Back to School, Internationally

by Rachel Pieh Jones on September 2, 2013

Growing up in suburban Minneapolis, every first day of school was essentially the same. I knew the school, the teachers, the students. The school supplies in my backpack, all from Target, were familiar and reliable. I knew the date of the first day and it never changed at the last minute. I knew I would vomit, or at least feel sick, the day before, that combination of dread and excitement too much to handle with poise for a timid introvert.

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learning how to ride the bus to school in Minnesota

Now, sending my children off to their first day of school in the fall, I battle that same dread and excitement (no more vomiting though). One of my kids goes to her first day with a backpack and plastic bag overflowing with supplies, a water bottle cradled like a baby doll in her arms. She goes to the French school in Djibouti. The other two go to their first day of school with carry-on luggage and airplane tickets. They go to boarding school in Kenya.

The first day of school in Djibouti is a moving target and we aren’t always certain until the week before. Students and teachers are constantly in flux, hello new and goodbye old, and in the first week of classes my daughter will likely come home with an entirely updated list of school supplies (speaking of school supplies…we want to buy local but let’s face it, Crayola crayons actually color, cost less than $0.50/crayon, and don’t melt, Scotch tape actually sticks, Elmer’s glue sticks don’t shrivel and dry up before being opened. Some school supplies are purchased in the US.)

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lunch at school in Kenya

School choices are intensely personal and complex and I expect we will host challenging and engaging conversations about school choices and options and successes and mistakes here in the future, keep your eyes open for that. But…

…for now, since many of us are in the busy, chaotic throes of putting kids on planes or on buses or in carpools or walking shoes, busy packing lunches or snack boxes, filling water bottles, shopping for last minute school supplies, re-arriving in our host countries after a summer vacation…how about one quick question:

What school option(s) have you chosen for your family? Here is my answer:

Three different local French schools in Djibouti. A preschool in Somalia. Boarding school in Kenya. One year of American public French immersion school. Intermittent homeschool of history and English. A few weeks of preschool in France. Not necessarily in that order.

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goodbye to the goat on the first day of school in Djibouti

I’m curious and would love to hear how expatriates around the world decide to educate their children.

A word, a couple words (for those with constant changes, a short paragraph): how have you chosen to educate your children?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Amy

    Hmm. Well, my kiddos are young and we have just started a chill homeschool in the evenings. We are going to be in a rural area, so for now, this is our option for our twins. My heart is aching as I read this, sort of on the opposite side, I am in language school and for the first time, I have to leave them every morning with a person I barely know. I know they will even out after a bit and love it (hopefully learning Amharic from their nanny as well) but right now we are feeling the growing pains. Thankful that Middle/High school is years away and all the options that come with it don’t have to be discussed in our near future!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I remember those years, also with twins. Not easy to be in school yourself while thinking about schooling and parenting for little ones!

  • Rachel

    We are very rural so choices were limited. We opted for a self-designed year of home school at pre-school level, then weekly boarding from Grade 1 or 2 up to Grade 7 or 8. This was interspersed with periods of 6-12 months of day school, both public and Christian, while on furlough in Australia. We have found furloughs of 12 months, that tied in with the academic year, to be very valuable for our kids, not just in terms of continuity of education, but giving them a chance to re-learn what it means to be an Aussie. 2014 will see our older two start at a new Christian boarding school in Zambia, a full day’s drive away. In 3 years, we’ll be heading back to Australia to put everyone through upper secondary school – a minimum of 5 years. Mixed feelings about that: we will miss Zambia very much after 14+ years, but we’ve seen the benefits our kids have gained from this year (2013) in Australia, and we feel very keenly that they should not be sacrificed on the alter of mission work.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      We also spent a year in the US and it was good for kids to experience not just summer vacation time there, but actual school and work and more real-life American things. I agree about that being valuable for them. Thanks for sharing about your choices and options, everything comes with its ups and downs, those mixed feelings.

  • Kathy

    Our kiddos started at an English/Spanish bilingual school here in the Dominican Republic that is run by American missionaries and is 50% scholarship. The staff is amazing, and we couldn’t be more excited about having real curriculum, compared to last year– also a bilingual school lacking many key elements of a school such as curriculum, supplies and organization. I think it’s going to be a great year!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love hearing how excited you are! I’m sure that will rub off on the kids too. Every year seems to bring something new overseas, doesn’t it?

  • We have done homeschool and contracted a private tutor. Now the kids are enrolled in the bilingual Christian school that we founded which follows the Bolivian school schedule (February -> November, morning classes so the students are home for lunch). It’s a regular sized school with nearly 200 students K4 – 12. We are currently looking final year(s) options for our 8th and 9th graders. Boarding school in England is at the top of the list. The second option is living with relatives in the States and enrolled in the public school system.

