July 3, 2010

School Dazed: Educating Expat Kids in Panama

 Mahlin, Pyper & William Tricked Out for a School Performance, 2008

People often write to ask me about schooling choices, and I'm sorry to say I don't have the quick & easy answer to that one. Despite the gated communities that pepper our hillsides, Boquete is essentially a farming town with out-dated a school systems a la rote-style learning, copious copying, mandated military style hair for boys, uniforms for all -- a real throw-back to schools of an earlier era.  But it's not all that bad, if you decide you want to stick it out.

Deciding how to handle your child's schooling depends much on your her or his  learning style, adaptability and personality, as well as on your own goals for your child's education. Our school saga wasn't quick and it was hardly easy --I wouldn't want to do it again for all the licorice in Holland.  But now that I can look back with relief, I can say it's ended up pretty well. So far.

When we came to Panama William was half way through the third grade.  Frantic about what I was going to do when we arrived, I  purchased and packed up an accredited Distance Learning program.  It was a pretty great curriculum (Laurel Springs); easy to understand and to implement, in theory.  The realities of teaching it to a resistant kid with a strong kinesthetic learning style who was also smack in the throes of adjusting to a new culture and language, not to mention a completely new family structure... well.... not so much a picnic! Dad did the lion's share of school, often finding himself smack into the middle of  that personal hell and chaos:  The Home School Battle Field.

But the challenges (and I use "challenges" euphemistically) sprang largely from issues around a total realignment of our family structure. Plus, there was that other thing going on.. the fact that we had just changed countries. So the problems had little to do with the program itself.  Not everyone who transitions from traditional school to home school faces challenges.  Maybe you come from hat one "functional family" we all keep hearing about; that elusive, perfect family the rest of us messy parents continually measure ourselves against, coming up short.  If that's the case, you won't have any problems.  I say "Go for it!" 

Eventually, however, we worked it out and William successfully completed the third grade with dad while at the same time attending  local school -- as an auditor --  from 10:00 - 1:00 p.m.  At that time he did not speak more than a few words of Spanish but he began to pick it up.

The school system here can be a bear, especially for us the overly involved, controlling, sometimes impatient north  American mommy. (Do you know anyone like that?) Communication is definitely challenges, even if you speak Spanish,  and the schools don't exactly bend over backwards to make adjustments.

The sixth grade classroom at Instituto Guadalupano

In school, William had to withstand a certain amount of teasing and isolation and, as a mother, that is very hard to take.  I'm crazy about my kid and I'm not really joking when I tell you that, at eleven (now), he's lucky I let him  feed himself!  I've seen many parents pull their children out of the local schools here after only a few months, and there were times when I was close, very close to doing the same. 

Still, I would check in with him on this issue, this minimal bullying he was going through, weekly, and he said he wanted to persevere. (The day he told me, rather poignantly, that he had had enough, I immediately switched schools and he became much happier.)  So, persevere we did and, through the process, we watched William develop decent coping strategies and also measurably mature.

Eventually I realized that clinging to the great  relief provided by regular weekend gatherings of expat families  was actually hindering the assimilation process.  Our kid's feet just weren't fully or firmly planted in either world;  he didn't really belong anywhere.  That is why, after our first ten months and during the Panama school break, we pulled him away from the expats and watched him take off like a rocket!.

Spanish began to come steadily,  fueled by William's socially driven engine and need to be verbal and make friends (a Ballard through and through).  The next school year we continued with the Distance Learning and the part-time auditing until we were able to get matriculate him.  I won't pretend this was easy; it was a process so prolonged and frustrating there were times I wanted to tear out my fingernails, one by one.  However I proceeded with uncharacteristic patience and smiles -- lots of "Gracias" for nothing... while inside my brain was screeching '"FerGodSake hurry this up it doesn't make any sense I will be past menopause by the time we get this done!".  But, testament to the idea that "this too shall pass,"   William was indeed matriculated.  Today, our lives are easier and, I thin,k much  richer for the experience.

Social  life buzzes with an endless stream of friends, because they come from, well, from  here. William is close to his classmates because they move on up to the next grades together, as a group.  Play time is mostly free play, soccer, running around the neighborhood and the like. Very little time is spent on Game Boys, computers, and such (its definitely more like the 1960s childhood of my day). 

At this year's annual school show, July, 2010

Sometimes I worry that we aren't pushing enough.   I struggle, on a daily basis, with questions about whether my kid is getting enough.  It's a never-ending  internal tug-of-war. Our son is not going to be studying Mandarin or taking advanced placement classes so he can chalk up a his first years of college while at the same time, attending  high school.  But the anxiety we parents often impose on our children is one of the very reasons we moved away in the first place!  The truth is, though, that William is getting the basics in school.  (Most surprising is that ten of his classes are given in English, materials included!)  And of course we fill in at home  by continuing to read with and to William in English.

I try to remember that "children grow where you plant them."  I also see that, because of our move to Boquete, Larry and I are  very present in all aspects of son's life.

Each little person is different and no one understands the child's needs better than a loving parent. The choices parents make regarding an expat education will be very much directed by the type of child they have.  Our choice to stay with a local school was in no small part driven by  the active and social nature of our son.  I know many families who are finding great success via home school (some accredited, some not, some piece-meal) and home school co-ops.  Remember that of the roads you take will lead to a dead end, so, if  it's not working out, try another route.

For a Directory of Schools in Boquete and Details on deciding about schooling,
you can refer to the "pages" on the right column of this blog.

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News About The Boys

Mrs. Bliss told us there is a caterpillar here that is pink and fuzzy, and, if you touch it, its fur will stick in your skin and sting you! This happened to her daughter, Aylana. It was very painful and they had to pull the fibers out using tape! There are also scorpions and snakes, but I think there are more poisonous snakes in Florida.

William is busy, busy. In the morning he does his home schooling (Dad is his teacher!). Then, around 9:00 he rushes happily off to the local, Catholic, Spanish-only school where he audits the 4th grade! He's been doing some skim boarding but we are seriously missing the skating. Surfing looms in the near future. For a change we finally have kids on our street to play with, (not to mention dogs and roosters, snakes, toads, etc.) and it is wonderful making new friends. Still, William really misses his friends and family back in Sarasota. It's wonderful to get messages from the folks back home.

We send a special "Hello How Are Ya?" back to Nolen, Max, Connor, Emily W. and Teah!

Larry is Mr. Handy! Between homeschooling and making repairs on the house, he is never without something to do. And we have gone from never seeing him, to having him around all the time. Hmmmmmm.....

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