Love and ambition: Making the school choice for expat children

It can be a real headache for parents moving abroad: Which particular school, which school system, and which language do we choose for our expat children’s learning environment? Besides all the naturally given circumstances such as country, surrounding language, and work place, the choice of school system is a more complex one.

Chilean Montessori School: a caring, yet demanding learning environment

The choice is ours to make

The difficult aspect in this for parents of young children is that we have to make the school choice on their behalf, often among several options, and typically without previous knowledge of the school systems available. First of all, where and how do we find suitable schools to choose from at all? Second, is the chosen school and school system really the best one for exactly our own expat children? Third, how will our choice of school help or limit our children’s opportunities later in life?

School choice 1: Spanish village pre-school system

The first school abroad that we sent our 3-year-old daughter to, was a local, Spanish village pre-school. All 3 pre-school grades, around a dozen children, were taught together by the one and only “maestra”. For expat children with no knowledge of Spanish what so ever, including our daughter, this was a perfect setting and school system: a limited group of children and only one adult person to familiarize herself with. We found the school through colleagues at Thomas’ new work place. It wasn’t close to our house, but after having visited, we fell completely in love with the teacher and the school’s safe and family-like atmosphere. There were other options, even English-speaking schools closer to where we lived and specifically aimed at expat children. But once the school choice was made, the advantages were clear: rapid adaptation into the local community and exposure to the Spanish language in a safe, native-speaker environment. At pre-school age, academics are not what matter the most.

School choice 2: Chilean Montessori school system

The second school abroad for her to enter, was a Chilean Montessori school. Now, this was not the natural or common choice for most expat children in the capital of Chile. We were often asked why on earth we made that choice of school system? This time around, I found the school via the local phone book at the hotel upon our arrival. Most expat children went to English-speaking schools, but 1. our daughter had no English, 2. the local school system was very conservative and strict for our Danish taste, and 3. we once again fell in love with the school and the staff while visiting the place. We had no previous experience with the Montessori school system, but looking back, we’re very grateful that our children got this chance to develop throughout their early Elementary school years within such a creative, individualized, caring and yet demanding school system. We feel confident that what they learnt here will strengthen and stay with them forever.

Spanish-speaking schools in Spanish-speaking countries.

Our school choice #1 and 2 for our daughter (and later, her brother) were Spanish-speaking schools in Spanish-speaking countries. Although this made it harder for her to switch to an English-speaking school system later on, we didn’t regret the choice we made.

School choice 3 and 4: English-speaking schools in the US and Germany. More about that later … .

What’s your experience with school systems? Do you feel you made the right school choice for your children? Was it a hard one to make?

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23 Responses to Love and ambition: Making the school choice for expat children

  1. The Romos says:

    It was hard for us too, we had heard many horrible things about public schools here in Hawai’i. We had heard about DeSilva, but when we first moved here (HPP) we could not get a GE to get in and our school district was Kea’au. We opted for private school, St Joseph’s. Two years into private Catholic school and getting more familiarized with the public school system we decided we were not getting our money’s worth at St Joe’s. Syd moved on to Hilo Intermediate and Hana went on to DeSilva. We could not be happier with either school. While it is true that there are many inefficiencies with the public school system it is also true that half of a kid’s education takes place at home.
    Sometimes I also think we underestimate our kids, we were worried on how they would do at making new friends, but in no time they both had made good friends in school…….
    As weird as it may sound, making friends “ahead of time” was also a big help….even though it was through the internet, we were a bit uneasy about the idea, but, you guys turned out all right!.. he, he, he……

    • Nana says:

      We, too, were very grateful to the internet for having made our transition to Hawai’i both easier and more fun thanks to you! We were lucky to be in the school district of a good school, but also felt we had no realistic alternative. It didn’t take long for our kids to adapt into the new school system, although it was hard for them to start in a new language and to be taught in a very different style (from the Montessori system). They certainly learnt how to take an assessment test :-) Thanks for sharing, Romos!

