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How To Educate Your Children As An Expat In Panama

Jay holds up his iPad to show me his latest creation on Minecraft – breaking my concentration. “Look, Papa, I made an isthmus! It looks like Panama!”

As I write, my son mirrors me as we each lay face down on the bed. Our chests propped up on pillows, legs twirling in the air behind us. Usually, Jay’s comments are a small distraction. This time they pull me out of my writer’s block. I was trying to sum up our experiences since moving here in relation to my children’s schooling. That is actually a good intro to this article, I thought.

As parents and professional teachers, his mother and I are confident enough to homeschool while we network with local parents. We’re working towards establishing our own English-language Montessori School here in Panama.

We moved here last year with young children, and our concern over how Panama may affect their educational futures far outweighs any lifestyle opportunities we may have perceived.

The figures worked out. Panama was affordable for us, but what about our children? What will become of them if we stay here? If you are single, a couple, or a retiree, the move is an easy risk as long as the finances click. As a family, there are more imponderables.

Panamanian schoolchildren / Keith Yahl / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

We are now seeing a new wave of younger expats in Panama. Many arrive with preschoolers with an idea to work it out later. Others have children here before thinking about how to best provide for their educational needs.

We all want our children to fit in and have friends. But we also want them to keep the opportunities and choices that we had ourselves back home. It may be great for the first few years here, utopian even for the first few weeks/months. Still, I am yet to meet a young expat family who does not harbor an escape plan to keep the back door open to their own homelands.

Most young expat families have an opt-out plan for when they may return home.

I am going to focus on how to give your children an adaptable education in Panama. The factors that dictate how you provide for this will depend on the age of your children and your family situation. And – of course – how much money you have.

Homeschooling

Many locals and expats forums will tell you that homeschooling is illegal in Panama. But this is not actually the case. The fact is that homeschooling is not addressed in a country where education is free. The official line is that school is mandatory for all children as their civil right. They are either attending school or they aren’t, simple as that.

Homeschooling is a new idea that foreigners are importing to Panama. Try telling a Panamanian that you are homeschooling your child and they will look at you like you’re crazy. Homeschooling is not even considered as an option or concept here. Having a school system here alone (as a right) is not only free babysitting but also a social gift! The average Panamanian would wonder why you would deny this to your children? Who would not drop their kids off each day, allowing them the time to go to work themselves?

So the homeschooling concept in Panama exists in limbo. As expats we can homeschool our children under a ‘don’t ask – do it’ situation. No social services will hunt you down. A sort of Western privilege exists to allow us to do our own thing.

There is now a homeschool support group in Panama City, started by a local parent from the USA. Married to a Panamanian before relocating here, Ixa Calderon-Quinn set up the Facebook group Panama Homeschool Network to meet like-minded parents. Her group fast became a social hub for those expats in Panama with the same ideas and issues.

Ixa’s group is now the most established homeschool group in Panama City. They now have lawyers and professionals representing the rights of parents to homeschool. As an educator myself, her passion for homeschooling and extracurricular activities impressed me.

Our children all ran off into the park where we were sitting to explore as she told me how as a New Yorker this area of Panama City reminded her of Brooklyn.

It’s so true, I thought! The area is like that! A little harbor of families, students, and restaurants. A gentrified enclave that feels cool and vibrant, while full of scars.

Since starting her home-school group, Ixa has found herself shunted into the spotlight. She now hosts get-togethers and monthly gatherings of expats.

“I love the fact that here I can send my son to so many extra-curricular activities that are either state funded and free, or just cheap and accessible. These are not options that would have been so easily available to us as a family back in the USA!”

She says that most who homeschool use online or mail-delivered curricular providers. These are cheap and efficient, providing a structure to a homeschooling plan. Many are linked to schools back home, ensuring external official recognition.

Enrolling in a Local School

Upon arrival in Panama, most of us research the international and bilingual schools. But these are very expensive. Enrolling in a local school is attractive for several reasons – we all want our children to fit in here. Full immersion in a new language is the best way for them to succeed.

The advantage of going local is that bilingualism through full immersion works. It really does!

They will come out with fluent Spanish and have local friends. Even the parents will make friends as they find their child invited to play-dates and birthday parties.

Local schoolkids in Panama / AFS USA / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

But if you moved between schools yourself a lot as a child, you may remember the stress of it. That exclusion that makes it feel like you have to reinvent yourself – never really finding yourself accepted.

For a child joining a new school, this can leave them feeling isolated. Thus that sink or swim bilingualism sometimes comes with an emotional price attached. That’s fine and a risk worth taking if your plan is to live here forever and adapt. But everyone I know who enrolled their kids in Panamanian schools ended up pulling them out as their children were not happy. Often they, as expat parents, also felt excluded and misunderstood themselves.

International Schools

Even many Panamanians enroll their kids in bilingual and international schools for a good reason.

There are options that blend independent programs with international curricula for expats and local families alike. Particularly those who wish to create a pathway for their children to enter a US college later on. Some follow internationally-recognized curriculums or are linked to overseas schools as external students.

It takes little research to find these schools and it is worth investigating them if you have the personal finances or sponsorship.

Whether it be a local school, an international school, or a homeschooling group – plenty of options exist that can meet your family’s needs. There are support groups who can help you in your transition. Established schools can guide you through enrollment and are professional enough to give you honest advice.

One great thing about being an expat family with young children is that you are never short of a support group or an organization to help and welcome you.

As I glance over to Jay now, he has since fallen asleep with his iPad in his hands. I notice that on his Minecraft isthmus he has since built a house with bedrooms for us all, an unusual amount of chickens in the garden, and a pool. Bless him!

Lee Elliott spends his time homeschooling his youngest children with his Chinese-American wife in Panama City, Panama while lying around in bed trying to get published to retain his international press card. Follow more of his musings on his blog


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