    The subject of education fascinates me. Thanks for bringing it up, Rachel.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Wow, I expected the comments to be interesting, varied, and shed some light on educational options, but already there are so many different choices people are sharing. I love it. I love that we can choose and be flexible, even though sometimes the choices are wrenching. Any particular reason you’re looking at a boarding school in England? Just curious. Boarding has been so good for our kids, another not easy decision, but so far a good one.

      • A boarding school in Sussex has “adopted” the orphanage we run. For the past few years they have done fundraisers, mobilized the student body, and have even sent a volunteer who worked in the orphanage this summer. The efforts are led by one of the teachers who lives at the school who we keep in touch with fairly closely. Fellow missionaries here in Bolivia even saw him on a recent trip they made to Europe. All that to say, we have a personal connection with this particular school.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          What a neat story Angie. The more I hear about the work you guys do, the more I want to hear more. How about that for a sentence with too many more’s? Seriously though, the relationships you’ve built and the work you do is so unique and beautiful.

  • Becky

    We live in les Cayes, Haiti. One of the best decisions I feel we’ve made was to send our kids to the local Haitian Christian preschool/kindergarten. My oldest 2 did their K-4, K-5 years there and my youngest did K-4 last year and starts K-5 there next month. Oh they cried the first week, it was so hard (and my yourngest cried the first 2 weeks). We stuck with it and it really was (is) a great experience for them. We are also so blessed to have a small international Christian school (English) here for grades 1-12 that’s been amazing! The teachers who serve there are such a blessing.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yeah for amazing schools and great experiences! I’d bet that a lot of kids cry their first week of school, no matter where they are. Maybe not…our youngest did and now she cries instead on the last days of school!

  • SG

    Well, Rachel, you know our situation and I’m so thankful for your thoughts on boarding school. We live in Afghanistan, though we’re currently on home leave in the US. Our boys earliest years were in Uzbekistan, and the our oldest son attended a local preschool in the Tajik language. We were back in the US for 5 years and the boys attended public school up to 3rd and 1st grade. Then to Kabul, where they were in the international American school through 7th and 5th grade. We decided to homeschool this year for a variety of reasons, and now we’re unexpectedly in the US for the fall, so that’s worked out well. Now next month we’re off to visit a British boarding school in India where we’re considering sending the boys for high school. Yikes. Hanging on to the Father for this one!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Will be praying for your visit, I’m glad you’ll have a chance to see the school before needing to decide.

  • Joy Tebow

    Mostly we have homeschooled which I love but we did put two of my three in local preschools with the hopes that it would give them a better local language base. Somehow it didn’t really work. I sometimes think my youngest taught her teachers more English than she learned Thai. Both girls were more like little dolls to their teachers and often came home with elaborate braids in their very blond hair. We are currently spending a year in the US with my oldest in public school and likely will leave him here to finish his last two years of high school. Because of his love for US sports, boarding at an international school in Thailand didn’t seem to fit for him but we likely will consider it for the girls if our isolated location becomes to restraining for them – different for different kids.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      “Different for different kids.” I think these are some of the most important words to keep in mind regarding kids’ educations. And different locations as well, as you have clearly experienced through the years Joy.

  • BFGuy

    We send our children to an accredited International School. You’re right the reasons are varied and personal. We chose this way because we want to give our children the most options when we eventually move back to the United States as far as college and career choice. For example, they could not join the military or attend a military academy with a homeschool degree or a degree from a local french school. We will not be in a francophone country forever so sending them to French school was not an option because we would have to teach them everything over again in English. Not even the French bilingual school teaches them how to write or use correct English grammar. This would make it difficult to write College essays or use the APA/MLA format in a paper. We also felt it necessary for them to interact with as many cultures as possible. The International school really provides them the opportunity to make friends form all over the world and it makes playdates so much more interesting.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks for sharing this, another great option for families. I am really enjoying hearing about people’s reasonings behind their choices and find myself saying, “yes,” to each. Maybe that’s because it is encouraging to hear parents’ putting in such thought and care and intention into their children. I feel blessed to be part of this kind of community. And, I laughed about the more interesting play dates – so true!

