither of us speak French and we wanted to be as involved with our kids’ education as we could be. For others, the language you choose might not be quite as simple.


We love that our kids school starts French every day from the first year!

Cost

You need to decide on your budget for education. School fees can range anywhere from $3,000 – 20,000 per child per year. Be aware that the fees change depending on your child’s grade, sometimes doubling from kindergarten to grade 12, so it’s a good idea to ask for fees for each grade to make sure the school will still be in your budget in a few years.

Make sure to also ask about other supplemental fees (books, stationary, uniform, activities, etc) and whether the school offers discounts for siblings.

Another aspect of cost to consider is the atmosphere that comes with a school being very expensive or very cheap. How comfortable are you or your kids in different socioeconomic groups and what comes along with that?

Location

This is a huge consideration that I can’t stress enough… in our opinion, the closer you can be to the school the better! Traffic in Lebanon is notoriously terrible and inconsistent. It could take you 20 minutes to get to your kids’ school or an hour and 20 minutes with no rhyme or reason. Of course all schools have buses at an additional cost that will save you time on the road, but not necessarily your kids.

We’ve always lived within walking distance of school, and it’s honestly been the best decision we could have made. That’s not always possible of course, but location should definitely be something you consider as you choose a school for your kiddos.

Curriculum

This is the piece of the equation that we didn’t really do a lot of research on – because we had no idea we needed to! Not only do you have several languages to choose from, but there are multiple educational systems each with different curriculum, requirements and theories of education.

Every school in Lebanon is required to offer the Lebanese curriculum. But if your child has a foreign passport, you have the option of registering for the French Bacc, High School, or International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

The school we chose for our kids only has the Lebanese system. When we chose it seven years ago, all we really knew about it was that it meant our kids would have to do Arabic with all the native speakers (as opposed to taking a special Arabic for foreigners class) and they would have to sit for the government exams in grades 9 and 12. We wanted our kids to learn Arabic, and figured that because they were born here, they should be able to do what any other child can do, academically speaking. And that has proven to be true.

What we didn’t realize were all the other things that entail being enrolled in the Lebanese system. It’s not only about the curriculum, but educational styles as well as values play a huge role in the education your child will receive. For example, the Lebanese system is very math/science heavy, rote memorization is still highly valued, and the brevet (grade 9 exams) are notorious for putting a lot of pressure on students to memorize a lot a lot a lot of useless information. Some kids will thrive in that kind of system, others won’t. For us it’s not a question anymore of IF our kids can do it, because we know they can, but more of a question of if we WANT them to. We love our school, but the jury is still out on how long our kids will continue there.

I’d highly recommend doing research on the different systems – what does the IB offer? What classes will a student in the high school program take? What are the education styles employed in the French bacc system? I wish we had known more about the options, although to be honest, we likely would have ended up at the same school because of it’s location and cost. (And we are very happy there, thankfully!)

Other important questions to ask

Of course every family will put different value on the 4 major considerations – maybe budget is not an issue because your employer will cover your kids’ tuitions, or maybe you only have a Lebanese passport so the Lebanese system is your only option. Every school has it’s pluses and minuses and what makes one family happy will drive another up the wall. But the choice can be overwhelming, especially if you are new in the country or didn’t go through the school system here yourself. A few other questions to ask once you’ve narrowed down your choices are:

  • What kind of special education services are offered? (Not all schools are equipped for or will accept kids with special needs)
  • What kinds of activities are offered both during the day or after school?
  • When do kids start having homework? How much per day? (This might be a question better asked of parents with kids in the school than the school itself)
  • What place does religious education have in the school? You’ll find a wide range – from not religious at all (including Christmas/Ramadan celebrations) to mandatory chapel or religion classes.
  • What percentage of the school are expats?
Our kids go to an Orthodox school. This year they added optional religious education to the curriculum for Christian students. (Photo from the school’s facebook page)

I was reading a report recently that one of the main reasons that expats return to their passport country is because of children’s education issues. While there is no perfect school, and you will find things you love and hate about any school, finding a school that is a good fit for your family will go a long way in making your experience as an expat in Lebanon a positive one.

For those of you here in Lebanon, what have I left off? Any questions you would add?


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Getting a late start in school

Getting a late start in school

I was on a blog break when Luka had his infamous school interview. The school changed the interview process a bit – now the kids head up to the classroom alone while the parents fill out the paperwork downstairs. I get the idea behind it, but I also think it is quite traumatic… and you don’t want a child’s first experience of school to be negative!

