"A wise man learns from his mistakes. A wiser man learns from the mistakes of others." Lucky you ... I'm your other.
Our youngest child, William, has always attended school so I think the aim was always to get him matriculated at some point. Because we moved here in February, 2008 when he was half way through the third grade, we would have had to start him all over again in third and he wasn't mentally prepared for that. So we purchased an accredited home school program (Laurel Springs, Ohai, CA) and took it with us. It wasn't cheap, but with so many changes happening, we didn't want to worry about transcripts. With an accredited distance learning program, you get transcripts.
You need to know that in Panama, the school year begins in early to mid-March and runs through the first or second week of December, giving the children a long break during the dry season. Our son has attended two private schools here and also completed a year and a half of an accredited home school curriculum.
In the matriculation section below, I outline what you need for paperwork, if you are planning to mainstream. Schools here require uniforms which you can purchase or have made by a tailor (not such a big deal). Books will run you around $100 - $150 each year, depending on the child's grade level. The system of lugging a back pack full of heavy books, day by da,y will drive you nuts. But there is a lot that will drive you nuts at first. Be patient. Many things that seem or truly are illogical become usual. We made our way through the woods, and so will you..
WHICH SCHOOL?My directory (see my page titled Directory) lists the four local private schools that I am aware of here in Boquete and I visited with the directors of each before listing them.
There are several excellent schools in the city of David, if you want your child to make that commute.
And there are free public schools as well.
I know the power of a referral and I won't tell you which school I think is the best. You know that you situation, your children and your vision for your family is going to be different from mine. I have heard shockingly horrible reviews of one school by one parent, only to turn around and hear that someone else is having a wonderful experience at the same school -- at the same time. Also, things change. The school William attended initially is now under new directorship. Not only was the director lovely and kind, but she was trilingual to boot! So you just never know and you have to take it slowly.
HOME SCHOOLIf you are a seasoned home schooling parent, you will probably want to keep it that way. Home schooling is a wonderful way to bond with your child while having complete control over their education.
If you are new to home schooling, gee, you just might find yourself huddled on the bathroom floor with the door locked as you tear out your fingernails one by one. It can be hell. My suggestion is to have a very strict, clearly written out schedule and stick to it! Calmly and firmly. You will be amazed at how your quiet, firm resolve and clear limits can be the cradle that holds it all together for you.
The drawback, as I see it, is on the social end. Your children will be getting their social interaction with other English speaking children and living a more western life within a Central American culture. That seems to be what a lot of people want. For my part, I feel that having an endless stream of readily available local friends and being fully immersed in our little town has given our family a rich experience, richer than if we had remained insulated, or semi-insulated, from the culture. But the vision we have for our family was and remains one of assimilation. Everyone has their own dream.
AUDITING -- An Overview.Both public and private schools will probably allow your child to audit,for a while. The public schools will require your child to attend the full day and with books uniform.
The private schools may allow you to home school in the morning and audit the afternoon, but a uniform will be required. That is what we did, initially. A private school allowed the half and half plan on the promise that my goal was matriculation.
From 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m., we home schooled. From 10:15 - 1:00 our son attended a local, private school, as an auditor. Normally, children are expected to audit the school day, but they let us do a half day on my promise I would mainstream William as soon as possible. (More on the hell of matriculating in a special section.) Auditors wear a uniform and attend classes, but are not required to take exams or worry about grades.
Sounds purrrrrfect, right? I had it all figured out. -- buttoned up and beautiful. Six hours of schooling total, we split between a curriculum we were used to and keeping our son "on track" with the USA, and the local school, offering a place for our son to learn Spanish in the real world, and the time to assimilate.
Well, as with the rest of all my well laid plans, things didn't flow quite as smoothly as we had counted on.
It can be stressful for children to comply with two programs (especially if they weren't previously home schooled), on top of dealing with a move to a completely different country. If your child is social, like ours is, there is an added stress of assimilating. Admit it or don't, but most kids want to just fit in. That's right. They really don't want to be making a statement of difference, or stick out like...well, like The Goofy Gringo in the back who shows up late and doesn't have to work as hard as everyone else.