    • sarah

      I’m not trying to comment on any of your decisions, but just wanted to clarify one thing–homeschoolers actually can join the military. I’ve known homeschoolers who have joined the Air Force and the Marines.
      Here’s a link with some info:

      • BFGuy

        I was a military recruiter and we were not allowed to accept students with homeschool diplomas.They were on equal footing with a GED. They could join but there were special circumstances that would allow this. It seems that in 2012 that all changed. Also if somebody has 15 College Credits they can join even if they didn’t ever attend high school, homeschool or otherwise. I DO believe that in order to become more intelligent youshould be taught by somebody smarter than yourself and I want my children to be smarter than me and experiance more than just mine or my wifes opinion. I also want them to see things how the world sees them so that they can defend themselves against it when the time comes and that time will come. Thank you for the link. Ihave been educated and it seems that the military has caught up with the rest of the world in the terms of the quality of homeschool education. I am a firm believer that the quality of the education heavily depends on the individual being educated.

  • Elisabeth

    I’ll let you know next year (as we’re planning to move back to Ethiopia)! I’ve thought about this question a lot, and there are no easy answers — and I suppose the equation changes as kids get older. (For Addis, I would imagine my first priority would be Amharic learning, but I struggle with socioeconomic considerations too — trying to figure out what is worse, going to school with lots of rich/privileged kids, or being the richest/most privileged kid in a school?) I admire your courage in sending Henry and Maggie to RVA — my friends who went there all loved it and had stories that made me jealous of them when I heard them (having gone to “boring” French public schools myself), but now as a parent I realize what it means from the other side, and I can’t imagine doing it!

    • Sherri

      Elisabeth, my son is at Bingham Academy (Addis Ababa) and loves it! Since we are in the mission community, my kids are NOT the richest kids at the school for sure! Yes we are rich compared to Ethiopians. But compared to other expats. No. Being here 7 1/2 yrs, it is constantly a struggle in my heart between our lives and the EThiopians.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Maybe we’ll see each other again on this continent, I’d love to meet your family!

  • Juliebeth D.

    Our two oldest boys (12 and 14) are in a Peruvian Christian Missionary Alliance school and taking history and lit. through Veritas Press at home in order to (hopefully) fill some of the gaps in Peruvian schooling. Their education is mostly in Spanish. My four youngest kids (4, 6, 8, and 10) are homeschooled, and we’ve hired a Spanish tutor to teach them daily. But that’s just THIS year. I think that is the most difficult part of educating overseas…language learning in two languages, cultural assimilation in two cultures, college preparation, etc. The variables seem much greater and seem to change much more frequently than they did in the States! It seems that very few missionary families have a great option that they can carry on with for all of their kids from K-12. Each year requires a lot of prayer and thinking and planning. Although I have to admit, we’re in the middle of our school year here…Southern Hemisphere, you know!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Ah, that’s right, I forgot about the southern hemisphere and northern not being on the same schedules! So true about the difficulty of the constantly changing options and needs. I think that is abundantly clear in this comment thread alone. I sort of expected people to put a few words, but it is obvious, even in my own case, that most of us need paragraphs. As a child, I went to one school district k-12, so that was a different world.

  • Jenny

    I find that people’s reactions (in the U.S.) are VERY strong towards boarding school. Even though we most likely won’t need to use that educational option (see next paragraph), I have tried to help people understand it is not “wrong” or disobedience to God’s calling to us as parents to train up our children when missionaries send their kids to boarding school. I know people are reacting to how missions was done decades ago and the repercussions of “sacrificing children at the altar of ministry,” so I feel strongly about helping people understand the necessity and the good that boarding school can be. I just say all this because it is THE topic we have run into that people react most strongly against when it comes to supporting missions in general.

    Having said all that, we are returning to Japan, a very urban (and highly educated!) ministry setting where there are lots of educational options — national school, int’l secular school, int’l Christian school, homeschool…. and even boarding school in Taiwan and the Philippines for those in more rural/remote parts of Japan. Our children are kinder and 2nd grade, and we’ve been homeschooling them in the U.S.

    When we get back to the field, we will be in a more rural setting for language school for 2 years and put the kids in national schools to learn the language and culture, and I will continue to supplement with homeschooling in English/language arts.

    We expect to go to Tokyo after that, and because the Japanese school system/requirements change significantly once kids hit 4th grade, we anticipate putting them in an MK school (I think the trend is going towards calling them “international Christian schools” since many are not comprised of just MK’s anymore).

    Educating our children on the mission field is such an important topic, so varied according to ministry context and for each family and each child. So thanks for sharing your experiences, Rachel.