It wasn’t an issue for us – Luka was so so ready for school. I actually had to downplay the interview quite a lot because he still had to wait nine months before his first day. We got to the lobby and while I was still greeting another mom I know, he was halfway up the stairs. Apparently he played a little basketball and the teacher asked a lot of questions. When I tried to quiz him about the type of questions, his response was consistently the same: “blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Part of the reason he was so comfortable was that he’s been doing school pick up since a was just a few days old. He knows the campus, he knows the teachers, he knows the kids. But the bigger reason is, he’s a year older than the girls were.

The cutoff date to start school here is January 31. This is set by the ministry of education each year. There are a few schools that set an earlier date, but most follow the ministry. This means that your child can start his first year of kindergarten when he is 2 years and 8 months.

Luka has a late November birthday, so instead of starting him when he was 2-almost-3, we decided to wait an extra year and start him at 3-almost-4. Best decision ever.

I get a lot of pushback – mostly from moms who decided to start their kids on the early end: “It depends on the child!” And my response in my mind is always, “no, it doesn’t.”

I’m not saying that a kid who starts on the early side is destined to fail. Isla is one of the youngest in her grade (if not the youngest!), and she’s excelling academically. Ruby started at 3.5 years and is doing great socially.

But the difference in awareness of a 2 year old, a 3.5 year old and an almost 4 year old is huge. The girls did fine, they were generally happy, but they cried every morning for weeks. They came home exhausted, needed naps but couldn’t have them, and just in general seemed so young to be in school all day.

Luka has been a totally different story. He understood what school was, he was itching to go. First day, he waved good-bye and marched up the stairs so so happy. No tears, no looking back. Days 2, 3, and 4 were more difficult… because most of the class spent the whole day crying for their moms. Which you would expect from a class full of 2 year olds! He’s frustrated because he wants to do school things, but other kids were crying and scribbling and throwing their food on the ground.

We could have started him straight into his second year of kindergarten because of his age which would have been a smoother start, more like what Luka was expecting school to be like. But, because they start French and Arabic from the first year, I wanted him to get the full benefit of the three years of KG before starting the much more serious first grade. So much research says that it’s much better for kids (especially boys) to be on the older side of their class, so we decided to start him from the first year, even though it means he’s more than a year older than some of his classmates.

The one thing I wish I would have done was had him skip the entire first week. He’d miss a lot of the crying and tantrums, which up until this point have been the only source of stress in his school experience.

Can a child do well in school if they are young? Of course. But I’d start Luka late a million times over again, and if I could go back in time and delay the girls’ start, I’d do it as well!

TBT: Second English

TBT: Second English

TBT Post!

Because the promise I made to myself to blog once a week is apparently too hard to keep… instead of something new enjoy this randomly selected old post, originally published on March 21, 2014

beautiful feet: the blog version

Even though she was born and raised in Lebanon, Isla’s first and strongest language is English.

Honestly, we expected her to be both fluent in English and Arabic by this time.  We do live, after all, in an Arabic speaking country, and both her Daddy and I speak Arabic (though not fluently… yet! :))

There are two main reasons her English is much stronger.  One, Beirut.  English is so prevalent here, and Isla is clearly a foreigner, so people just assume she doesn’t speak Arabic.  Even though we insist that people use Arabic so that she can learn, they rarely do.  So her Arabic input has never been high enough.  When someone asks her a question in Arabic, she replies in English and they understand her, it just reinforces to her that she doesn’t actually need Arabic.

The second reason is her personality.  She is shy and she’s a perfectionist…

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Interview with (another) 2 year old

Interview with (another) 2 year old

Ruby is so excited to turn three.  She’s gonna “go to school, chew gum and get earrings.”  I’m also not-so-secretly hoping that she’ll also decide to be done nursing, but that’s for another post.

But before she can start school… the all important interview!  Yes, for those of you new to the blog and outside of Lebanon, my 2 year old was just interviewed by the school we hope will accept her.

I wasn’t nervous about it like I was with Isla.  For one, we know exactly what to expect.  Second, Ruby is already super comfortable at Isla’s school.  She greets the teachers with hugs when we pick Isla up in the afternoon and knows her way to the classrooms and bathrooms.  Third, she’s not shy like Isla was at her age.  She’s friendly and outgoing, so I figured the interview would be a breeze.

Haha.  She was super excited leading up to it, grabbed the teacher’s hand and headed up the stairs with her.  As we headed into the classroom, I reminded Isla that she needed to sit in the hall and do her homework or read some books – I didn’t want her in the interview because she has a terrible habit of answering questions directed at her sister.

We sat down at a little table and the teacher asked Ruby if she’d like to color first or build with blocks.  My friendly, talkative 2 year old completely shut down.  Wouldn’t answer, wouldn’t even look at the teacher!  So I asked her what she’d like to do first, color or blocks.  Nothing.  She just stared at the wall with a blank look on her face.  After what felt like an eternity of silence…  “Would you like Isla to sit with you?” the teacher asked.  So Ruby ran outside to get her sister and was back to her normal self.  It’s amazing how much more confidence Ruby has when Isla is next to her, even when Isla isn’t allowed to say a single word.

