The Bumpy Road to Homeschooling
First I accidentally sent my 6-year-old to college. Or at least it felt that way.
There are charities on the island that collect school supplies, backpacks and shoes for children because if you don’t have all the required stuff you are not allowed to go to school. I always thought the need for help was because people are poor, but I was shocked at how much it cost to put our girls in school. Granted we wound up at Instituto Gardner, which is arguably the most expensive private school on the island, because we waited until the last minute but as the pesos kept adding up I felt like we were sending them to college a few years early.
An expensive deviation from the plan
When we moved to Mexico we planned to start homeschooling, but as the end of August approached the girls didn’t want to be left out. They wanted to wear cute uniforms and sit in a classroom with their friends, so we gave in and found ourselves in a mad dash to enroll them and gather all the needed supplies. I don’t recommend trying a new school this way as it got really expensive really fast. I broke down all the costs at the end of the post if you’re curious.
To sum it up we made a series of quick decisions that became expensive fast, and before we knew it we had invested most of our savings in sending our kids to school. I was actually afraid to add it up at the time, but I am for this post. Not counting the car we bought to get them there (no school buses here) the total cost for starting school was 36,693 pesos, or $2,293 USD. (The car made it $3856 USD. Gah.) That was everything they needed and the first month of tuition. We would be paying an additional 9360 pesos ($585 USD) more every month. I don’t know what private school costs in the U.S. because we were public school people but paying $300 in yearly registration costs back in Iowa had seemed like a lot.
Our bank account was looking pretty sad and Jason and I were feeling some buyer’s remorse, but it was done. We were committed, even though we hated getting up at dawn every day and the kids were exhausted by the time they came home we weren’t quitting. The only goals we had for them in school was to learn Spanish and make friends, how hard could that be?
Getting our money’s worth
Remember my delirious post about the first day of school? It was all downhill from there.
Gardner is a bilingual school, half the day is spent doing everything in English and half in Spanish. It soon became apparent that our kids weren’t picking up much Spanish. When I asked them how they were doing in the Spanish class Juniper reported that the teacher simply assigned one of the Mexican children to translate everything for her. Sometimes her homework was done in someone else’s handwriting because she didn’t understand it so they just did it for her rather than try to explain. It sounded like they weren’t making my kids learn Spanish, they were just translating it all back to English for them.
The kids came home talking about music videos they’d watched in class and look, they learned to Whip and Nae nae….and I started to wonder why we were paying for them to do that. It seemed like we were spending a lot of money without seeing much for results…or our kids.
There were other things that I didn’t like about Gardner; because it’s an expensive school there is a lot of status in having your kids there. The moms obsessed over everything that was being done in the classroom and the parent chat was over a hundred messages a day (in Spanish.) I felt the social pressure to keep up, but instead of the Jones’ it was the Lopez’s I was chasing.
Birthdays meant an at school party where all the kids brought presents and the family provided lunch and cake for the class. Having just gotten rid of most of our possessions I dreaded the idea of 16 new toys at each girls’ birthday, plus having to buy presents for all those other kids when we were trying to live a minimalist lifestyle seemed pretty ironic.
So some of it was me, yes. Many of the expat and local families here do very well at Gardner, but I quickly tired of having to dance around someone else’s idea of what my kids should be learning, keep up with homework and the bi-mester exams, holiday parties and parent meetings that I didn’t really understand even back in the states. I was ready to try some DIY schooling…but it wasn’t really up to me.
Ultimately I asked my daughters to make their own decision on what to do.
After a few months we talked it over with the girls, pointing out what we were unhappy with and asking what they thought. Were they learning much in school? They admitted that no, they weren’t learning anything new except cursive (which I did love-all English is written in print, all Spanish is written in cursive from first grade on.) They didn’t feel like their Spanish was getting any better because they didn’t have to use it, and that was a disappointment for all of us.
They could stay in school, but that would mean we wouldn’t have time or money left for anything else; no ballet classes that June wanted, no karate classes that Rory wanted. We already had them going to a local kids’ gym called Nuncajamas for art and aerial classes twice a week and some play time on the cargo nets and climbing walls. That was all the extracurricular activity they could handle after being at school from 7 to 3. We saw the ocean as we drove by it each day but they were too tired to go to the beach.
If we stopped going to school that would be more than 9360 pesos (585 USD) a month freed up for other things, more classes in the community like karate and ballet. We wouldn’t have to struggle to get up at dawn and they could stay up past 8pm without falling apart. We could see more of the island because we would have more free time. They wouldn’t see their friends from school every day, but it’s a small island, surely we’d find them out in the community.
It felt a little strange to be rooting for my kids to quit school.
First grader Rory agreed to drop out immediately, she was exhausted. Third grader June thought it over for a while but ultimately decided that leaving school would be better. I knew she was worried, and we talked it over more than once in case she changed her mind, but she stuck to her decision.
