Navigating Mexico: Choosing the Right School for Your Kids
By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
As April and May approach and transnationals begin discussions with their employees about relocation to Mexico (or any other country), the big question of “what about school for the kids?” ranks right up there with safety. (The same applies for digital nomads who see Mexico as a great place to work at a distance with fast internet and close proximity to the United States and Canada.)
All kinds of guides already exist with private school rankings by city. Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara all have wonderful “American” schools, as well as other international schools.
Even smaller cities like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have fine American schools.
But what if your company is not paying the tuition bill or what if the “most prestigious” schools’ values do not align to yours? What are some of the questions you should ask?
Before getting to the questions, know that Mexican public schools have only been in existence since they were decreed in 1921 by presidential mandate, and it was not until well into the 1930s that they began to become marginally compulsory in urban areas. It was likely not until about 2000 that Mexico achieved a semblance of universal public education coverage.
On the other hand, private schools have often been around for much longer. In fact, for centuries, they were the only schools that existed, run by Catholic religious orders.
So while a mid-size city in the United States may have a dozen or so high-priced independent schools and triple that number of Catholic or other faith-based private schools, a medium-size Mexican city may have several hundred.
Where does a potential new arrival begin when trying to choose the right school for their children?
Obviously, asking coworkers where their children attend is a good start. But when you finally decide to visit some of these schools, here are a few key questions to ask, and the answers will not exist in the guidebooks or on the school’s website.
What percentage of the students are native English speakers? You might be surprised to learn that at even in some of the most prestigious and most expensive schools that have American or British in their name, that percent is surprisingly low, from 8 to 15 percent. Schools prefer to publish the percentage of students with a non-Mexican passport, whose numbers are much higher as many are dual citizens.
Local families want their children to go to school with your native-speaking child. However, in the schools with a low percentage of native English speakers, your child will be the minority, potentially with no one to talk to at recess.
How many “sections” does each grade have? Small is good, right? Maybe.
If a school only has one group or section at each grade level, as is common in many private schools, should there be a serious problem with that teacher or with a student, there is no other group for your child to be switched to. Moving to a new school might be your only option, very uncommon in Mexico once the school year has started. Most will not even consider accepting your child if they are not coming from another city.
What percentage of the teachers would have the credentials to teach in the United States or your home country? Especially in middle or high school, the teacher in Mexico may have a degree in the content taught, but no actual preparation as a teacher.
This is often a recipe for disaster.
The same could be true at the preschool level: The teacher has a degree in marketing and speaks English well, so now she is magically a kindergarten teacher.
Beyond a tour, ask if you or your may child can actually visit for a day? Many private schools will flat out say no, some giving excuses about child protection and others saying it will interfere with the learning process. Schools that embrace learning also embrace having visitors.
How is the school accredited? The International Baccalaureate, Cambridge, Montessori and AP (advanced placement) are types of curriculums, not accrediting agencies. A regional accrediting agency assesses and accredits a school on standards beyond what is taught: child safety protocols, leadership, accountability, transparency, teacher credentials, continuous improvement, class-size ratios, technology readiness and the quantity and age of books in the library.
Accreditation matters, especially if your child is likely to transfer to a school in another country in the future.
What is covered in the tuition and what are you going to be nickeled and dimed for?
How is this school governed? Is it for profit? Is it run by a family? Does it have a board of directors? If yes, are they elected or appointed?
Your website says “fill-in-the-blank-generic-statement”? That sounds great. But what is the metric you use to substantiate that?
Many schools in Mexico tout themselves as American, British or international? What does that mean at your school? The books? The teachers? The mindset? If we are in the middle of Mexico, how can this school really be an American, British or international school, and even more so if most of the students are from local families?
Consider some of the questions above to help you make that important choice in a country that is dominated by private schools.