Biggest challenge facing Cuenca expat parents is choosing the right educational option for the kids

Jun 28, 2012 | 0 comments

Relocating school-age children to a new country, especially one with a different language, is the biggest challenge confronting most expat parents.

"It's a huge decision and one that any parent needs to think hard about," says John O'Neil, father of two young boys who moved to Cuenca from Boston last July. "My wife and I did a lot of soul searching and studying before we came here and we still faced problems we didn't expect."

The big decisions include choosing a school or deciding to home school, and making provisions for intensive Spanish language training. "Besides that, it's important to consider such things as how hard it will be for kids will make new friends and what kind of after-school activities are available," says O'Neil. "You also have to keep in mind that the parents are facing a serious cultural adjustment too."

Mark Odenwelder, who grew up in New Jersey and moved to Cuenca seven years ago, agrees with O'Neil's assessment and adds that parents need to approach their move with reasonable expectations. "It's important that North American parents realize that what they will find in Ecuador, or any foreign country for that matter, will be very different from what they are used to back home. They need to flexible."

Odenwelder is not only an expat but is the father of two young children and director of the Centers for Interamerican Studies, or CEDEI, one of Cuenca's largest educational institutions. In addition to providing primary and secondary education, CEDEI offers a number of language programs for older students and has cooperative programs with several U.S. universities. It also teachers English to Ecuadorian children.

Although it is impossible to put an exact number on the school-age, North American children living in Cuenca, a good guess, according to O'Neil, is about 300. "More Americans are moving to Cuenca every day so the number is growing."

According to several parents, most expat children who are not home schooled go to three private schools in Cuenca: CEDEI, Colegio Santana and Colegio Aleman Stiehle, commonly known as the German School. "From my experience, these are the most receptive to English-speaking foreign children," says O'Neil, whose sons attend Santana.

Tuition is low by North American standards: $141 per month at CEDEI and $202 at Santana and Stiehle, with extra expenses for class materials, uniforms and transportation amounting to another $50 or $60 a month.

According to Odenwelder, parents should give serious consideration to the kind of education they want their children to have. "Does your child respond best to traditional or alternative teaching practices? In a new culture where the children are learning a new language, the answer to this question may be more important than it is back home."

According to Odenwelder, Santana and Shiehle use more traditional teaching methods while CEDEI takes an alternative approach, following the "multi-intelligences" method of education researcher Howard Gardner. CEDEI is one of the few schools offering full educational services for special needs students, including several expat children. Lori Wrenn, CEDEI international coordinator, says the school includes special needs students in its regular classes. "In most local schools, they would not be included but our philosophy is that including them is not only best for them but for the other students as well."

Ellen Marshall, one of dozens of Cuenca expat parents who home school their children, says her biggest challenge is not academic. "The curriculum is not a problem for us since we can get our materials from back home. Our biggest challenge is finding fun things for the kids to do after school, making sure they learn Spanish and helping them make Ecuadorian and expat friends."

O'Neil and Odenwelder have some advice for parents considering moving to Cuenca. First, O'Neil says, do you your research. "There are several excellent books on educating children. Read these. Then, go online to get information from families already living in Cuenca." He adds a caution. "Don't believe everything you read on the blogs and in the email forums. You can get some good information but you can also get bad information."

Next, he says, come to Cuenca for a visit. "You need to see the schools, talk to teachers and administrators and see how the students respond." The exploratory trip will also give you a chance to evaluate Cuenca and decide if it's the right place for your family, he says.

Odenwelder adds: "It is important for parents to start planning well in advance of a move. The application process can take weeks, maybe months. The new school will need academic records and these can take time to collect."

Both O'Neil and Odenwelder suggest arriving several months before the school year begins in September. "Most children need two or three months of intensive Spanish training to be ready for school. Coming to Cuenca early allows for this as well as for general acclimation," says O´Neil. "There will be some frustration but, if you do your planning you should
be fine. My kids are doing great and mom and dad are holding up pretty
well too."

He adds: "A big intangible that a lot of parents don´t think about is the benefit the children get simply from the experience of living in a foreign country and learning a new language. Test scores are important but living in another culture gives kids a broader world view and a more sophisticated outlook on life. And, by the way, it looks pretty good on a college admissions application."

Contact information for Cuenca schools

Centers for Interamerican Studies, tel.07 419 5035,
Colegio Santana, tel. 07 285 7451,
Colegio Aleman Stiehle, tel. 07 407 5652,

Credit: Reposted from the Miami Herald International Edition, March 21, 2912; Photo caption: School children at the CEDEI elementary school; many expat kids are home-schooled.

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