The goal of this blog post is to explain some of the things we have learned while parenting a school-aged child in Mexico (or at least in Mazatlán, Sinaloa), and some of the contrasts with the US system of education. Much of the information below comes from the questions we are most frequently asked by those who are thinking about or planning to relocate.
Obviously the below is based on our experience as a family; many will have different opinions and experiences. It is worthwhile noting that people moving to Mexico City, Monterrey or Guadalajara will have many more choices than we have here in the “provinces,” as they say in Spanish.
I hope some of this might help you as you think about relocating. I only wish this sort of information had been available to us when we moved!
Choosing a School
Make the decision around choice of school with thought and care, after thinking about your goals and realities. In addition to the questions you’d ask in evaluating any new school, some of the questions I’d recommend when considering schools in Mexico include:
- Do you want your child to learn Spanish? If so, do you want him/her to develop native-level fluency, or just foreign-language level fluency?
- How long will you be living in Mexico? Will your next assignment be in another country, or back home?
- Do you want to give your child an international experience or a Mexican experience?
- Do you speak Spanish? Does your child? If not, are you committed to learning?
- In what grades are your children? If they will be entering university after graduating school in Mexico, you want to be sure s/he will have the qualifications needed for the university of choice, of course.
- How will the school help your child to acculturate, and to learn Spanish? Do they have a new student/family orientation, and a mentor/buddy system? Is there tutoring available?
- It’s also wise to ask about testing and minimum grade requirements, as some schools require students maintain a certain grade average to remain in school.
- Ask how the school will handle things if your child gets poor grades the first few terms due to lack of Spanish language skill.
- Ask for a schedule of tuition and fees, including fees for after-school activities, transportation, books, uniforms and other miscellaneous expenses such as photo IDs.
Schools, both private and public, are clearly ranked by SEPyC (Department of Education) according to test scores. Ask other parents and people in the community for their recommendations as to the best local schools and why.
Class size can vary remarkably by school, sometimes with as few as 15 students per class to as many as 50 or more. School facilities will also vary. Be sure to take a look at computer labs, science facilities, sports fields and gymnasiums, if these are important to you. It can be especially difficult to find schools that have grass on the futbol (soccer) fields, or nets on the basketball hoops, for example. Ask about school-sponsored after-school activities, as some schools offer music, sports, and drama vespertinas, supervised by the teaching staff, on the school grounds. Some also offer after-school homework help or tutoring, sometimes at no additional fee. You may also wish to inquire about before and after school transportation, as walking or riding bicycles to school is not common in Mexico as it is in the the States or Canada.
Search the Internet, ask around, and select a few schools you would like to visit. Be sure to visit in person, and allow a few hours so you can meet with the staff, see the facilities, and visit a classroom or two. Please be aware that use of the Internet and email in schools is not nearly as prevalent as it is north of the border. Calling the school to speak with personnel, or better yet, a visit live and in person, will usually get you much more information than an email, which may often go unanswered or even unread.
Remember that schools are usually organized as primaria (grades 1-6), secundaria (grades 7-9) and bachillerato or prepa (grade 10-12). Primarias may include kindergarten and pre-K. Many schools will not include prepa on the same campus, so be sure to ask. Some prepas (preparatorias) lead directly into and are a part of a university. These tend to be the better schools, in our experience. Be careful; many Mexicans, when speaking English, will use the words “high school” to mean secundaria. This is perhaps because secundaria is the highest level of required education.
Something that new immigrants may not think about is to ask if the classrooms have air conditioning. Here in Mazatlán, as in most places in the US, we feel it is very important to also take a close look at campus security.
Types of Schools
Large urban areas in Mexico may have international schools or American schools abroad. These schools teach in English, using the US or another international system. Such schools also teach Spanish as a foreign language, sometimes as a second language. I’d recommend an international or American school abroad if you are planning to only spend a year or two in Mexico, and particularly if there is a good chance that once you complete your assignment in Mexico you’ll be moving to another international location. The advantages to an international school are that your child will be meeting kids from a broad variety of nationalities. Connections tend to be good: children of business executives, diplomats. Families at these schools tend to be mobile, so it’s easier to make friends quickly, and the schools are accustomed to welcoming and integrating new children and families. Downsides are that you and your child will not get a very “Mexican” experience at school. As of this writing (and still in 2014), there is no official International or American school in Mazatlán.
Most Mexican cities will also have “bilingual” schools. These are private schools with classes taught in Spanish, but with a major emphasis placed on the children learning English (or another) as a second language. Some classes will be taught in English, and others in Spanish. You will need to pay careful attention, as many schools that are not really “bilingual” call themselves such, though there are many that truly seem to be.
