Excerpted from September 2006 Educare. Used with permission. Note: Picture does not correspond with the following article.
It’s Friday morning and the primary school children are lined up in tidy rows in front of the school building. One youngster is leading the pledge, bellowing into the microphone in a voice that can be heard for miles around: “I’m a citizen of my country, I’m right; I’m hard-working…” And our little towheads are there, enthusiastically adding their voices to the bedlam.
Before our daughter started school, friends told us, “Don’t send your children to local schools. Everything is done by rote memory; they’ll never learn to think. You don’t want them studying local beliefs. Etc., etc.” The objections were not without some validity. But we felt there were positives too. We wanted our children to grow up in our host country feeling at home. We wanted them to interact naturally with their neighbors. We didn’t want them to feel like they were forever outsiders. So we decided to try the local schools – one year at a time.
So for the next 12 years, one year at a time, we had at least one child in the local state public school system. All three of ours went to such schools for primary level. The older two then moved on at age 11 to private middle schools that were partly English-medium. The youngest was the only one to get in on the newly opened local TCK school. And all three went off to Black Forest Academy in Germany for high school.
There were negatives: class size was bad, occasionally horrendous, with as many as 62 students in a class. Rules regarding local belief classes changed frequently and though our children were not required to take the classes, they did have to sit through the teaching. Our middle child did not learn to read English until he was in middle school (age 11). And the cultural input was occasionally alarming, such as the time when one son came home singing his favorite song: “The leader never died, he lives forever in my heart!”
But would we do it again? Yes – one year at a time. Academically our children did not suffer in the least. Learning to read the local language is so easy (it’s phonetically written and very regular) that the early grades have lots of extra time to work on maths and other subjects. Even our non-readers were on track when they eventually went to Black Forest. We monitored the situation with cultural and ethical classes closely, but never felt seriously threatened – at least our children were not mocked for having firm beliefs! Our children actually grew up in a very sheltered environment: drugs were not an issue then (more of a problem now) and issues of sex were delayed perhaps a couple of years compared to what they would have faced in the ‘home’ country.
Obviously the suitability of local schools will change drastically from place to place. In some countries it would not be at all viable. Even in our country smaller population centers may be considerably more problematic. But I would like to see more families give local schools a try, particularly for children who can start from the beginning. International schools and even TCK institutions can so often leave children with negative attitudes regarding the country and local people. They can also be prohibitively expensive. And they tend to make us immobile – families are limited to living in places where the desired education is available.
Local schools will not be the solution for everyone. Poor quality, overcrowding, security concerns, discrimination, legal restrictions, or a myriad of other issues may force us to look for alternative answers. But we should at least include this in our initial list of options.
Many years later my wife asked our middle child what he thought of our having sent him to national schools. He looked at us somewhat puzzled: “What else would you have done?” he responded. “I wouldn’t have wanted to have grown up here as a foreigner.”