It’s probably obvious from the title of this post which school we picked for our children. De Nieuwe Internationale School Esprit (DENISE) is a small bilingual Dutch public school in a beautiful, historic part of Amsterdam. Here they are, looking happy but nervous on Raj’s first day, and Axa’s second, still jet-lagged after a bare week in Amsterdam.
Before I tell you more about the school and the many reasons we love it, let me explain how we found it in the first place. This stuff is hard to do when you’re an ocean away and don’t speak the local language.
I’ve already mentioned the Dutch Education Facebook group that I found so helpful when I was trying to figure out what to do. One name that kept popping up in the group was Annebet van Mameren. She runs her own business helping expat families navigate the Dutch school system and find the best fit for their children. For us, she did a Skype call where she ran through our educational options, talked about our specific needs, and gave us recommendations. Then she contacted the schools we were interested in to see if there was space, as well as helping us know how to present ourselves to the school. Before we talked to her, I was really leaning toward trying to find a really good Dutch school and getting the kids a tutor. I liked the idea of them having a fully Dutch education, and was impressed with the websites of the schools I’d been browsing. But Annebet advised us that because the CITO was coming up so quickly, it really would be best for Axa to be in a school where she could continue seamlessly into a high-level academic environment for high school without worrying so much about her Dutch. Her recommendation was that the children go to DENISE, a new school (1 year old at the time) that was experimenting with a fully bilingual model.
I get the impression that for a lot of Dutch schools, the squeaky wheel really gets the grease when it comes to finding a place for your child. Multiple phone calls, as well as ideally visits to the school seem to be the best way to secure a place, since the school administrators are busy and even the waiting lists tend to be a bit fluid. DENISE told us right away that they had a place for Axa. But the younger the child, the more difficult it tends to be to find a place at the more popular schools. In fact, they’ve recently instituted a lottery system in Amsterdam for four-year-olds entering school. To make a long and nail-biting story short, after many emails and calls, two weeks before we arrived in Amsterdam we received the happy news that a place had been found for Raj at DENISE as well. Six months later, Tony and I still agree that Annebet’s service was the best EU150 or so we spent on our move.
Annebet also told us that the ideal thing to do would be to find a school first, and then look for housing in the catchment area. Since it’s a bilingual school, DENISE doesn’t have a catchment area, but we still wanted to be within reasonable striking distance. It takes us about 15 minutes to cycle to school. Some of the families at DENISE live twice that far, or even more. Actually finding our apartment (also a bare two weeks before we arrived) was another fairly miraculous occurrence, which is a story for another day.
The kids started school at the end of March, and it went until the beginning of July. After a seven week summer break, school started up again in mid-August. So they’ve been going for around five months, with a break in the middle. At DENISE, we discovered, the children don’t have any homework until Group 8 (age 11 or so), and they don’t get grades. We could hardly believe our good fortune. I did wonder how we would be able to tell whether they were progressing or not, or what we should work on. At the end of the year, though, rather than a report card, their teachers gave us a little booklet for each of them with a written summary from their teachers about what and how they were doing in each subject area. I almost cried, because that was the moment I really felt like it had been a good thing to put them in school. Even after just a few months, it was evident that the teachers knew my children well, and had an impressive grasp on their strengths and weaknesses.
Each week at DENISE, there are three Dutch days and two English days (when we started it was the opposite, but since the school ended up with a much higher proportion of native English than native Dutch speakers, they made the happy decision to weight the Dutch portion of the curriculum more heavily). So the kids have one teacher for the English days and another for the Dutch days. I’ll do another post on the bilingual aspect, since there’s a lot to cover, but I’m impressed with how much Dutch the kids are picking up, despite the fact that relatively few of their fellow-students are Dutch.
I love the warm, committed teachers who go out of their way to make my children feel at home in their school, as well as the well-rounded curriculum, which includes music, drama, and swimming (not usually offered in regular Dutch schools). But I think my favorite thing is that the school’s vision and philosophy accord so well with mine. The first sentence of their vision promises “a broad international curriculum as well as an anchor for life in The Netherlands.” One of the classes my kids take is called “Intercultural Competence,” and it’s all about understanding and accepting people who are different, respecting cultures and traditions, cooperation between different countries and nationalities, etc.
The teachers do a wonderful job fostering these values of tolerance, inclusion, and cooperation in the classroom. But the real magic is the lovely community the students and their parents have built up around the school. Every Friday when the weather is nice, we all troop over a couple of blocks to Museumplein, a huge grassy plaza near the Rijksmuseum. The kids range all over, running and playing to their hearts’ content. The parents sit on picnic blankets on the grass, talking. We make a communal pile of snacks, and usually someone brings wine (and/or chocomel) too. It’s a great opportunity to connect, compare notes on Amsterdam life, and let the kids bond outside the classroom. We also have a nice Facebook group where we share events of interest that have to do with the current curriculum, plan activities together, or cover each other for afternoon pickup in case of emergency. The school is small (it can’t be more than 100 or so families, if that), and there’s a real family atmosphere.
Not having ever sent my children to school before, I’m not sure how much of this is just normal, run-of-the-mill stuff that every school does, and how much of it is unique to ours, but we are thrilled about how happy our kids are there, and what a good fit it is for our family. It’s been wonderful to be almost instantly adopted into such a warm and diverse community. We’ve done lots of activities outside of school with families from DENISE, and I think being members of the DENISE family has made up a big part of why Amsterdam already feels so much like home.