The Transition

In my personal struggle to make sense of school options—the ones we’ve foregone and the ones we’ve chosen—I’d like to reflect on the hand we’ve been dealt over this past school year (7th grade). For anyone new to Argentina, the system here approaches the configuration of grade levels in the following way: There are basically only two stages, i.e., primary (1st-7th) and secondary (8th-12th years), thus doing away with the dreaded middle-school stage. This makes seventh grade the gateway into high school, and a time of major transition for many kids.

Like all big cities, Buenos Aires has good (few) and bad (many) public high schools, in addition to an entire gamma of private options. Given our experience in the private school of our choice in elementary school, we decided to go with one of the most limited and rigorous public options for high school. Buenos Aires fortunately has a top tier of selective high schools that belong to the university (UBA) system: Carlos Pellegrini, El Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, I.L.S.E (half public/half private) and Agronomía. What that means is they operate with public university funds, the teachers have university degrees (as opposed to teacher’s school diploma), are UBA faculty members, classes are known to be academically rigorous, and these school are autonomous in defining their curricula (i.e., they are not subject to city or provincial oversight).

Aside from standing apart academically, these schools are also notoriously difficult to get into. They all require prospective students to attend a prep course several hours per week throughout seventh grade (outside regular school hours) in preparation for the entrance exams. However, so concerned are parents about their kids’ preparedness for the exams, most opt to enroll them in private study centers in addition to the official course.

Because I tend to question the way things are done (a lot), I initially was not in favor of supplementing the mandatory classes with additional private ones. Mainly because I thought 6 hours a week should certainly be more than enough extra class time, and furthermore I am loath to follow the herd—in this case, the herd of parents signing their kids up for extra classes. I then learned that, essentially, in not giving them all those extra hours of help, I would be placing mine at a disadvantage in comparison to the herd (kind of like not driving an SUV in any US suburb…). So in the end, and mainly at my own children’s insistence, I gave in and enrolled them two afternoons a week at one of the private study centers (El Velasco, Silvina y Gustavo, Cursiva, just to name a few). So their seventh-grade schedule looked like this:

Regular school            8-1:30

Study Center                 2:45-5:15            M/Th.

Entrance course          6:30-9:30pm             Tues.

9am-12noon            Sat.

I rationalized this decision based on my determination for them to get in, but also on my hunch that their current school would waste away the morning hours even more so than in previous years with no individual effort expected outside of school. (This I had on the authority of numerous other parents and turned out to be resoundingly true.) Therefore, all those extra—and expensive—class hours were, for me, insurance against the academic freefall awaiting them in their last year of—also expensive—elementary school. In this sense, it was a good decision and I’m glad they were spending their afternoons finally sinking their teeth into some real content and how to go about processing and storing it all; however, in hindsight, I would say that in terms of really giving them an extra advantage on the actual tests, that part really came down to us in the end.

After the first couple of months of practice tests turned out some pretty mediocre scores, we decided to get more involved ourselves to flesh out the problems. Without going into the intricacies of each of my children’s learning tendencies and study habits, I can confidently say that their inadequacies or weak areas were easily identifiable and it was surprising that the private study center, considering what we were paying, did not seem to have done so themselves by that point. We ended up taking care of all the bad habits through intense work and study strategies at home. At the end of the day, I think that this effort along with the official course would have been sufficient, although I am thankful that the private classes at least provided some consistency in what otherwise would have been a sort of year-long academic joyride school-wise.

And just a brief promotion of our new school, we chose ILSE for several reasons. Although it is not completely public (there is a fee of $600/month—miniscule compared to private schools), it does otherwise function as a public institution under the same conditions mentioned previously. The extra cost presumably goes towards ensuring that the teachers don’t adhere to the frequent public school strikes so common in Argentina; ILSE stands apart as the one UBA school that holds classes on strike days. Also, it only has two turnos (shifts) per day—morning and afternoon—unlike the Pellegrini and Nacional that have three, meaning that students at those schools may get the night shift. This last factor was a non-possibility for me so the choice was pretty easy.

This transitional year has been a priceless year of learning for both my kids and their parents. We’re all much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and they especially now know how it is within their power to overcome the latter. And once again, I have seen how having to compensate for the failings we encounter is an essential part of their education.