Talk to several of the teachers; are they bilingual? Talk to some of the children; are they? Review the curriculum and the textbooks your children will be using. The advantages to a bilingual school are that your children will have an easier transition to learning Spanish and adjusting to the system, and as parents you’ll be able to speak to school administrators in English to help clarify and resolve initial adjustment issues. Other advantages include that your children will be attending school with Mexican children from families that are committed to their success, and often who have themselves traveled or lived internationally. Disadvantages of the bilingual school include that tuition can be pricey for Mexican nationals; thus, your children may go to school primarily with children from wealthy families rather than from a cross-section of society. According to your beliefs, this could be perceived as an advantage.
A bilingual school was our choice. When we arrived in Mexico, our son did not speak Spanish. Having some of the classes (in his case English and science) in English really helped with the transition and his self-esteem while he settled in, and having school mates and teachers who could speak English, at least somewhat, helped, too.
Every community will have public schools. These schools teach in Spanish and are publicly funded. These schools are free to the public, although there are still fees associated with attending, and books and supplies to buy. Parents at public schools are expected to participate more in school activities (such as cleaning the school if there is an illness) than are parents at private schools. English as a foreign language is part of the curriculum. Some of the public schools can be very excellent. Facilities tend to be basic. Check if the school has heating or air conditioning, as may be needed in your area, and its track record on flooding or leaking during the rainy season if that happens in your area. Even a public school may have a principal or key teachers who speak English or who have lived overseas, so you may get lucky in that regard.
Advantages to the public school are its ease and affordability, and the fact that most of the children attending the school will be local. Thus, your children will be able to get to know their neighbors and easily meet playmates. As parents you will also get to know your neighbors and more easily become part of the local community or neighborhood. Another little-touted advantage is that most if not all public schools have testing every other month, according to the SEPyC calendar.
Disadvantages tend to be in the quality and maintenance of the facilities, which will vary by school and parental/teacher involvement. We visited our local public school before enrolling our son in a private school, and that school was our second choice. The principal and teachers were very enthusiastic and excited about having an international student in their student body, and we felt very welcomed.
In our experience many Mexican families who are middle class or above avoid the public schools and put their children in private schools. However, our experience in Mazatlán has taught us that there are some truly excellent public schools. If you are interested in this option, check them out, ask around and compare. It seems pretty easy to have your child go to a high quality public school other than the neighborhood school, if that’s your enrollment preference.
There are parochial (mostly Catholic) schools in most communities. These schools have varying degrees of religiosity. Some are run by the church/priests, others by nuns, some by lay people. The quality of the education and facilities can be very good, but varies by school.
There are also private schools that are not “bilingual” per se. Many of them are “chains” that you will see in most Mexican cities. Some schools may specialize in technology, global citizenship, a Montessori approach, or some other subject. Some are much better regarded than others, and the tuition varies as well. These schools tend to have a good diversity within the student body, attracting students from all over town. Advantages to these schools are that you can select the quality and the focus of education that you desire. We have found that most Mexican families who can afford the tuition prefer to send their children to private school. Private school tuition in Mexico is much lower than in Canada, the US or Europe. Tuition at private schools in Mazatlán, for example, can be anywhere between US$50 and US$300/month.
Documents for Registering Your Child for School
Be sure to get all your child’s school documents in order before you move. Remember that Mexican officials love to be official; they require documents on letterhead that include signatures and stamps or embossing—the more the better. If you bring a computer printout from the USA, which is so common there, have the principal or some other school official sign and stamp the printout. You will need:
- Original certified versions of your child’s birth certificate—be sure they are stamped, preferably with an embossed seal. Bring several of these with you when you move, as they are harder to get from Mexico, and you’ll need them for visa purposes as well as school registration.
- Apostillized records of your child’s school record, particularly noting the last grade completed and the next level of education the child is authorized to enter. Apostillized records can be a bit challenging to obtain. You’ll need to call your school’s district office and may have to visit your state’s Secretary of State’s office. They will give the records to you in a sealed envelope that you should not open.
- At least one and preferably three years’ worth of original, signed grade cards/report cards.
- Passport-sized photos of your child.
Not necessary but helpful:
- Letters from the school principal, a teacher or two, a Scout leader, minister or community leader, recommending your child. While these are not required, they smooth the way to help you get into the best school, and can help ensure a quicker SEP (Board of Education) registration as well.
- Copies of any awards the child has received.
