OCONUS Schools: On-Base or Local?

Today I am thrilled to welcome Lizann Lightfoot of The Seasoned Spouse! She has lived overseas, and is experienced in a question that many military parents ask: 

Do I send my child to an on-base school or a local school?

Stationed Overseas: Should my child attend Local Schools?

School options at overseas duty stations vary greatly, depending on the country and the station. In many foreign countries, American children are allowed to attend local public or private schools. Private schools set their own tuition rates, of course, but public school is almost free, charging only a small fee for books and supplies. Attending local schools can be an excellent way to truly experience another culture, and your child can benefit from learning a new language through complete immersion!

To help you weigh your school options, there are some questions you should ask:

What types of schools can I choose? Most large bases have American elementary, middle, and high schools on base run through the Department of Defense. Teachers are American and classes are all taught in English, following American curriculum standards. Preschool aged children can attend classes through the base Child Development Center (CDC). Off base Americans can attend public schools run by the local state, or private schools, which are often run by a religious order. Private schools will have an assortment of language options. You can find some that instruct entirely in English, others entirely in the local language, and still others that offer a mixture. In some countries (like Germany and Spain), religion classes are available in both public and private schools, although parents have the option to opt out of religious instruction if they wish.

If my child doesn’t know the local language, can they still attend local schools? YES! Young children learn new languages very quickly, and being surrounded by the language all day is the best way to learn it. This is most effective in the early preschool and kindergarten years. My children attended a school where all the students were American, but the teachers were Spanish and spoke to them in both English and Spanish. All 3 of my kids learned some Spanish there, but the one who spent over a year in that classroom could understand the teacher fluently.  School aged children still pick up a new language quickly, but may become frustrated trying to learn math and science in a new language. You will have to judge your child and their ability to adapt. Many parents say the first month is rough, with the child frustrated and coming home crying because they are exhausted and have trouble making friends. But if you can make it through that first month, the language comprehension suddenly begins to explode for them! One extra tip: children understand a language before they can speak it or read it. So even if they won’t respond to you in the foreign language, evaluate their knowledge by how well they follow directions and answer questions given in the other language.

What age children can attend local schools? In some European countries, full-day school starts at age 3! This is a great age for a child to learn a new language quickly, but a full school day may be a bit too challenging for a 3-year-old who still takes naps, or who is struggling to adjust to living overseas. Also, find out if the age is determined by date (must turn 5 by September 1st) or by calendar year (must turn 5 in 2016). This can make a difference. And your child may not automatically be in a classroom with children their same age. In Germany, for example, children ages 2-5 are mixed in a free-play preschool setting without a set curriculum.

Is the curriculum compatible with American standards? In a word: No. There is no international standard for certain skills and educational topics, so things that are typically taught in 2nd grade in America may be covered in Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade in other countries. For example, cursive handwriting is no longer taught in American schools, but children in Spain learn to write in cursive first, starting in Kindergarten! And in Germany, intricate weaving is an important skill taught in Kindergarten! If your child transitions directly from an international school to an American school, they may spend some time adjusting academically. They will likely be ahead in some subject areas, and behind in others.What about the curriculum-

How/when can a child enroll in school? This varies by country. For example, the Japanese school year begin in April and goes until the following March, with 3 major vacation breaks during the year.  In most countries, applications are accepted several months before the school year begins. If you PCS during the summer, you may want to contact schools before you move, and learn their deadlines. Children will usually need to turn in a doctor’s form listing vaccines and medical conditions. You cannot qualify for public school until you can prove that you have a local address (either on base or off base is ok). In Spain, there was a ‘lottery system’ for public schools, so you didn’t automatically attend the closest one in your town. Anyone arriving after March could still submit an application, but they would be assigned to whatever school had an open spot.

If I don’t speak the local language, will someone help me apply for schools off base? This really depends on who you meet. Each overseas base has a School Liason Officer (SLO) whose job is to help families make schooling decisions, and get children enrolled into schools. However, they only provide assistance with the Department of Defense (DoD) American school on the base. The SLO cannot endorse enrollment at off-base schools, so they can’t help you with paperwork. If you want to apply off-base, you will need help from a local. It may take time, but make local friends that are somewhat bilingual. They can help you translate paperwork and ask questions. Google Translate is also an incredibly useful tool when trying to ask a question or figure out a form! My word of caution, though: if you don’t understand the language, how do you expect to be involved with your child’s classroom? There will be meetings with the teacher, class field trips and parties, school events, and possibly disciplinary issues. How will you handle those meetings and events? Will you be able to communicate with the school, and understand letters or texts from the teacher? You don’t need to be fluent to make it an enriching experience for your child, but plan to take language classes or have a tutor before you enroll your child in a foreign school.

Can I get help with homework? One of the most frustrating things about foreign school is… foreign homework! Not only will the worksheets be in the local language, but you may also have to re-learn some math strategies and new skills, too. There are tutors available on most bases to help with homework at any grade level. Tutors are especially useful to get caught up if your child will return to an American school the next year. There may also be local after-school options. My friend in Japan tells me that her 5 year old goes to Kumon, which is after school tutoring in Japan. She is learning to read and do math in Japanese!You don't need to know the local language to attend local schools!

What is the lunch situation? Not all schools allow children to eat lunch around noon! When we lived in Spain, we were surprised to learn that schools do not have a lunchtime at all! The schools release at 2PM for students to go home and eat lunch with their families. There was a snack time mid-morning, and most American students simply packed lunch type food to eat at that time. But do your research, and know whether the school serves a hot lunch, or if children pack their own, and what time lunch is eaten. Be prepared to adjust your family schedule accordingly.

Where can I ask questions and learn more about this process? Each overseas duty station will have its own set of resources. Start with the School Liason Officer—an American who has information about all the school options. Then start asking questions to the Americans stationed there. Some great community resource pages are:

For Okinawa, Japan: http://okinawahai.com/school-info-index/ (This lists school options on AND off base).

For Germany: http://germanyja.com/category/childcare-preschools-schools/ (Articles by community members).

For Rota, Spain: There is an official website for the DoD schools and a Facebook group to ask questions to the community, called Rota Naval Community Q & A. Or you can purchase my recently-published book, ‘Welcome to Rota,’ which contains all kinds of cultural, travel, and logistical info about PCSing to Rota. It is available on Amazon as a paperback or eBook.

Lizann Lightfoot is a military spouse who recently returned from a 3-year overseas assignment to Naval Station Rota, Spain (seriously one of the best stations in the world!) While there, she had her 4th baby, and published the book ‘Welcome to Rota,’ a guidebook for military families moving to Spain. She now runs the blog, The Seasoned Spouse, where she writes about military life and surviving deployment with 4 crazy kids!

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