Expat Parents, Bilingual Kids and Argentine Schools


Expats face an array of daily challenges ranging from societal values to language, food and eating habits, gender dynamics, bureaucracy, driving, shopping, etc. And for those of us who are parents, raising and educating our kids would likely top this list as the biggest challenges of all, because they touch the core of what makes us who we are: Like it or not, we raise our children in terms of our own childhood experiences, which ultimately laid the groundwork for the people we are as adults. Whether to undo, improve on or maintain the lessons learned while growing up, how we approach bringing up our own kids is a reflection of that experience and therefore heavily loaded culturally and personally. Doing so in a foreign context is therefore fraught with difficulties, because the cultural parameters may be vastly different; and when it comes to school itself, everything from the supply list, to parent attitudes, to education policy in general can serve to complicate our decisions, baffle, frighten or, just maybe, if we’re lucky, free us from old, ingrained ideas and assumptions. After all, the fact that we are expats in the first place likely means that we are people who do not necessarily settle for the standard operating procedure in the places we came from. So what happens when we immerse ourselves in another, albeit foreign, version of “mainstream” when it comes to educating our children?

Having muddled through the Argentine system with my own kids over the past five years, I decided to do a survey of other foreign parents to gain some perspective on the experience. I chose to focus only on expats from English-speaking countries (the UK, US and Australia), given the significant role English plays in most school curricula here and the subsequent effect this has on kids for whom English is a first language. The questions parents answered covered topics related to the process of choosing a school; degree of satisfaction with that choice; school choice as a reflection of their own schooling; Argentine cultural values; and English classes, among others.  Parents addressed several concerns about their children’s education, both universal and specific to Argentina. Their answers also reveal some surprising discoveries that may be useful to others facing the difficult task of finding a school for their children here.

The crisis in education is a phenomenon that knows no borders; however, what that crisis entails and the reasons associated with it from one country to the next are undeniably shaped by the history, society and education policies implemented in each place. In the case of Argentina in particular, the last dictatorship left an imprint on Argentine society that plays out in myriad ways, just one of which is the effect on education – both public and private – and the attitudes and expectations of modern Argentine parents, many of whom were students during the repressive dictatorship of the 1970s. This is no small matter when it comes to understanding schools in Argentina. The dictatorship that came to power in Argentina in 1976 considered schools to be fertile ground for subversion, and therefore in need of a return to traditional values achievable only through order and repression. During that time, high school and university students were blacklisted and reported by teachers to military authorities, detained and often never seen again.  It is therefore not surprising that the generation of parents who grew up during those years of repression would expect the very ethos of school to be radically different for their children.

As a result, many schools here now fortunately take a very child-centered approach to learning, often highlighting group dynamics, democracy in the classroom and a sense of belonging. Particularly for parents of younger children, these features may be all the more appealing in the absence of other education jargon such as testing, standards, accountability, etc. However, the premium placed on learning through play and group projects may have parents wondering about things like academic excellence and individual achievement once their children are older; what seemed ideal in first grade often turns into noisy classrooms, general lack of discipline, no apparent study habits and disregard for authority in sixth. Could it be that what began in the 1980s as a genuine move in favor of kinder, more democratic schools with a critical eye toward authoritarianism may have swung too far in the direction of ‘no room for order at all’ in many Argentine classrooms?

Private, non-religious bilingual schools were the target of parents’ most critical views. Such schools have a broad appeal among professional, middle-class, well-educated and often progressive-minded Argentines. And since many expats living here fit this same description, many of them also initially find these schools appealing. They are more affordable as far as private schools go, tend to have constructivist-based curricula, focus on creativity, foster a sense of community and learning through experience. Despite the draw of such features, however, the educational experience often turns sour for many parents once their children are enrolled. The disparity between the ever-rising cost of these schools (tuitions have roughly tripled over the past 4 years) and the overall quality of education that they provide is no doubt a factor in parent dissatisfaction. Everything from noisy, chaotic classrooms to overt Argentine nationalism (lots of flag-waving and exaggerated reverence for Argentine heroes, yet scarce attention to the rest of the world) are mentioned in association with these schools. Several parents also pointed to the prioritization of group interests over individual achievement. This factor is also echoed in children’s report cards, which parents say do not convey any individual feedback for the most part, focusing mainly on the child’s role in group work. Another overriding concern for many parents from English-speaking countries with a common tradition of reading and love of books is the apparent absence of any similar sentiment in many schools here.

Long hours in English classes that cannot address the needs of native English-speakers is also a major issue for parents with children in these Spanish/English bilingual schools. Initially welcomed as assets to the class, parents claim there is no follow-up effort made to find suitable materials, books, or give these kids any type of role in English class that would make for meaningful learning for both them and their classmates; again, they are expected to “go along” with the group. 

