Sunday, October 6, 2013

Education in France - Our experience of choosing schools as expats

Our School in France

Schools - Where do we start?


I can't believe it's already October.  School has begun to settle in for the girls, it's beginning to feel a bit like Fall - although it's been very warm.  Truly - I'm not complaining about the weather - it's actually been beautiful.    This area is so pleasant when the sunshine is out.

I recently read a post from another expat who described how they selected schools for their children when they moved abroad.  It got me thinking about our experiences here in France.  When you are moving to a foreign country - the whole system is different and new.  I still remember the stress and the back and forth we went through as we chose schooling for our girls.  As I have said before - one of the primary reasons that we choose this adventure was to have the girls experience the other half of their heritage and also become bilingual.  Even though my husband is French, my girls really couldn't speak French before we moved here.  Yes, they knew a word or phrase or two...but for the most part - my husband and I did a lot of translating for them, when we would visit the French relatives.

Now  Bordeaux,  France like other places around the world, has several different schooling choices, there are international schools, private catholic schools and public schools.  Initially, my thoughts were like any other protective parent.  My girls didn't speak French, so I checked into the International school, which was advertised as bilingual with a strong emphasis on English.  (Now our situation was a bit different than other expats - as my husband is directly employed by a French company here - so. our education/schooling costs were not covered -as they are in many expat packages).  Looking at the tuition and the fact that we were reducing ourselves to one income this particular school was not a realistic option financially. So that option was out.  As we cut this option out early on due to financial reasons, I didn't look too much more into their programs - other than I knew they were bilingual in design.

A friend of mine in the States pointed out that immersion is an excellent way to learn a language and my children were certainly young enough to benefit from directly starting in French schools.  (At the time we moved here - My girls were entering Grade 5/CM2, Grade 2/CE1 & in Pre-K/Moyen Section).  She also reminded me that we were lucky as my husband was a native speaker.  As I pondered these thoughts, it made a lot of sense, what better way to help my kids become bilingual.  I figured we could also hire a tutor, if we needed to for my older daughters.

As my husband & I talked about possible immersion options - we were concerned especially about my oldest.  How far behind would she be?  Would she be able to catch up?  Would she be able to successfully complete the 5th grade curriculum?  Would they allow her into the grade level she's suppose to be in, even though she didn't speak the language?  Would she have to repeat the grade if she doesn't meet the expected standards?  Like most parents, we wanted to set our girls up to succeed, but at the same time, it was very important to us for them to learn French.  My husband's schooling experience in France was that the system was rigid, strict and non-forgiving.  From his memories, it was not as relationship-oriented or the positive confidence building one as the American education system.  He was very concerned about how our children would feel and would the teachers be understanding, as our girls had a different background than traditional French students.

We started leaning toward immersing them right into French public schools.  I had to imagine we were not the first or last family to ask this of French schools.  We figured we would speak to the schools and hire a tutor to help our oldest girls.  I think we were feeling pretty good about this decision - I kept telling myself that the girls were still young - and  they could do this.  It wouldn't necessarily be easy, but I had faith that we could get through this with the right support.

Then we met with the relocation specialist who was helping us find housing.  Obviously, one of the biggest questions about housing was where were we going to send our girls to school.  This decision would guide her about where to look at houses.  We confidently answered that we would place them in public French schools.  This answer was met with hesitation and then the BIG question - Do they speak French?  When we answered - a firm "No", she came back with her concerns and fears of placing a foreign child into the public French system.  Yes, they were the same concerns we had....They would be lost, they wouldn't understand, it would be really hard.  My French family had also voiced these same concerns a few days earlier.  We knew them well.  The fear of failure, the fear of being uncomfortable, the fear of being lost....

We explained that the International school was not an option for financial reasons.  She understood that, but suggested a private Catholic school that had what they called "International" sections.  These schools were use to educating foreign students in addition to their majority French population.  The curriculum was French, but as children got older, there would also be an "advanced" English section and even certain subjects could be taught in English.  When we asked about cost, she explained that tuition for private catholic schools is relatively small compared to other private schools.  The tuition cost is about $1,000/year.  However, an additional cost  would be lunch and since these schools are not public, they don't get National or Federal assistance - so that would increase the cost.  We could always opt for the girls to eat at home.  This sounded like a great compromise.  My main question (coming from a raised Protestant) was how "Catholic" were these schools?  I'm all for learning about religion, understanding it's history and significance - but didn't want the Catholic doctrine pushed onto my girls as the only option.  We were told that even though these school were founded and supported by the church, the religious component has become optional.  The students only took a religion class if they wanted do.  This was fine for me.  So, we had a French school, the girls would be immersed but have the understanding and support of teachers who were more comfortable working with non-French speaking students & it was affordable.  Sounded like a good option to me.