    We are thankful for a ministry called “Interaction International” that our agency required of us to go to. They helped us think through MK education in a week-long seminary we attended: — in case it helps anyone to look at what’s available when you’re getting ready to go to the field or on home assignment! It helped to be told to keep the end in mind (what are our educational goals for our kids in the long run), keep those goals with an open hand before the Lord, re-evaluate regularly, and pray pray pray for and with our sweet kiddos through each school day.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Great link, thanks for sharing that. And a super-shouted AMEN to your last lines. Yes! And thank you also, for trying to help people understand that there is more to the boarding school decision than meets the eye. So many factors went into our own decision and it can be almost impossible for people not in a similar situation to grasp those factors, but I agree, it is important to at least speak truth. I’ve had to get over a fear of feeling judged and move into the confidence that God is leading my family. Clearly he is leading yours too, and the others here who have shared. What a beautiful thing, that we can be united under one God and be free to make such varied, faith-filled choices, and support one another in those choices. It makes me kind of emotional. Thanks Jenny.

    • Richelle Wright

      we find the same thing to be true- churches and family members and friends back in the States often have very strong opinions and suggestions and expectations regarding what we will/will not do with our children in regards to their education… and while we’ve not had to consider boarding school at this point in time, there’s no guarantee it won’t become a possibility later and we’ve been given grief for some of the choices we have made…

      the last three years i spent teaching at a day/boarding school for expat students. we had those dorming kids in our home lots, knew their families… i also try and advocate for each expat family to have the freedom to make the best choice for his/her family without trying to meet the expectations of all those partners back in their home country.

  • Sherri

    We homeschooled in the US and then when we moved to Ethiopia and were rural, we continued to homeschool. Slowly we sent our children (1 a yr) to Bingham Academy for high school, the MK school in Addis Ababa. Two of my children have graduated and are attending the same college in the US. One son still goes there. One year we boarded our oldest while I homeschooled the younger two. Then the boarding option closed. So they daily traveled back and forth to school which was 1 1/2 to 2 hours each way. Then last year we decided it was time to board again since our son was requesting it and there was a new boarding program. I love that we have the best of two worlds. Our son can sleep in and has a place to stay for evening activities but can also come home on the weekends. No school choice is perfect and one choice will not fit every member of the family. It is a constant talk with our family and with our organization and with God as to what is best.

  • Anna Wegner

    My oldest did public school in the US, Kindergarten through 2nd (on and Indian reservation.) Then he had a year in a bilingual school in Quebec- also where my 2nd did kindergarten. Since then homeschooling in the Congo & US & where ever. 🙂

  • Stephanie G

    This post is fascinating for me, as I find myself in a somewhat unique position of having returned to the country where I was raised as an MK but facing completely different educational choices for my own children. I grew up in Santiago, the capital of Chile, where I attended our MK school from 1st-12th grades (minus furloughs) and received an excellent Christian, “American” education which prepared me well for college in the States. At the time we had a strong Spanish program at school as well, so I felt well-educated in both languages. Also, my parents were both on campus, all the teachers were my missionary “aunts” and “uncles” and I made common-ground friendships that have lasted for a lifetime.

    However, my husband and I currently live 24 hours’ north of Santiago in the city of Iquique. We have five beautiful kiddos ages 5-12 through the blessing of transracial adoption. One of our children was recently diagnosed with ADHD, another probably would be diagnosed with ADD, and while all are beautifully fluent in spoken English and Spanish so far they cannot spell in either language. 🙂 Our children have attended private pre-schools in the States, a couple of them briefly attended the MK school in Santiago, and now between the five kids they are attending three different Chilean schools according to the Chilean calendar (March – December) which makes transitions on furloughs unique. We’ve had one furlough so far and tried our hand at homeschooling, which at this point I don’t feel I can commit to full-time on the field due to the fact that it is a full-time commitment.

    However personally, we don’t feel comfortable keeping our children in national schools through high school because we expect they will probably do college in the US and would struggle with the transition. There are other factors as well, but long story short this is a hot topic in our house! We try to take it one year at a time.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      One year at at a time, that is the best way to sum up the discussion on education, I think. One year at at time, and each kid is unique.

  • Richelle Wright

    home school in both French and English, private French language pre-school and elementary school, Christian school in the States, French online public school, French private online school, international mission school for expats, on line school, public online school, speech and language courses through the public school, on-line courses while at the international mission school… and as of last week, beginning with a college student at a private Christian liberal arts college in the States. Unfortunately, we can’t find one-size fits all formula for this gang of ours…

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Woah. I think you might win for the most! But you also might win for the most kids so I guess they go hand in hand. Way to keep track of it all Richelle!