Argentine parents want their children to be proficient in English in order to be globally competitive in the future; and schools likewise take the importance of English seriously. This has resulted in numerous private bilingual schools here that cater to local parent demands for more English. What is interesting to note is the number of hours devoted to English in comparison to other subjects in these schools. As pointed out, Argentine society understandably gives high priority to English, but is it more important than Spanish, math or science? According to the number of class hours, yes it is. Bilingual schools in Buenos Aires (both primary and secondary) devote an average of 6 class hours (horas cátedras) per week to English – some considerably more – in comparison to Spanish, math, science or social studies, which often get only 3 or 4 hours of class time per week. Curiously, this has as much to do with the traditional Argentine school day, which the Ministry of Education sets at 4 hours minimum, as it does with the high premium placed on English. So in the case of most schools that now offer doble turno, all those extra hours are being poured into English instead of an increase in core academics. Not to diminish the importance of English in the world today, but it is perplexing, even if one could make an argument for this many hours per day devoted to a foreign language, why some of those hours couldn’t be used to teach other subjects (science, history, creative writing) in English (or Spanish, for that matter)? Only a very few of the higher-priced private schools take this approach. Perhaps the better question to ask would be: Why are the core subjects of math, language/literature, social studies and science kept at so few hours? 

Given the value placed on English, there is then a certain irony in the fact that children who are already bilingual are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to Argentine bilingual schools. The reality is that all those English hours in the dozens of “bilingual” schools have very little to offer a child whose first language is English; they are about intensive English-learning for Spanish-speakers, and are not designed to address the needs of English natives. It would stand to reason then, as a parent of a bilingual child, to choose a monolingual school and not waste hours on English for learners; however, as already mentioned, the standard academic day is only 4 hours long here. Therefore, if you want your child to have a full day of school in Buenos Aires, you must either pay a very high price or resign yourself to the fact that roughly half of their day will be wasted hours in English class in most cases. Other than the array of mid-priced private bilingual schools, one is left with basically three alternatives: half-day public school; the very expensive American or British schools (price-prohibitive for many); or bypassing English altogether at the German, Italian or French schools. It is this last option that generated some of the broadest support from parents. This is what one US parent had to say about the Lycée Jean Mermoz:

“There were two factors that led us to discard the English/Spanish bilingual option. One is that we did not think that many of them are as good overall academically as the French school and even their English programs are not great; non-native English teachers, for example. So we thought it would be easier to supplement English language skills at home than to have to compensate for a lower quality overall education. And in terms of the very good English/Spanish schools (San Andres, Northlands, etc.), they have a socio-economic profile that seemed elitist for our taste. The French school has a more heterogeneous public, which we love, and the idea of having a bilingual/bicultural family exists there. They have excellent academics and also incorporate a great deal of culture, art and literature into the general education. It is an institution where the cultural values of France, such as equality, respect for rules and authority, are very much present. This is extremely important for me as they are values that I feel are part of my culture as a US citizen, but that are not valued in Argentine culture.”

The diversity mentioned with regard to the French school is also highlighted by parents of kids who attend Lincoln, the American school. As part of an international system that offers consistency as well as a diverse student population, it is an appealing option for diplomatic families and those who work for large corporations and move often; its price-tag, however, offsets these advantages for many families.

As regards the overall state of public education in Argentina, the lack of available resources and teacher strikes are a big deterrent for a majority of parents in the case of public schools. Even if one comes from a public school background with committed ideals to public education, it is difficult to stick to one’s convictions in the face of public school reality in Argentina. Fewer resources means kids are exposed to fewer valuable experiences, such as gaining computer skills, access to quality art and music classes or a proper school library, not to mention the limited class hours. And the likelihood that your child may be deprived of many days of school due to teacher strikes makes this a tough choice indeed.  Nevertheless, some of the most satisfied parents interviewed were those whose children attend public primary school No. 13 in the Colegiales neighborhood. They pointed to the integrity of the school climate forged by its long-time director, and the importance of the school’s cooperadora in pushing new initiatives. Good teachers who know their students well on an individual basis, a strong emphasis on reading, the director’s open-door policy and responsiveness to parent requests, and the enthusiasm for learning observed by parents of expat kids in this school make it stand out not only among public schools, but among all primary schools included in the survey. Unfortunately, this was the only public school mentioned by parents in the survey; as a general rule, foreign parents do not often choose public school for the same reasons many Argentines do not.

As a parent of 8-yr-old twins when I came here, I was quite happy to forgo such things as regular standardized testing, heavy loads of homework and long school hours common in the US, in favor of an Argentine version that seemed kinder and more respectful of childhood. Later in elementary school, however, that conviction began to wane in the face of concern for academics and readiness for serious study. To my surprise, however, on the verge of entering high school, my kids have stepped up to the plate and proven that, even though they may not have been academically challenged in elementary school, they are nevertheless more capable of putting in long study hours and doing well on difficult high school entrance exams than I probably was at their age. I cannot help but wonder if this is not the result of an academic maturity that was allowed to take its due course, along with the advantages of growing up “between” places, which by default makes changing gears easier for them. And one more surprise that I discovered as a result of the “disadvantage” of already being bilingual in school: Using that to our kids’ advantage by taking them out of English altogether at school and hiring a native tutor to use those hours wisely and keep them reading, writing and covering other subjects in English has put them ahead of grade level.