The interview was pretty much the same as Isla’s.  The teacher asked Ruby to identify some pictures, build a tower with blocks, do some matching and draw a picture.  I love that Ruby called the picture of an umbrella “rainbrella” and when she was asked what you do with a flower, she answered “plant it.”  The teacher kept prompting her, trying to get her to say you smell it, but Ruby wasn’t swayed.  She also called the picture of the slide a boat, but to be fair, it was a terrible drawing and I don’t think they’ll hold it against her.  ;)

In the meantime I was filling out the questionnaire about her habits and milestones…. when did she first sit, crawl, when did she take her first steps, eat solid foods.  I actually have those things all written down, but didn’t think to look at my list before we headed to the interview.  I do remember that she army crawled at four months but I thought I’d look like a liar if I actually wrote that down (because what baby does that!?!?) so I might have fudged the numbers a bit to make her seem a bit more normal! :)  No she doesn’t know how to ride a tricycle, yes she still sucks her thumb, and the thing that frustrates her the most is being told what to do.  I’m really curious how closely they read through those forms and what exactly they are looking for.  My best guess is that they want to see normal developmental patterns, because unfortunately, most schools in Beirut aren’t equipped to handle children with special needs.

All of a sudden the interview is over, and the teacher asks if Ruby would like to come to this school again.  “When I’m three.”  Now I just need to figure out how to get it in her head that she won’t get to go to school the day she turns three but has to wait until the fall to start.  Maybe I’ll just give her some gum.

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Pet Mart field trip

Pet Mart field trip

Isla had a field trip yesterday.  When I got the permission slip to sign, I googled Pet Mart, the place they were going, but could only find references to a pet store.  Not unusual, because of our terrible internet here in Lebanon, it’s not surprising at all that I couldn’t find it online.  Or so I thought… I mean, surely her class wasn’t going to a pet store for their field trip…?

Now, I realize you can’t trust everything a three year old says… or at least you can’t get a complete picture from the details she decides to share.  So where did they go on their trip?  You be the judge…

Arabic… English… French… and Isla.

Arabic… English… French… and Isla.

Isla is learning so much at school.  But sometimes things get a little lost in translation.

We aren’t always even sure which language she is trying to sing in.  And even when we figure that out, it sometimes takes a few days or even weeks before we figure out what the song is.

 

The English we can figure out pretty quick (obviously), but it’s impossible to correct, because “No, this is how Miss Rola sings it!”

 

The Arabic takes a little more time for us to figure out.  She’s been singing “lotsy, kadifa” for a week now.  She continued the song last night for the first time and we finally realized what she’s been trying to sing.  Although we still haven’t figure out the last part.  Anyone?

 

And French?  Well, once she starts singing any song besides this, we are in trouble!

Isla’s first day!

Isla’s first day!

Isla started school last week!

A few weeks after her interview this past winter, we got the call saying she had been accepted.  I mistakenly thought that we would have the whole summer to decide if we actually wanted to send her, but we were given ten days to come in and pay a quite hefty deposit to hold her place.  Over the summer we bought her uniforms, paid lots more money, and then waited to get any other information.  I was thankful to have recently met a gal with kids at the same school who could answer some of my “type-A-need-to-know-right-now” questions… do I pack her a lunch?  What does she wear under her uniform?  What time does school actually start anyways??  :)

The day before her first day, we went to an open house.  Isla got to see her classroom, meet some of her teachers, and we got some more answers about what her day would look like (oh, she has to have her name embroidered on her uniform?  Would have been nice to know that a little earlier….)

listening to a story at open house

She seemed pretty excited about going to school, although she told us many, many times that she wanted me to be her teacher and stay with her.

Next morning, we were up bright and early and out the door while the sun was still rising (whose idea is it for school to start at 7:30, anyways?!?).

on our way!

She cried when we dropped her off, but so did I… and I think nearly every other child there!  But when we went to pick her up, she was happy as can be and chattered away about her day the whole walk home.

coming down the stairs after her first day

She especially likes “the green teacher with the long hair like Rapunzel” and the chocolate sandwich they gave her for lunch (really!?).  Apparently this green teacher is quite funny because she “got another block and it wasn’t yellow and all the kids laughed and laughed!”

She did tell us this morning that she doesn’t want to go to school because “I already know French… un, deux, troix… ocho, nueve, diez… See?!?” but I think overall she’s having fun!

Can’t believe we are already to this stage in the lives of our kids… wasn’t she just born like 5 minutes ago???