Bear in mind that William is growing up as an "only" child (his older brother, Dylan, attends university in the USA) and the 'only' status does factor in. Everything factors in; your family structure,stress level temperament, the state of your marriage.
William toughed it out at a local private colloquial school for six full months. What a guy! It was just his rotten luck that this particular third grade class was full of pretty tough boys and there was mild bullying. Rotten luck again that his particular teacher was a screamer and the school was, at that time, chaotic. Not all the kids were rough and not all the teachers were mean. And things there have changed.
Besides, I'm one of those moms who truly lives by the adage "Every problem is an opportunity." So I used this period as an opportunity to help him develop better coping skills. I popped in atschool. I asked regularly if he wanted out. We "practiced" other ways of coping with tough situations.
It was not easy to feel the hurt of these growing pains. Not by a long shot. And, the day before his 10th birthday, William told me he was done. And that was that. I took him out.
And that lasted exactly two full days. William son was bored. So, we switched schools and I don't know if it was because he knew some Spanish or was starting fresh or because the new school had more experience with foreigners, and smaller classes, but things just got on a better track.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN AUDITING: Auditing, especially auditing for a half day, can be stressful for you child for reasons I outlined in my overview, above. It's just hard to be the new kid, the odd kid, the one who isn't fully present.
Also, I have seen how auditing can also be an abuse of the school system. Many parents think nothing of using the school for a few months as a cheap way of getting Spanish class for their kids. They might not appreciate that local parents are literally scraping together the funds to send their children to what they feel is a step up. The new, foreign kids float in at any hour, is often completely lost, frightened or needy, and all of this is disruptive and draining on the teachers and the entire class.
MATRICULATINGIf you decide to matriculate your child/children into the Panamanian school system, and they are past kindergarten, you will need to bring transcripts with you. I strongly recommend yo have your transcripts sealed by your consulate. This makes it much easier to get your paperwork started. Also, they will need to be translated or, You will have to pay to have your transcripts translated by a public translator here. Also, it's a good idea to have copies of birth certificates.
I came here without official transcript so I had to start from scratch.
Once my transcripts arrived by mail, I took them to the Ministry of Education in David and we began the paperwork. They also put me on to a wonderful translator, whom I will list in my directory. It's not cheap and I had to pay by the page, but she was good and helpful and she stayed in touch with me while I waited for approval. (This is supposed to take 90 days and, while you wait, you are given a transit letter that you turn over to the school your child is attending.)
Of course, since God knew before I did that I would be writing about this, I had to do everything the hard way so in the long run, you can benefit from my mistakes. The Ministry was in transition and we had to wait closer to 180 days for approval. When we were nearly through, typos in our transcripts were discovered. As I quietly screamed inside my head, I calmly phoned the Ministry once every week to sweetly check up on the status of our file. I also gently nudged the translator, who has a good relationship with the Ministry. It was frustrating and long, but eventually we were done. Yes. It can be done! If I can do it, you can too.
WHAT I KNOWWhat didn't change and what hasn't changed is the fact that my son attends a Panamanian school. It's not perfect and it's not the USA. The teachers know me now and they know my son. Thankfully now, when issues arise, they have more to do with my child, his preparedness, his attitude toward learning, and so forth than his being a newbie. Conversely, no longer can I blame any problems on our being new, or being foreigners.
I've learned through my own, biggest mistake, that it doesn't pay to keep my head half in the States and half in Panama, my mental bags packed for "home." Kids sense this. They do. And when you do this, your children then don't know where to belong. They are not back home and they don't give themselves over to the process of becoming fully here. So they don't fit in anywhere.
When we finished up that first school year, and having watched our son straddle the world of expat kids and local kids, we decided to pull him away from the expats entirely. For a while. He spent that long school break among our Panamanian neighbors and the Spanish just took off,motivated by his need to be, to fit in, to make friends. Thankfully, I watched him begin to return to being the boy he was before the move, confident, funny, happy, busy, and present.