Despite all the issues mentioned here, which have caused me many sleepless nights, I also share the sentiment expressed by everyone in their answers to the last survey question, “What is the most important aspect of your child’s education for you?” Without fail, everyone mentioned the importance of the examples set at home in terms of love of learning, critical thinking, awareness of the broader world and curiosity. As expats, we are privileged in being able to provide our children with this type of education in addition to (or in spite of) any school. And perhaps being in a place like Argentina that provides the circumstances to “make one’s own adaptations” to the school environment might just be a blessing in disguise.

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17 comments on “Expat Parents, Bilingual Kids and Argentine Schools

  1. […] like to post some follow-up comments I received from another parent in response to my article Expat Parents, Bilingual Kids and Argentine Schools , mainly because it broadens the take on public schools in the city of Buenos Aires. She also […]

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  2. […] system of sanctions for non-compliance with the rules. As I mentioned in my original post on Argentine schools, for some parents who grew up here, this kind of requirement may be reminiscent of the years of […]

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  3. jessicatalbot says:

    I think what you said at the end was great. Home is vital too. Also I feel that too much pressure and competition too young can ruin a child’s love of learning. I’m happy with my experience of Kindergarden here, but I’m sure there will be headaches to come!!!

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  4. lori glover says:

    we are planning on arriving in mendoza feb 28 and enrolling our children in school on march 1st. is this wishful thinking? do our american kids need resident status to be enrolled?

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Hi Lori,
      They don’t need to be residents, but you probably need some kind of documentation showing the last grade passed, especially for public school, and possibly an official translation of that. You will probably find a bit more flexibility in the case of private schools in that sense, but depends on the school. I would suggest you contact the nearest Argentine consulate in the US to ask. Also, you could research schools in mendoza to identify some that appeal to you and contact them directly to ask what you’d need to enroll your kids.
      Good luck!

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  5. Matilda says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article, which (slightly) set my mind at rest with the choices that we have made as an anglo-argentine family. Our two children have been happily attending the neighbourhood non-bilingual catholic school in Palermo for the past four years and I am always worrying about the lack of art/music/reading etc. but on the other hand value the fact that they are blissfully happy and enjoying their childhood to the full. Your article has put this school into the bigger picture of education in Argentina for me. Thank you!

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! In the four years since I wrote that first post, I have to admit that my ideas about education in Argentina have evolved. For example, I would no longer mention that whole bit about “individual achievement” as opposed to group work–my kids are now 17 and I think all the group work has been positive and a more genuine reflection of how the world works and they are better people for it. Good luck to you on your future choices here 🙂

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      • Matilda says:

        Thanks. I’ve read a couple of your other posts, particularly the ones about ILSE. I’m in the process of watching first hand the ILSE experience as a neighbour’s daughter has been going there for three years now and I help her with some of her subjects… and have been fascinated and impressed to see the high level of critical thinking which her studies require. So much more than the parrot style learning that I received, however first world it was.

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  6. First of all I want to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question in which I’d
    like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
    I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my
    thoughts out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it
    just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips?
    Kudos!

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Thanks, Maybelle, glad you like it! As for writing process, mine involves walking or swimming, then i start writing by hand, usually just a couple of pages. I go from there to computer and once i start entering the handwritten beginning, it seems to flow better from there on. But the initial creative process definitely works better for me through physical activity.

      All the best,
      sarah

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Further to my previous reply, which I realize did not fully answer your question: Honestly, my mind is never clear. That is the whole reason I keep the blog–the process of writing clarifies things for me!

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  7. Tiffany Fairey says:

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog. Your reflections, concerns and ponderings echo many of my own as we have tried to get our heads around educating our kids in Buenos Aires over the last two years. Your kids primary sounds familiar! One question – where / how did you find the native English speaking tutors for your children? I presume they weren’t necessarily professionally trained tutors but rather young people living and working in BsAs for a while. What year did you do this from? I was hoping to start something similar for my son.

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Hi Tiffany,
      Thanks for reading! I started hiring tutors from 4th grade on (back in 2008). I found every single one by posting an ad on CraigsList, specifically looking for native tutors with primary ed background from US/UK/Australia, etc. I’d get loads of applicants, interview them and go with my gut. I learned it’s better to hire one who’s been here a while, has other jobs and is clearly committed to staying around for awhile. It’s important to remember that many are teaching ESL here, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily cut out for younger kids or have much idea of how to approach language arts for native English-speaking 9-yr-olds–a very different ballgame than teaching English as a foreign language to Argentine kids. That said, I learned that it’s also important to find a teacher who not only has knowledge of primary ed., but also is creative and able to teach them without making it seem like a class. We often organized the activity with a couple of other families in similar situations.

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  8. Lori says:

    Great article! Do you have contact info for the Public #13 school? Is this the one that just built a new building in Villa Real? Thanks!

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  9. Hank Devereaux says:

    Hello, any information on private high schools in Mendoza that would be appropriate for an American 11th grader?

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    • otherfence65 says:

      Hi Hank,
      Thanks for reading the blog and contacting me. Unfortunately, I can’t help you with schools in Mendoza since I live in Buenos Aires. I don’t have any contacts there, but I can tell you that it’s a really beautiful (and peaceful) city in a spectacular landscape. Hope you have a great experience!

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