Preparing to Choose Your Child’s Overseas School

Overseas parents must keep full, current, and easily transportable records of their children’s academic careers. Unexpected assignment changes or evacuations can create a sudden need for current records. It is also easier to obtain copies of transcripts and recommendations before leaving an overseas assignment than after arriving at a new assignment or returning to a home that is thousands of miles away. A record that charts a child’s social, emotional, and academic growth is a valuable information tool for teachers, counselors, educational advisors, and parents themselves.

A child’s school folder should include the following items:

  • All transcripts from previous grades/schools including any explanatory material about the schools’ programs and special features •Copies of standardized test scores such as the Stanford, Iowa, or California achievement tests, the Metropolitan Readiness tests, or the SRA
  • Copies of other test scores such as the SSAT, the PSAT/NISQT, the SAT, and any Achievement Tests
  • Copies of profiles/brochures/handbooks from schools attended most recently (especially important when transferring from one high school to another, but also needed when transferring from an overseas school to the United States)
  • List of textbooks in each subject in most recent grade (this helps the new school know where to place the child)
  • Copies of recommendations from principals, guidance counselors, and teachers (especially important when transferring from one school to another or when applying to boarding schools or colleges)
  • Copies of representative student work (essays, research papers, math and science papers, art projects, tests), especially work showing teacher comments.

Choosing a School Overseas

When arriving at a new assignment, parents often must choose among various schooling alternatives: local schools, Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS), American-curriculum community or international schools, British, French, or German schools, and church-affiliated or missionary schools. The choice should be determined by which type is most suitable for the child given his/her academic needs and interests.

Before choosing any overseas school, parents may have an opportunity to ask questions of a prospective school’s principal or headmaster. These questions should reflect the parents’ deepest concerns.

Questions asked in a non-threatening manner indicate interest and involvement in a child’s education, remind the school of its need to be accountable for its program, and give parents the information needed to make a correct choice.

School history – How long has the school been in existence? How long has it been at its present location? What is the school’s reputation in the community?

Philosophical orientation – Is it traditional, progressive, or experimental? Is instruction individualized? What accommodations are made for children who are slow learners, learning disabled, highly gifted? Is tutoring available?

Curriculum – What curriculum is offered? If not based on the American system, will the child have difficulty entering or reentering a U.S. school? Which languages are taught, and at what level? Is the host country culture studied? Are art and music programs offered? Do high school courses include vocational and business subjects, enriched or Advanced Placement courses, or the International Baccalaureate Program? How do the school’s students fare after returning to their home schools?

Testing – Does the school have a regular testing program based on standardized tests? Which tests are used at the elementary level and in high school? Is the school a test center for the PSAT and/or SAT? Are profiles of recent test scores available?

College preparation – What help is provided to high school juniors and seniors selecting a college? Which colleges and universities have recent graduates attended?

Teacher/counselor-student ratio – What is the size of the average elementary, middle school, or high school class? What is the ratio of counselors to students? Is counseling available for younger students as well as high-schoolers?

Teacher credentials – What is the average tenure length of teachers? What percentage hold degrees in their teaching fields? What percentage hold advanced degrees?

Discipline – How is discipline administered? Is an honor and/or demerit system used? Which offenses result in dismissal/expulsion? How are minor infractions dealt with?

Newcomers – Is there a peer sponsor system for newcomers? Do teachers keep an eye on newcomers and help them with the initial “culture shock?” If instruction is not in English, are there provisions for immersing a child in the new language? Is advanced registration required? Are children admitted throughout the school year?

Extracurricular activities – What is the range of extracurricular activities, including organized sports? Is the sports program highly competitive? Do parents raise funds, teach, or chaperone:parent responsibility for programs? Is transportation provided for activities after school?

Parental involvement – Is there a PTA or similar organization? What is its role? How often does it meet? What percentage of parents participate? What has it recently sponsored or accomplished? Is parental involvement in the education process encouraged? Is there a volunteer program (class aides, library aides, etc.)?

School board – What is the composition of the school board? Is the U.S. community represented? Are members elected or appointed? How have Americans contributed to the board in the past?

Transportation – Is transportation provided? Is there a fee?

Physical plant – Where is the school located in relation to the U.S. residential areas? Are security measures taken seriously? Are there adequate classrooms and sufficient heating/air-conditioning if necessary? Is potable water available? Are the classrooms attractively decorated?

Tuition – What is the tuition? Are there other fees? How are tuition & fees to be paid – currency, timing, refund policy, etc?

Dress – Is there a dress code? Are uniforms required? Can they be purchased locally?

Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Living & Working in Portugal” by Bill Drake.