Here's how we are looking for our next school and home
Our search process
Well, we still don’t know where we are going in January, and it’s already halfway through November. This is not for lack of trying.
I’d estimate that through Beanie’s academic life, we’ve met with or visited 25-30 schools. Taz jokes that other people go to open houses for fun, while we visit schools. This is true, except that we also go to open houses for fun.
This go-round, we’ve been looking at close to 10 schools covering every North American country (that’s three of them, if you’re counting). The process is by turns fun and frustrating.
You may remember that we flew to CDMX last month to see two schools. We especially liked one of them, but we’ve since decided not to move to Mexico City. One reason is that the school we liked is located in the hills outside of the city proper, and going there would mean either a long bus ride for Beanie from the city, or living in a high-rise complex on the outskirts that’s not really walkable. Not living in the city takes away a lot of the incentive to move there in the first place, besides which Beanie found the megalopolis overwhelming.
I’ve discovered that the reality of worldschooling, or at least our version of worldschooling, has more limitations than my daydreams. The logistics of work—being near a airport for travel and in a timezone compatible with US coworkers—and the decision to place Beanie in schools instead of homeschooling mean many locations just don’t work for us.
(We did also consider homeschooling. I’ve gotten to know a former teacher, now homeschooling mother and evaluator/consultant, and I interviewed her recently—that post is coming soon. She gave me a list of resources and answered a lot of my questions; still, we decided against homeschooling for now because of the extra care we’d have to put in to making sure Beanie got enough socialization with other children.)
After we realized CDMX was off the table, and that staying in Costa Rica was proving to be logistically challenging—once tourist season begins, finding long-term housing is very expensive—we pretty much went back to square one. Where would we go? We hadn’t previously considered anywhere in the US, but perhaps a different region of the US than California would still present a new perspective and be its own distinct cultural experience.
So over the past couple of weeks, our choices have evolved into:
2. Santa Fe, NM and
3. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
We are here at TIDE Academy because we happened to visit the school during a vacation in 2019. We came to Costa Rica to attend fall semester, and it’s turned out to be a good move, but living in Costa Rica had never been on our radar before then. This time, we have first picked this shortlist of locations we are interested in exploring,1 and only then have we searched for schools.
These three options are all places we’d like to spend time, with not too harsh winters. Since finding a good school for Beanie is the priority, my first move is to go to town Googling “alternative schools,” “private schools,” and “nature schools.” From the Google map results, I click through to all the results that might be appropriate for us (i.e., they aren’t preschools, high schools, or religious).
The text of Google reviews can sometimes be informative, but the star ratings are not useful. I’ve found that just about every school, including schools Beanie has attended and had wonderful experiences at, have some one-star reviews. I don’t know if they’re from dissatisfied parents or competitors or what; most don’t have any text, or just say “Bad” or something equally opaque. Oh…now that I’ve typed this out, I guess these ratings are probably from disgruntled students. They may or may not have legitimate reasons, but since negative reviews are ubiquitous, they don’t deter me.
Next, I click through to the school websites. I look first at the teaching philosophy, paying attention to whether there’s an emphasis on teaching the whole child while still putting a priority on academics. We’re seeking a Middle Way, like Principal Adam, so though we welcome non-traditional learning environments—a North Vancouver forest and a Montessori classroom with no desks are two current contenders—we’re also wary of programs that are too loosey-goosey, with little structure.
The website is not enough to make a decision, of course, but often you can get a sense of whether educators have a well thought out raison d’être underpinning their school, or if they’re simply presenting buzzwords like “inquiry-based,” “project-based,”“child-led,” and so on. These are learning models we like, but how schools implement these models varies wildly.
After checking that the tuition is affordable enough, I look at class size and relatedly, how much flexibility is allowed to students working at their own pace. For Beanie, we’ve found that a class size of 10 to 12 students is ideal. That’s small enough that teachers can handle personalizing teaching to different speeds and levels. Too small a class doesn’t fit her well either, especially in a mixed-age group, as it gives her fewer peers to bond with.
It’s a bonus if the website discusses an active parent community, and how parents can volunteer with the school. I really enjoyed working in the library of Beanie’s public elementary school, and my weekly cleaning duties at her Montessori preschool. My library shifts were during the period when Beanie’s kindergarten class came for library time, and it was honestly the highlight of my week to help her and her little friends check out books. She was also at an age when seeing mom at school and getting a hug during class was thrilling.