We had parent teacher conferences in November, and I felt guilty listening to the teachers tell me how much they liked my kids. December would only be half a month but of course tuition would be the same, so we decided to leave school after November and notified the office.
The last day came and when I picked them up girls were crowded around June crying because she was leaving. I was relieved that she wasn’t crying, but who knew she was so popular? She acted like she hardly had any friends yet all these girls were clinging to her and she had a poster board covered with names and “I’ll miss you!” notes like a yearbook page. Rory had one too, and her friends were a little worried but I knew their moms and reassured them we would see them again.
A rough beginning
At first it was pretty nice. We slept in, we spent time together, we adjusted to not going to school. I felt sure we had made the right decision. Then disaster struck.
The school had been promoting Red Nose Days, which I thought was just a fundraiser thing, no big deal. We went to see their friends, play games and do crafts that were set up in the park and found that it was also the winter pageant.
Each class had a costume and got up onstage in the park and did an adorable choreographed dance, one my kids had learned to do but since we quit school two weeks before they had to watch from the sidelines. I watched with horror as their friends families shot video of the holiday show that I had somehow never heard about and Rory cried at my feet. It was awful. I felt like a terrible parent that I had pulled them out and made them miss being a part of this. June didn’t cry, but I could tell she was feeling it, too, and after their classes performed we were all so miserable we had to leave.
We spent Christmas with friends and went on a tour of Chiapas and Guatemala to renew our visas in January. The holidays messed up everyone’s routines as even the extracurriculars stopped over the 3 week school break, so it was a good time to start something new.
Just do it
When we got back we started trying some different ideas on how to learn. I can’t see myself sitting the kids down at the table and having structured school time; the idea makes me cringe with dread, so why would I make them do something I didn’t want to do myself? Instead we gradually started to learn as we go, exploring and researching things that we were interested in, asking questions and challenging each other. We chose to worldschool, learning from what’s around us, and we unschool, letting the kids choose what they want to do most days. I once suggested Jason tell his mom that we were going to unschool as a joke to scare her, so it’s pretty ironic that we are actually doing it.
Some days it seems like we don’t do much. The girls draw pictures, they play with Barbies or build with magnets, and I remind myself that this kind of free play is good for them too. We go to the beach and explore the tide pools, snorkel in the waves and build in the sand. We go to the store and have the girls add up how much things cost as we go, which I call sneaky math but in reality these are the skills they will need. They ask for information on plesiosaurs and we google it, Rory loves math worksheets and June does crosswords with a Greek mythology theme. We learn as we go and talk a lot, which I really like.
People ask what we’ll do when we go back to the United States since we aren’t following any curriculum or checking in with anyone to make sure they’re on grade level. First, we don’t plan on living in the U.S. again for years. Second, if we do go back the state we live in will have specific requirements and probably want to test them anyway. Short answer: I’m not going to worry about it.
This kind of schooling also allows us to travel without worrying about missing school; school goes with us wherever we are, a great advantage for a traveling family.
There are days of doubt and days it’s great; learning is always a work in progress for all of us.
So what did it cost for 2 kids to go to private school in Mexico?
-Gardner had their own custom monogrammed uniforms: each girl needed 2 white blouses and plaid skirts with shorts to go underneath for every day wear, one set of navy shorts and breathable shirt for their PE days twice a week. To outfit both girls was 3,480 pesos ($217 USD as the exchange rate then was around 16/1.) Plus we had to have a pair of black mary jane shoes and a pair of white tennis shoes, on which we spent another 1,464 pesos (92 USD.)
-When I logged into the UNO system to pay for the books that we were required to purchase for the school year I had to double check with a friend that the amount was right: 10,289 pesos ($643 USD!)
-There’s always a list of back to school supplies; pens, pencils, notebooks, and Gardner’s is very specific. It was about 1200 pesos for each girl’s supplies, plus a backpack and lunch bag, so closer to 2200 each ($275 USD.)
-I knew tuition ran around 4000 pesos per child per month, but I didn’t figure in “inscripcion” which is an enrollment fee commonly charged when you start something new here. 3850 pesos more-each. That first month cost was 15,860 pesos…($991 USD.) For a year of school that lasts 10 months tuition would be $2,550 USD for one child, and I have two.
-“Homework club” was offered as a way to help them get their work done after school every day with direct help from a teacher. I felt that if they had any hope of doing their Spanish work they had better do it, plus some of their friends were there. A week after school started they asked when we were going to pay the 1200 pesos that it cost for two kids…no one had mentioned that it cost $75 USD extra every month.
-We quickly realized that getting to school was going to be a problem so early in the day because few taxis were around and they would lock the gates if we were late. There are no school buses here, and we weren’t familiar enough with public transport to feel like we’d make it on time, so we gave in a bought a car for 25,000 pesos (a bargain at $1,563 USD.) I don’t regret doing this, but it was an unexpected expense and we might not have done it at all if we hadn’t put them in school across town.
A grand total of 36,693 pesos, or $2,293 USD to get started in school. $3856 if you count the car.