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School Choice: Finding a Great Fit

March, 2012
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amy-lovedayhuSchool choices are abundant in Beijing. But choosing the right school that is a FIT for your children is not an easy decision, especially when the children are small. The real challenge lies in what the family really wants for their children. Do they want a big school or a small school? Do they want a single language or dual language program? What education system do you favor?

It is really a process of finding satisfying answers for your questions. Amy Loveday Hu, Principal of 3e International School, is happy to share her views on school selection for little ones.

Location. Location. Location. One of the main issues to consider when choosing a school for small children is “How close are you to the school?” In a big city like Beijing, school bus trips for an hour are often unavoidable. If your child is 3 to 5 years old, an hour on the school bus is not ideal. It is a really long school day for the kids already. So location is key.

Smaller schools for younger children. Compared with big schools, small schools are usually more family-oriented and there is a really strong sense of community where a lot of school families know each other. You will always be able to find the person you wish to speak to; and small issues like social behavior will not get missed. This also enables the school to work through all the things they have planned.

A strong Chinese program is growing in importance. According to Principal Hu, the needs for children to learn Chinese have increased among expat families. “The parents want their children to be immersed in language learning. This is reflected in the big growth of our student population as people like our dual balanced language program. 3e children spent 50% of each day in each language – English and Chinese. Children really learn the language by being immersed in it so they learn the languages quickly in a natural way.” Parents who have similar needs should pay special attention to language programs offered at a school.

Social learning is equally important for children. Children are not only learning academic but also social skills at school. If the children can function well socially, their academics will fall into place. If the child is struggling socially, their academics could be even more challenging for them. Remember to find out how the school usually deals with social issues on campus.

A good student-teacher ratio is also very important. Personalized learning requires personal attention given to each and every child in the classroom. The classroom shouldn’t be too big and teachers should always be visible.

Diversity in the student body is another contributing factor. A diverse student body, multi-cultural learning environment and international teaching staff are the typical features of any international school. For example, at 3e International School, 25 nationalities are represented among the 184 students. As a lot of families who are multi-cultural themselves at home, a mixed culture environment will be easier for the children to adapt to. Growing up in a multi-cultural environment, the children will become more globally-minded and independent. So remember to ask: “How many nationalities do you have?”

Visit the school, and make sure you have a good feeling. A school visit is the best way to find out about a school for your child. By visiting a school, the parents need to make sure they have a very good feeling about the school. Make a list of your questions before your school visit. Check the facilities, check the bulletin board and check the school buses. What is more important is that you need to talk to schools about your goal as a family, what is important to you for your children to learn or to be exposed to, and what is the philosophy and teaching approach of the school.

If necessary, try to arrange a school visit on more than one occasion so that you may meet up with different people on campus, either classroom teachers or administrators, to find out more about the school. “We’ve always tried to set up a meeting with parents and teachers and children before anybody signs up,” says Hu. “So we can try to make sure that our school fits your child best.”

Find out what your children will learn at the school. Most kindergartens emphasize learning by action or project-based learning. In order to find out what your child is learning at school, parents should ask questions like “what kind of activities will the children get involved in?” and have conversations with teachers on how they deal with social situations such as if the child is really shy? These questions will help you a lot in finding out how the school works with your children. Look around the school facilities, asking when the children will go outside and what they will do if they cannot go to play outside. For example, one big question many families worry about is that the pollution in Beijing is very bad. Parents need to find satisfying answers to all their concerns or worries.

Talk to other school parents. For many schools, the best method of intake of new students is word of mouth. Somebody who is really happy about the school will usually tell a friend who has a similar mindset. Checking with your friends on their choice of schools could be a shortcut to narrow down the school choices for your own children. Most international schools will have a parents group known as the PTA (Parents and Teachers Association), PTSA (Parents and Teachers Service Group) or a Parent Council like 3e. Many schools will also invite parents to serve as classroom representatives to help with teaching. These are great resources to get the best answers to your questions when checking on a school. Responsible schools may also introduce the visitor to a school parent who has a similar background.

Should siblings go to the same school? Not necessarily. Putting children in the same school might be a lot easier for your time management. What’s more, many schools do offer sibling discounts on school fees. However, an increasing number of families tend not to send siblings to the same school. The right reason for this could be sending the children to different schools that are the right fit for each of them. “I believe the parents do respect their children’s different personalities,” said Hu. “Well, I think it is easier to make such choices when the children are older.”

Spaces are limited, so plan ahead. For new parents or parents who have newly arrived in Beijing, they should start their research on schools as soon as possible. Usually, enrollment begins at the end of February and March for most schools, but schools receive applications throughout the year. After a big growth in the student population in 2011, many international schools are short on spaces in certain grade levels. For example, 3e International School enjoyed an increase of 30% in its student body in the year 2011. Currently, they have 184 children from ages 2 to 9 years (grade 4), with 96 children in preschool this year, and they are pretty short on spaces.

“If you start school research early, then you will have time to revisit the schools that you like before and make sure you still like the school,” Hu adds. “If you are overseas, you may try to speak to the administrators or teachers of the school to get a feel of how the school communicates with you; how efficient the school is at getting information to you that you need and how the pathways of communication work.”

“There is no perfect school for everybody. Parents need to feel confident of the school they find for their children. If they trust the school, children will trust the school,” says Hu. “Before making the decision, make sure you’ve found satisfying answers to all your questions and concerns.”


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