Welcoming parent involvement, to me, is a sign that a school sees parents as partners in the care and education of children. Besides which, we hope to meet and befriend other parents in the school community.
Something we haven’t purposely looked for but I’ve noticed is a trend among smaller schools is the four-day workweek. In fact, the two schools we’re most seriously considering have four-day weeks. Beanie’s current school also has a four-day week, and her school last year had optional Fridays. For us, this schedule is an overall good, giving us more leeway to travel and do outside activities like playdates on Friday. A four-day week also flies by much faster than a five-day week, for some reason. And, as Principal Adam said, when teachers have a lot of contact time with each student because of small class sizes, the extra day of classroom time really isn’t necessary.
Some cities don’t have any schools that fit our criteria. Even larger cities like Vancouver have only a handful that do. Once I have my list, I contact all of them and ask about space available; if they do have a slot, I ask for a Zoom call that Taz and I both attend.
Meeting with the head of school and/or class teacher gives us a pretty good sense of whether a school is right for our family. Ideally, the educator is a calming, organized presence and conveys a sense of greater purpose. You can tell the best educators have a defined point of view and have refined their philosophy through years of experience. In fact, we’ve worked with educators whom we’d follow to another school because we have that much trust in their vision.
One question we ask on the Zoom call is the schedule of their school day and week. Since the schools we contact are generally “alternative” with a focus on social emotional learning, we want to check that enough time and priority is spent on traditional classes too. This includes the core academic subjects—math, English, science—but also art, music, PE, second languages. We’ve found the drawback to small schools is sometimes electives like music and PE aren’t available.
Caring educators want a good fit as much as parents do, especially with small and tight communities. Many of these schools have three-day or even week-long trial periods for potential students. The Wingate School in Mexico City has parents and students meet with school psychologists separately and the whole family is assessed. One school in Santa Fe told us their process is to have parents come in first without their children, so they can take the first pass at deciding whether to consider the school—they’ve found that if children come in also and like the school more than parents do, it can create conflict and disappointment.
We wish we could visit the schools in person, but that just isn’t possible right now. I’d written previously about a school in Vancouver for the gifted we chatted with; we decided it was too much of a gamble, without having the chance to experience their classroom first, to enroll Beanie in such a different type of environment than what she has known. The nature school in Vancouver, on the other hand, is a situation Beanie is already familiar with and she’ll hopefully be able to join in fairly smoothly.
So anyway, we’re still in the process of Zoom calls and gathering information. Every day I flip-flop on which place I think would be the best move. I have no answers yet! But I have to say I’m heartened to meet so many educators from various countries who are dedicated and passionate about teaching. They are definitely out there, and I enjoy getting to know them.
Pretty Good Things
Numbeo and Nomadlist
Here are two websites that are helpful if you’re planning a move, and fun to browse through even if you’re not. Numbeo is a crowdsourced cost of living and quality of life database. You can look up cities and towns, and you can also do a cost of living comparison between two locations. There are many categories, including the price of eggs, internet connection, and fitness club memberships, that will give you a good idea of typical expenses.
Nomad List is also a crowdsourced site with quality of life data, targeted at digital nomads. Memberships are paid, but not necessary to do a few searches. The site has a community component so members can connect and meet up in person. The data includes cost of living—not as detailed as Numbeo—but it covers lots of other useful ground like whether the tap water is drinkable, how much money to withdraw from the ATM, the best hospital, and ratings on friendliness to foreigners and LGBTQ+.
The Climate Book: The Facts and Solutions
This book by environmental activist Greta Thunberg isn’t out yet in the United States, but it looks like it’ll be edifying. Thunberg has curated short essays by scientists, activists, and authors to give an overview of the climate crisis, with calls to action. Here's an excerpt from one review:
With The Climate Book, a stunning and essential new work, Greta Thunberg takes her mission to the next level ... [It is] an incredible and moving resource. There are chapters on almost everything you might need to know about ... the book is a curated, portable library of knowledge, full of classics. Everyone will get something different from reading this book ... It is an extraordinary body of work and I can't recommend it highly enough. You feel the passion as well as the intellectual heft of the authors, and that is what is so moving about it. It is time for all of us to rise up
Rowan Hooper, New Scientist
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I can’t lie—availability of Asian restaurants was a factor in the decision.