So we began looking at housing with a particular school in mind but also be close to my husband's work. However, this was the beginning of August.  One of the facts about French life is that many businesses and stores close during August for summer holidays.  This school was no exception.  They wouldn't be opening until the end of August.  So we wouldn't be able to visit the school, speak to anyone or even know if there was space for my daughters until then.  We got our housing figured out, returned to the States and waited.  The relocation specialist, our French family and us were pretty relieved to have made this decision - it seemed like the best of both worlds.  I could sleep at night!

The end of August rolled around, we called the school the day it re-opened and were met with the Bad news...No, they were full!.  We couldn't even talk to anyone, they were full.  Yes, we were welcome later on in the year to apply for the following year, but at this point, there was no room for this year.  Okay, there went the the perfect plan, the compromise and all the fears came swirling back....our option now...public French school.

Now, I'm a believer that things happen for a reason - events take sudden turns but in the end, things will eventually work out.  So when my husband arrived in France at the end of September, he headed off to the Town's Mayor's office to register the kids for school.  We were assigned the closest Primary and Pre-school to us (They luckily had space, as if they didn't you might get assigned another school in the town). My husband was to meet directly with the directors of the schools and finish the enrollment process.

I have to say, this is where we got super lucky.  The director of the Elementary school herself was bilingual and she understood our predicament.  She reassured my husband that the girls would be fine, the teachers would ease them into French work.  They had had a few other foreign students in the past, and by the end of the first year, these kids were fluent in French - my 2 older girls were at a good age to learn.  She even gave my husband a name of a tutor who could help our girls.  At the Pre-school/Maternelle, my husband had the same experience, a welcoming environment and an understanding of our situation.  Here, too, the Pre-K/Moyen Section teacher was also bilingual, so could understand my daughter's English.  (Which my youngest daughter continued to use for the next 3-4 months)
Sample homework assignment in CP/1st grade - Sept.

So, in the end, our girls starting off in French public schools turned out to be a great experience.  This is not to say that first year was not without it's ups and downs.  It was definitely an adjustment.  Days of headaches, being overwhelmed, stomach aches, tears and frustration of not understanding.  My youngest daughter took about 4 months to speak in French.  We met all of these challenges head on but with the belief that the girls would be fine.
Fun Carnival at the Maternelle

Every one's experience is different and I do feel we got extremely lucky with our public schools near us for that first year.  Presently, my 2 younger daughters still attend that same primary school and we continue to be impressed and happy.  My oldest daughter, who just began  5eme or 7th grade has probably had the toughest time adjusting and catching up.  As she was in CM2/5th grade when we moved here, after that first year, she transitioned to college/middle school.  Unfortunately, that public school was not a good academic experience for her or us and last year, in the middle of her year, we transferred her to another college.  That whole story is another post to write and maybe I'll write it someday.  She is presently attending that very same Private Catholic school that we had first heard about and we are content once again.

A couple ending reflections - I think just like in the States there are always teachers that are extremely good at what they do.  There are also teachers who are not the best.  My impressions of a classroom here in France is that overall they are a lot quieter than in the States.  Yes, there is interaction between the teacher and the whole class.  This depending on the teacher's personality can be more animated, funny or fairly dry.  But when the kids are asked to complete assignments, it is done in silence.  It's taken seriously and kids are expected to sit and work quietly.  The whole atmosphere is a lot quieter than an American classroom.  Very simply - there is a time and place to do things.  Classroom equals school work - recess and lunch equals time to chat and talk with your friends.  The elementary teachers here teach everything - regular curriculum, art, music,and PE.  There are assistants who supervise lunch and recesses, but the rest falls on the teacher.


With all that said, I will stop here - this post is already long enough.  Just wanted to share our experiences and especially that early part of moving here and choosing our schools.  Any feedback, comments or questions are always welcome - would love to hear about other families' experiences.

14 comments:

  1. Jennie, I love reading your blogs! I think it is so awesome that you are recording all of this for your girls and that they can have it for their own children. I would love to read a post from their point of view especially on the schooling. Hopefully they have been keeping their own journals of their experiences too, that will be wonderful for them to share with their kids one day.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Vicki - It's definitely become a labor of love. I love your idea about having the kids write a post...I have spoken to my oldest about writing a post - she wants to - but for her, it's about finding the time. Thank you again for your comments - love getting feedback!