Most schools in Mexico require that the children wear uniforms, even from pre-primary. Usually there are at least two and fairly often three different uniforms you will need to purchase. Uniforms include shoes and often specify the color of socks and belt. There is the everyday uniform, most often a logoed polo shirt and slacks with black leather shoes for boys, and a polo and skirt or jumper with black leather shoes for girls. There is also usually a “deporte” or PE uniform, most often shorts, logoed t-shirt, and white sports shoes, but often also including a sweat suit with logoed jacket and pants. Finally, many schools have the dress uniform or “gala,” which for boys includes a tie.
In addition to uniforms, most schools also have a dress code including requirements on length of dresses/skirts, length of hair, etc.
Adjusting to School and Life Here
Your children’s experiences will of course be different than ours, but I’ll explain our son’s experience adjusting. We moved as he was entering middle school (secundaria), seventh grade. We purposefully moved then, before he was much older, because we believed it would be harder to move as friendships solidified in junior high and high school. Moving as we did seemed to be perfect timing. Our son was changing schools from elementary to middle school anyway; he just changed countries of residence and language of instruction, too.
We knew Spanish would be a big hurdle. We very much wanted our son to become bilingual. Therefore, before we moved we had a tutor come in to our home twice a week for a year to help our son learn Spanish. His school also taught Spanish twice a week, k-6 (but unfortunately the kids could still barely count and say “hello how are you”). At the end of the year of tutoring, he still didn’t speak Spanish, but the experience he gained and the familiarity with the basics of the language were invaluable.
Once we arrived, we again hired a tutor to help him with Spanish, homework and test prep for about the first 4-5 months. This got expensive and oh-so-time-consuming, but it was invaluable. He learned little by little, and about the time we were all starting to go crazy because the homework load felt so heavy and there was no light at the end of the tunnel, he went to bed one night and woke up the next morning understanding Spanish. Honestly, I don’t know how else to explain it. He had a steady learning curve with the language until one day, boom, the light switch flipped on and he could understand. I’m guessing something similar will happen for your child as well. I wish it would happen that way for us!
From the first day of school our son felt very comfortable and welcomed by the other kids and by the teachers. He of course felt completely lost because of his lack of language comprehension, but he did not experience exclusion, bullying, or anything like that. He was invited to parties (he often didn’t realize he was being invited, or he wouldn’t understand who/where/when, but he was invited) and gatherings. People here tend to be inclusive and very friendly. Though of course there are jerks everywhere! Our son likes his alone time, so with the stress of acculturation the first year, he chose not to socialize a whole lot. This worried us a bit. We feel that the second year has been a lot better. He’s much more relaxed, and is attending at least two parties or outings each week.
Another great thing we did was to have our son continue with Scouts. He was a Boy Scout in the US, and he was interested in continuing here. Here in Mazatlán there are four troops, and those troops include both boys and girls from k or 1st through about 23 years old. It is an absolutely terrific experience. They meet in the city park each Saturday afternoon, they get a lot of exercise, release a lot of energy, learn a bunch, and these kids truly love and care for each other. They also go hiking, biking and camping, and do some out-of-state regional or national Scout activities several times a year. It was very fortunate for us to have a second group of friends for our son to bond with.
On our one-year anniversary living here, our son said that moving to Mazatlán was the best decision of our lives. He loves it here. He has a terrific lifestyle on the beach, he’s getting a sound education, he has terrific friends with good values, and teachers, neighbors and friends who care about his welfare. We are blessed.
As far as adjusting goes, it tended in our experience to be the little things that would trip us up. For example, in the beginning you don’t know where to buy school supplies. The notebooks we ended up buying were too small, and one of the teachers told Danny to go to a papelería and have them stitch two notebooks together into one! And, surprisingly to us, they did this for us! We were also told we had to have the notebooks laminated. We procrastinated for quite some time, figuring it was one detail we could blow off and not bother with in our very busy setting-in schedule. But, no, it seemed to be a highly important requirement. Live and learn.
US Schools vs. Mazatlán Schools
In the US our son went to a public school, a very good one. The school here is much smaller than what had at home. The homework load is about the same—a couple of hours a night. This feels MUCH heavier in the beginning, when everything needs to be translated. The kids here wear uniforms to school, which includes a dress shirt and tie on Mondays, and leather dress shoes with slacks and polo every day except gym day. Hair is kept short. Cell phones are not allowed.
Our son’s friends in middle school in the US study 6 subjects, at least two of which are electives. Our son has no electives and 13 different classes: Spanish, math, history (last year geography), civics and ethics, PE, technology, theater, home room, religion, critical thinking, English and science (last year biology, this year physics), and social participation. In addition, he also has a social participation activity once a month on Saturday morning, an outreach program in which the students do some good for the community around them.