  2. Hi, I´m a child of a Diplomat and went to 12 different schools in 4 different languages in 10 different countries. I´m fluent in 4 languages and by the time I was 20 I had already lived in all 5 continents. I have a degree from a very good US university and have always managed to find interesting, varied jobs. My employers have always enjoyed the diversity, but above all the flexibility I have brought my jobs, in addition to great public relations! I was always invited to meet and greet the top people because of my social and language skills. My parents didn´t have internet, but I can report that when I look back at my experience and that of my 3 siblings (elder brothers), we had a warm and very united family environment to come home to, and my parents were never over protective, they allowed us to live our own experiences in the most diverse of places! there was also a whole lot of humor at home, and things that might have puzzled us or made my parents uneasy were always taken with humor and as a happy experience.. they always were! considering we lived in Brazil, Taiwan, Australia, Egypt, Argentina, South Africa, South Korea, Austria, Syria, Norway. I would say that all in all, we are 4 pretty interesting adults, all professionals, well-established people. Hope this view helps you!

    • Nana says:

      Respect! :-) In your case, having gone to school abroad seems to have been an advantage only. Are your 4 languages more or less the same as our daughter’s: English, Spanish, German, and Danish converted to French I assume? Or is it Arabic or Chinese? Anyway, you seem to have had a blast out of your expat kid experience. Thanks so much for sharing, Andrea!

    • Kerstin D says:

      This is EXACTLY what I want for my four children, and my eyes welled up when I read your post!
      We’re in the US, and I’m a year shy of finishing my MA in Education, and I plan to apply to teach at international schools. I like the idea of my kids learning in local schools rather than international ones, though. Can you tell me in which countries you were enrolled in public school?
      Also, did your life and schooling abroad help or hinder you in getting scholarships for university?
      Thank you!

      • Thomas says:

        Hi Kerstin, glad you liked the post! We’ve had our kids in schools in Spain and Denmark (public pre-school), in Chile (private, non-international), US (public), and now Germany (private international). All schools have given us wonderful experiences.

        Our kids are not yet going to university, so we’ll see. My feeling is that the international experience is a definite plus though. In particular I’ve noticed that they transition between schools and indeed cultures very easily, both socially and academically.  Hope this helps! Wishing you best of luck with your MA and with your expat endeavor wherever it may take you!

  3. Tanya says:

    I work with expat kids (TCKs) in Beijing, China. Mostly I know them through expat churches, so I meet kids from the whole spectrum of school choices – high-flying international schools, smaller international schools, boarding schools, bilingual schools, embassy/other language schools (Pakistani embassy school, French school, German school, etc), local schools, or home-schooling. Beijing actually has a vibrant homeschool community – there is a co-op that meets fortnightly with over 100 kids in it!

    It’s a difficult choice for many families, I know. Finances can either open or close doors, languages complicate things, and most important for many families, the school you choose may affect your child’s options for continuing education once they graduate high school.

    I know a lot of families that have put their kids in Chinese schools when they are little, then move them to English speaking schools later on. Families who move frequently tend to go for the more prestigious English speaking schools, where they are sure of the quality of education (and when they have a company to fund the school fees).

  4. Saro says:

    Hi, we are possibly moving to Chile, and we have a young daughter that loves Montessori. Could you give me the name of the Montessori school? Is it in Santiago? I think we would rather live in Valparaiso or Vina del Mar because of the smog in Santiago but things are not final yet. It depends on where our business would work best. thanks, Saro

  5. Nana says:

    Hi Saro, yes, the Montessori school is in Santiago, but in the very outskirts. The name is: Montessori Huelquén, Address: Av. El Rodeo 13798, Lo Barnechea. Tel.: (56-2) 242-4278. Fax: (56-2) 245-8193. E-mail:
    If you read spanish:

    The head of the school, Elena Young, speaks excellent English and helped us very much in the beginning. How old is your daughter? Cause there’s also a Kindergarten for younger children in another area of Santiago. We, too, were very concerned about the smog, which is why we chose to live in Lo Barnechea (where the school is located).

    Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

    • katherine says:

      We are moving to Santiago in July with our 3 children, ages 12, 10 and 8years. We plan to be there for a year but with the job situation, it could be more. I have heard great things about Huelquen and it looks like we could actually afford it but I have not been able to get a response to my email inquiries. Is there a long wait list to get in and they just don’t have time to bother with this kind of thing? Do you know if they would accept our kids mid year in August? So many questions. I am feeling negligent for uprooting these kids from a great school here in the states with nothing to offer them in Santiago. If I have to I can home school them (I am a licensed teacher) but they are very social and will want to be with peers. Any suggestions for this or any other school would be greatly appreciated. We cannot afford the top privates so don’t waste your time recommending those – too bad.

