by Michele Kinnon, reprinted from Life's a Beach (July 2013)
School is out for the summer holidays but this is the time we seem to receive the most emails from families planning to move to the Riviera Maya with their school aged children. This is an article in three parts which will help you through the process and hopefully help you to select the best school for your children and your family.
You are moving your family to Mexico. What an exciting time this is for you and your children! There are so many wonderful adventures ahead but also, more than a few challenges lie in wait As you look ahead to your new life, there are many variables to consider, so many arrangements to make before you arrive. Housing and employment will place close to the top of the list. So too will education. How will you educate your children in Mexico?
What are the schools like? What about the language? All of these questions weigh heavily on the mind of every parent as they prepare their family for a new life in a new country. The good news is, you are relocating to a country whose populace places a very high value on education. The Mexican government has established strict protocols to maintain a high standard of excellent in all of its educational institutions. Currently, Mexico scores very high for literacy among Latin American countries and is making great progress in math and sciences. In 2008, President Filipe Calderon made education a top priority announcing sweeping reforms to the current system. Despite great resistance from powerful union leaders, his administration continues to slowly make strides toward that ultimate goal.
Expat Kids in Mexico
What is the education system like in Mexico? It comes as a surprise to many families relocating to Mexico that the system in education is not so unlike that in Canada or the United States. The Secretary of Public Education, commonly known as SEP, strictly regulates all schools in Mexico, both public and private. Like in the United States and Canada, public schools are funded by the government. Private and parochial schools are not.
All children residing in Mexico are allowed to attend Mexican public schools but only children who can prove Mexican citizenship may attend free of charge. Foreign students must pay tuition and comply with a litany of requirements that make enrollment a daunting process for the average foreigner just moving to Mexico. It should be noted that middle and upper class Mexican families who can afford to send their children to private schools, nearly always do. Tuitions vary but you should expect to pay 2000 - 5000 pesos per month or more plus uniforms, books and other incidentals.
All schools, public and private, must comply with a rigorous set of requirements in order to achieve and maintain their SEP accreditation. Regardless of which school you choose, it is important that it is recognized by SEP if your child intends to move on to university in Mexico. A diploma from a SEP accredited institution will also be looked upon favorably if your children return north to re-matriculate into the Canadian school system or to pursue their undergraduate work in university.
In Mexico, class levels are organized in much the same way as those in Canada or the United States although traditionally, children begin their educational career much earlier. Toddles, once they have reached the age of two, can be placed in classroom. This level is known as "maternal" and is perhaps a more structured version of what we consider daycare. After this, there are three levels of preschool known as "kinder". "Primaria" encompasses grades 1 through 6, followed by "secundaria" which covers grades 7 through 9. Finally, there is "preparatoria" with students in grades 10, 11 and 12. This is not unlike the organization of kindergarten, elementary, junior high and senior high that most Canadians are familiar with.
The school year runs from the third week of August through the end of June, often into the first week of July. For Canadian families who are accustomed to a long summer break, this can be quite an adjustment to make. Throughout the year there will be quite a few short one or two day breaks for religious celebrations or governmental holidays. There are also several significant holiday breaks, Christmas and Easter being the two longest. The Easter vacation, known as "semana santa" can actually span two weeks or more and seems to be the time most people travel to visit with family. A scholastic calendar is published every year by SEP so that you can make your travel plans ahead of time.
What about the language? Among the many issues that concern families moving their children to Mexico, the one that seems to cause the most stress is language. Almost all private schools in Mexico have an English language program in place. Depending on the school and the demographic of its student body, the level of English language education may even approach what we would consider "bilingual". Many private schools go so far as to market their curriculum as such. In many cases, the reality may not live up to your expectations. Some schools manage a very strong English program but truly bilingual schools are few and far between. French Canadian families looking for schools that will support their French speaking offspring will find even fewer choices although French is offered as a second language in many of the better private schools.
Schools in Mexico
How will you educate your children in Mexico? Most Canadians and Americans making the move to Mexico already have a desired destination in mind. Many have traveled to Mexico before and fallen in love with a particular region. Some families may be coming to Mexico to work for a corporation and have no flexibility in regard to their new home city. Taking this into consideration, the educational choices for your children will be limited by geography. The good news is because Mexican families place a great value on education, in any reasonably sized metropolitan area you will find quite a few options to weigh and select from. The more diverse the population in the area you have chosen, the more diverse the schools will be.
However, before you decide the best way to educate your children in Mexico, there are two important factors to first take into consideration.
How long do you plan to stay in Mexico? Are you intending this move to be permanent or are you thinking of staying a few years or maybe just a few months? The length of your stay should impact your decision on how and where your children will be educated during this time.
If you are planning to stay forever, or at least for the duration of their pre-college education, and it important to you that your children become properly immersed in the culture of their new home country, then you will want to enroll them in private school and encourage them to assimilate as quickly as possible. You will most likely have a variety of schools to investigate before you chose the one that is best for your child.
Perhaps you are lucky enough to take a sabbatical from work and have decided to spend a few of the colder months south of the border. Should you enroll your child in school during the duration of your stay? Will you child benefit from the experience, if only for a short time? In situations such as this, parents have several options to consider.
If you are only planning to be in Mexico for a few months or perhaps a year your child's school will most likely be able to arrange a study from abroad program so that your child can keep up with the school work and be up to speed when he or she returns home. If you are not fortunate enough to have a progressive and forward thinking school administration who can accommodate your child's travels, there is any number of excellent accredited online learning programs available for you to choose from. This way, when you return to your home country, your children will be able to re-matriculate without worry of being behind or worse, being held back.
If you want them to learn a bit of the language, you could find a local tutor to work with you and your family for a few hours a week. Another option is to enroll your children in a local extracurricular sports or arts program. This way they can make some friends and pick up the language in a hands-on situation without the pressures of academic achievement. The language of futbol is universal!
If you are planning to stay in Mexico from six months to a year, you may also want to consider enrolling your child in a local private school in addition to their at-home studies. Many private schools make special accommodations for transient families and welcome visiting students into their classrooms on a temporary basis. Keep in mind that this may not be a viable option for all children at all ages.
How old are your children? In Mexico, children are welcome in school from the age of two on. At this tender age they are in a classroom for a few hours a day. I think it goes without saying that the younger your child is, the easier it will be for him or her to adjust and thrive in any new situation. Young children make friends quickly and pick up new languages with enviable speed and ease. Foreign students are welcome to matriculate at any time in their educational career. Older children may find the experience frustrating and cause them to withdraw or act out. You may need to steel your reserve to handle tearful and sometimes angry outbursts during the transition.
High school age children, unless they have a strong grasp of the Spanish language, both verbal and written, will be lost in most classes. Without the ability to communicate, they will likely have a hard time fitting into a typical high school social scene. It is not an impossible prospect but the accredited home-school and online programs may be the best options for your freshman and sophomore students moving to Mexico. Assuming your teens are planning to attend university in Canada or the United States, they will be focused on SAT prep and maintaining a good GPA. Every effort should be taken to not disrupt their efforts.
For high school juniors and seniors, this kind of extended stay requires serious consideration. Students involved in competitive sports cannot hope to be awarded athletic scholarships if they are absent for part, or all, of their high school career. Students looking forward to advanced placement (A.P.) or other specialized classes may be penalized by college admissions committees if they cannot show that their studies abroad were equally rigorous and challenging. Perhaps most importantly, teens expect these years to be filled with SATs, sports, college applications and proms. You may want to investigate the possibility of leaving your older teens behind with family or a trusted friend to finish out their school days and graduate with their friends.
NEXT - How to select the right school for your family