      • Richelle Wright

        i think a really key thing is remembering that there most often are more options out there for most places, at least a lot more than a first glance would glean… especially when there is internet access. i also think it is important that as parents we learn to trust God and rest in knowing we’ve made the best decisions we can with the info we have in the present usually after much prayer, thought and sometimes counsel. then, we adjust when and as necessary – never thinking that just because we started this, that or the other thing, we are locked in to a certain educational path. And we can’t beat ourselves up for decisions that turned out maybe not to be the best – or perhaps it would be better to say not the fit we expected – but rather thank God for how He reveals to us more about what our children need and how to better parent them through this tck education thing – especially when we knew we made the best decision we could at the time. it would be really easy for me to clamber up on a soap box on this one… but i’ll refrain, for the moment at least. 🙂

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          It comes down to trust, doesn’t it? Trusting that God has a plan not only for us, but for our kids. And that he can redeem our mistakes and hard circumstances, and those of our kids. My husband is fond of asking me – what are your ultimate goals for the kids? Straight A’s or godly character? Top of the class or learning to live and love like Jesus? There is so much more to education than a classroom. So much to say about schooling, isn’t there?

  • dana

    a year of private christian language-immersion school in the states, and homeschooling with a christian curriculum and local extra-curricular activities here in mexico.

  • Courtney Schmidt

    I just sent my first to kindergarten yesterday so we are only just now entering the school-age phase of life. We have two preschoolers still at home. We are blessed to work at a k-12 school so I only had to walk him a short way. We serve at the school your oldest two attend, Rachel, and we are just thrilled to do so. We count it an enormous blessing to serve the missions community by washing the feet of you who bring good news to the nations. Be encouraged today. We’re here for you.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Tears Courtney. Thank you. Especially this first week of school. Have you met mine?

      • Courtney Schmidt

        My husband is their algebra I teacher. 🙂

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          I love that! I’ll admit that I got teary when they tested into Algebra. When your kids struggle through the early years, it is a miraculous thing to watch them begin to thrive and enjoy learning.

  • We have 5 kids and all were a bit older when we moved to Haiti. The first year I homeschooled them and at the end of the year when we were all still alive (miracles happen), we decided that something else had to happen. There is an international Christian school here but it would take about 2 hours one way to take our kids (9 miles of traffic!)- uh, yeah, no thanks. So, the second year we put out a request on our blog/facebook for teachers…we thankfully had a response, and a precious couple was crazy enough to come and voluntarily teach them (we provided housing and transportation). Yet my oldest still struggled and we started searching other options for him (besides hanging him up by his toenails). This year we have another wonderful couple who will be teaching the youngest 4 (5th, 6th, 8th grades) while our oldest is at a boarding school in the States. Leaving our son at the boarding school was quite possibly the hardest thing we have ever done (well, next to birthing him) BUT we know it is God’s plan for him and we believe he will thrive there. If people wrongly think that we are putting our ministry before him, there’s nothing I can do about it. We have peace and God’s blessing and that’s all I desperately need right now as my heart aches without him. It’s good to know that there are others out there who have made these tough choices and survived. Thanks for the post!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      You had me laughing so much through this. I’m glad you all survived! We have a rabbit and when people ask about it, the first thing we say is: ‘She’s still alive!’ This is a miracle since most animals come to our house to die (unintentionally on our part). It is so hard to leave kids at boarding school, even when it IS the best, right, good-est thing.

      • I have a 13 yr. old blind-in-one-eye dog I need to send your way.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          I am sure we could ‘take care’ of it for you, whether we tried to or not.

  • Tracey D

    Thanks for this post!! First I’ll say that I’m a public school teacher (stateside), grew up in public school (also in MN!), and support public school as a general rule. But maybe all that makes me picky. We live in Costa Rica and thought we’d put our kids in public school here. . .until we investigated the options in our area. So, the two older ones attend a Feb.-Nov. calendar-ed Catholic private school that is “bilingual,” and the youngest is at a Baptist church Spanish preK/daycare. Both are close to our home and ‘affordable.’ People ask why I don’t homeschool. . . never have had the desire to, AND I love that my kids are bilingual, have local friends, influences other than Mom and Dad, it lets me be more involved in ministry, etc. (Let’s be honest, someone wouldn’t come out alive!) But, for finances, or supplementing English/History, I might consider it someday.

    A friend gave me great advice one time as we were AGONIZING over all the school decisions: Take it one year at a time. And so we are.

  • Sarah Rebbavarapu

    We’ve done homeschool in America (one year), public school in America (six months), 3 private local schools in India (least favorite of all of us), mother-taught homeschool in India, online school live from America while in India, and six years of boarding school for our eldest. No judgment for anyone’s choices coming from this corner–we have done pretty much everything.

  • Carmen Tomaszewski

    When we lived in South Africa, our girls attended an East Indian school, were the only white children. However, I made sure they knew how to read before starting school.

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