      • Thomas says:

        Hi Katherine. Great that you’ve decided to go for the Huelquen! I would suggest calling the school directly to talk to them. Though it is a Spanish-speaking school, they have enough expat kids that they’re used to speaking English. Besides, in Chile, most people would prefer to speak to you directly, even in non-perfect English, rather than send emails. For the waiting lists etc I can’t tell – it’s been more than five years since we left. And don’t worry – moving abroad is going to be a wonderful and challenging experience for your kids!

  6. Ahnuh says:

    Nice post! We are moving to Santiago in September and I am researching Kindergartens. My daughter goes to a Waldorf school now but we also love Montessori. Would you mind sharing the school’s name?

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Ahnuh! Sure, it’s called ‘Huelquen Montessori’ and is located in Lo Barnechea, which is a suburb in the north-east part of the city. Our son went to a smaller kindergarten in Vitacura before transferring to the school, but I don’t have the name of the kindergarten. Good luck with your search!

      • katherine says:

        Does your child currently attend Huelquen?
        We are moving to Santiago in July and would like to see if this could work for our 3 children, ages 12, 10 and 8. Does the school have a long wait list and would they consider allowing August enrollment? Also, we all speak very little Spanish although my children have been taking it for years in school so I think they understand a good bit. Thanks for any advice you may have regarding affordable school options for a bunch of gringos.

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Ahnuh, I found the details for the kindergarten:

      Jardín Infantil Montessori Rayhue II
      Calle Carmen Fariña 6532
      Vitacura Santiago
      Télefono: (2) 2191869

      It’s a great little kindergarten. Wishing you the best in your search – please let us know what you find.

  7. Adelaida says:

    Hi! My 2 year old attends Rayhue Montessori preschool in Lo Barnechea (Los Trapenses 2983 We all love it. There are both chilean and expat families, which makes it a rich environment. In fact, almost half of my son’s class are expats. We also had a look at Huelquén and loved it for his future schooling. I hope you all have a good experience both in Chile and in Montessori.

  8. Matt Call says:

    OK. Looking for some help and it appears I might find it here. I just arrived in Santiago – Lo Barnachea (Los Trapenses) to be exact. I am moving from San Francisco, CA for a 3-4 year assignment and have 4 kids (Brazilian, American) ages 4.5, 7, 11 and 13. I’m not liking the super large campuses I’m finding and the “military” feeling in some. All recommendations I’m receiving are for English schools whereas I think the greatest thing they’ll learn is the culture and language while here. Ideally I’d like the kids to be in the same school or close to avoid making my wife a taxi driver. Any and all referrals are appreciated! Thanks. Matt

    • Adelaida says:

      Matt, I would definetly give Huelquén a chance.
      Good luck.

    • raquel says:

      Hi. We will be Chile for a sabbatical from August- December 2014 and are looking for schools for our 7 & 9 year old kids. We are trying to decide between schools in Vina and La Dehesa/Lo Barnechea area. Are kids have been exposed to spanish but don’t really speak it. Can you please give us your thoughts on Vina vs. La Dehesa/Lo Barnechea to live for 4 months and which schools to go to (people have mentioned Nido, Santiago College, Instituto Hebreo, La Grange, Montessori but we don’t really know which one would be a good experience for our kids to make friends for 4 months)?

      • Thomas says:

        Hi Raquel, I think most (all?) of the international schools have Spanish on the curriculum, while for some of the Chilean schools (private schools included) the English level is quite low. Best to take time upon arrival and visit as many schools as you can!

        For a place to live, we enjoyed living in (lower) La Dehesa. Good luck and enjoy your stay in Chile!

  9. Amy says:

    I’m wondering about the Montessori school in La Serena. The information on it looks to be from 2014. Does anybody know if it is still open? Has anybody enrolled their kids there?

  10. Alejandro says:

    Hi everyone, we are moving to Vina del Mar, we want a Montesori school, not interested in catholic schools, any suggestion? Thanks!

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Alejandro, I’m not familiar with schools in Vina, but Montessori is popular in Chile, so I’d suspect one there as well. If google doesn’t turn up anything then why not contacting one of the schools in Santiago? They collaborate and exchange a lot among themselves, so they should be able to point you in the right direction.

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