We feel that the caliber of the basic classes is not as strong as what he had in the US. The math is at a lower level than we were used to, for example. But it’s still strong, and he went to a very good school in the US. The thing we love about the school here is the breadth of subjects that are studied. There is also a good depth of subjects, including, last year, how to be a good citizen of the community! We are very happy with the values-based education he is obtaining here.
The school year in the States is usually based on two semesters, four quarters. Here they have five “blocks.” The school year here starts in mid-August, and goes through early to mid-July. The length of the school year was a big surprise to us. We expected to have more time during the summer vacation to visit family north of the border. We did find last year that classes often end in late June. There are a couple of semi-“dead” weeks, when kids come to school or not, and there are lots of group activities. Then, in early July, there are awards ceremonies, graduation, and final grades handed out. For those of us eager to get out to visit grandparents and cousins, the end of the year finds us chomping at the bit. Our son, however, looks forward to this low-key time with his friends.
Grades are given each month, and a formal report card is given each block. In the States, grades tend to be A, B, C, D and F. Here the grades tend to be 1-10, with 10 being the high score. In our school 7 or below is unacceptable and considered failure. It seems to us a much narrower scale than we are used to. Grades for a given class or grade level seem to cluster heavily in the 8s and 9s, with a difference of only a hundredth or perhaps a tenth of a point to distinguish the top in the class from the bottom.
One of the realities that we really dislike here is the constant testing. Sometimes we feel they spend as much time preparing for and taking tests as they do learning anything! The board of education (national and state) requires bi-monthly testing, to ensure that students are meeting minimum standards. While this is no doubt a great thing, the problem we see is that most private schools (or no doubt good public schools) are way beyond those minimum requirements. This then begets a double system of testing. One month the kids do 3-4 days of SEP (board of education) testing. The next month they are tested on the more advanced material that the school is actually teaching them. It’s sort of like keeping two sets of financial records. Our son found this very confusing and difficult to get used to, but now we’ve got it down.
Another interesting phenomenon here is the emphasis on group work. We have been told that the national government has instructed the schools to teach Mexicans to be more collaborative, to work better in teams. Thus, the board of education requires (we have heard) that a certain amount of work be done, not individually, but by small groups (3-7 kids in our case). We were excited about this, and we still enjoy it. But it is definitely logistically challenging. As one might expect, some kids tend to do all the work and others not much; some kids always show up for group meetings and others don’t; large projects tend to be left till the last minute and then panic sets in; kids love to get together and play and school work is the last thing they want to do; etc. As parents we have really appreciated the chance to host the kids’ group meetings in our home, as it allows us to get to know the kids better. It’s just that, in our experience, there is a lot of it.
The PTA was a big deal in our school in the US. In our experience thus far, it is not so important here. I am a “room mother” this year. The duties seem to entail opening official test packages on occasion (requires parental supervision) and conducting the school carnival/fund raiser. We do not feel nearly as connected to the school here as we did in the US. Part of that of course is the difference between primary school and junior high, but in the States it seemed like we were always at a school event. Here we have the school carnival, sports games, and the occasional play or poetry reading, but nothing near the parental attendance and socializing that we were used to NOB.
It is worth noting that many schools here do not have a school library. Those that do frequently have a very small library that is very rarely used. A school library does not seem to be the resource here that it is in the US. Most of the kids here seem to eat school lunch, which is a la carte, at least at our school, and reasonable in cost. Food ranges from tortas (sandwiches) to sushi, raw veggies and burritos or molletes (beans on bread with melted cheese). Our eighth grader attends school from 6:50 am to 2:30 pm, and during the school day he has two recesses/lunch breaks.
A final difference that comes to mind is the ritual of the drop off and the pick up. This can be a major social activity for the Moms, depending on the school, and it can be a major pain in the butt traffic- and time-wise. We have found it MUCH easier to use the school-provided (but expensive) bus transportation, which picks our son up right at our front door, and drops him off there as well. It was pretty funny when we first came to town. Since we live five minutes from school, we asked if our son could ride his bicycle to school. The administrators were horrified we’d even consider such a dangerous activity!
Our school has quite a broad selection of after-school activities, as do most of the private schools and some of the public ones. This is definitely a good question to ask.
Most schools have after-school asesorías or tutoring in the core subjects (science, math). There are usually several sports teams or clubs (futbol/soccer, volleyball, cheerleading, and gymnastics at our school), and some arts clubs as well (theater, music, choir, guitar).
In addition to the school-affiliated activities, most towns and cities have private sports leagues and clubs, art and music institutes, language schools, and country-club facilities (golf, tennis, swimming).
Providing your children access to another culture and language are invaluable gifts. We highly encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity, and to do so as thoughtfully as possible. Remember that transitions are delicate times, and can be trying for all family members; be gentle with yourselves.