      Delete
  2. What a brilliant post - so well explained and lots to think about - so many people say "oh they'll soon pick it up" but I always think that's alright for you to say you haven't got to spend 8 hours a day not understanding 95% of what's being said. Ultimately your children are really living the ex-pat experience more than the adult ever will and you are were so right to consider every possible option rather than just having the attitude they'll be fine. I'm sure your daughter's will think the same and thank you when they're older x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words. It's so nice to hear from readers and get such nice feedback. Yes, we all grow from experiences that are challenging and yes, I hope one day my girls will fully appreciate their experience living here. It took a lot of courage to move us here...but deep inside, I know it'a worth it.

      Delete
  3. Thanks for this story, I am so interested in how French schools operate in France. My kids go to French school in the U.S. I love to compare the similarities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are welcome. It's funny -when we were in the middle of it...you just keep plodding through. Only recently, when a friend asked me how & why we chose our schools - did I think realize how different they are to US schools and choices there. Glad you enjoyed the post - come back and visit again soon.

      Delete
  4. Hi, Jennifer,

    My husband and I are preparing to spend next year in France with our two boys who will be in (U.S.) grades 6 and 3 next year. It will be a sabbatical year for us, so just one year away from our home in Vermont (we live in Middlebury, just a little way from Saratoga). The three cities under consideration are Bordeaux, Lyon & Paris. We're leaning toward Bordeaux, but my husband's grant funding will be the ultimate determinant of where we end up.

    Thank you very much for sharing your perspective on immersing your girls in the public schools, as that is what we plan to do with our boys next year. I'm full of trepidation about the initial storms this will bring, but we're fairly resolute in the knowledge that this will be good for them in the end, and we expect that it will be worth the difficulty we'll all experience in the first few months.

    If, in fact, we do end up coming to Bordeaux, I'd love to chat with you about schools, neighborhoods for families, etc.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog! I've so enjoyed learning about your experiences in France through your wonderful, colorful posts!

    Best,
    Jen

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jen - You are very welcome - my blog has become my labor of love - truly love and passion. It's been fun to both document and share our experiences. Middlebury...yes, so close to Saratoga. (& to my Alma mater - Mount Holyoke College in MA) .miss the Fall foliage and the pumpkins!! Yes, by all means, if you end up in Bordeaux - definitely contact me -(my email is located on my about me page). In Bordeaux, we also have a very active English speaking women's club which has been a blessing for me to balance my English-speaking side. Just a little FYI - Paris is much more expensive to live than Bordeaux...not too sure about Lyon. Even if you end up in another part of France - stay in touch. Best of luck to you and your family. Thank you for your kind comments.

      Delete
    2. Thank you, Jennifer! I will definitely keep in touch and will let you know if we're on our way to Bordeaux. I'm not-so-secretly hoping that we'll end up there for the year. We should have a clearer sense of our location within the next few months.

      Best,
      Jen

      Delete
  5. I just wrote a message but I'm not sure if it got posted. First time Blog replier :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Katrin....the message didn't get posted...can't seem to find it....feel free to email me at amercianmominbordeaux@gmail.com - Have a great day!

      Delete
  6. I know that you wrote this post a long time ago. How similar it is to our experience. We moved to France when the kids were in cp, CE1, 6ème and 5ème. What similar choices you made, and so funny now to read the fears and worries that we also had five years ago. I shall look forward to reading more when I get a few minutes!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Jennifer, I also enjoyed reading your post. Schooling is very subjective, what works for one may not work for another! We had a similar experience -French/Australian couple with 4 children. They were always schooled in English, in NZ, Australia and Italy. Last year we decided that if we didn't change to the French system they would never be able to really speak French. We made the big move last year and they entered the French school in Italy -MS, CE1 and CM1. I think it was more traumatic for me than them! We are worried they are losing their English, even though orally they are perfect. They have done incredibly well and we are so happy with the big decision we made to move them! We are worried they are losing their English, even though orally they are perfect. We will now be moving to Bordeaux and I would love to talk to you about the schools there if you have time. Laura

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Laura - Sorry it took me a bit to reply to this comment. We had 2 weeks of school break until the 3rd of May and then the week of re-adjusting to our schedule....so now I'm catching up on blog work....Feel free to email me at americanmominbordeaux@gmail.com and I'll be glad to speak with you about some schooling options.

      Delete

Thank you for reading and visiting my blog. Feel free to leave a comment - I love hearing from people!

Popular Posts