Choosing a High School in Amsterdam

We’ve already visited our first few high schools in Amsterdam with Axa, and there is so much to love. You might remember last month’s post about choosing whether to stay at her current bilingual Dutch school for the next six years, transfer to an international school, or go Dutch. She’s leaning heavily towards the latter, which is exciting and overwhelming and nerve-wracking all at once. In fact, she’d like to go all out and do Gymnasium, which is a full-on classical college preparatory education complete with French, German, Greek, and Latin. As her languages-loving, nerdy mother I couldn’t be more happy for her (and I can assure you it is her own decision, although of course she knows I’m thrilled with it).

There’s only one catch: unlike in the U.S., students are not assigned to schools based on where they live. You have to go to a school that offers the level of study you’ve been recommended for (in Axa’s case VWO, or college prep), but you’re free to go to any school in the city. However, because some schools are very popular, and to make it fair for everyone, all incoming students participate in a lottery. You rank the schools in your order of preference (it’s recommended to include at least ten schools on your list), and in April there is a lottery to determine where you’ll be placed. And everyone knows someone with a lottery disaster story. There have even been lawsuits over the lottery. Fortunately, there are several excellent schools fairly near our house. Unfortunately, they happen to also be the most popular schools in Amsterdam for gymnasium programs. Cue massive parental anxiety.

During the months of January and February, the Dutch high schools in Amsterdam hold open days so that students and their parents can visit, get to know the school, and ask any questions they might have. Those open days started this week, and there are a lot of them. Fortunately, there’s a handy website listing each and every open day by date, and segmenting them out by educational stream offered, geographical location, and a couple of other criteria. The open days fall into three main categories:

  • Informational evenings, either for only parents or for parents and students. These are usually dominated by a presentation held in the auditorium.
  • Open days, for parents and students. These are either in the afternoon, evening, or Saturdays, and the whole school is open, with student guides, activities, and a chance to visit pretty much every corner of the school and get a feel for it, as well as speaking with teachers and current students.
  • Open lessons, for students. These are usually held on an afternoon, and give the students the opportunity to experience what actually attending a class at the school would be like.

Often schools will mix up the above categories, so you find things organized a little differently in each school. At least in my experience so far, which has been attending them for three different schools. In the beginning I was advised by other parents and planned to attend multiple events for each school, but my 11-year-old, around whom this whole thing, of course, revolves, put her foot down and announced that she could very well make her choice after one visit to each school. So our schedule is still hectic, but not quite as hectic as originally planned.

Stats on test scores and practical information about available courses, etc. can be found on various websites, including those of the schools themselves, so what we were really going for when we visited was how the school felt to Axa. And that’s what I’ll focus on in the blog post, rather than the more nitty-gritty stuff. Since Amsterdam is really full of good schools, I’ve been told that most families make the decision largely based on how the student feels about the school, which I think is fairly healthy. Anyway, without further ado, these are the schools we’ve visited so far:

Het Amsterdams Lyceum. If I could describe this school in one word, it would be Chilton. The school celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, and it drips tradition, as well as class, in multiple senses.

It’s also a three minute bicycle ride from our house, which is what initially landed it in Axa’s range of interest. Here she is, checking out the chess club.

And this is the classical languages room. Another thing Axa liked about this school was that the school also owns a beautiful property out in the country, and the entire class spends a week there together at the beginning of the school year. The kids also go on trips abroad to Italy and other places. Chilton, erm Het Amsterdam Lyceum is a beautiful school, solid educationally, with a good balance of the social and the academic. And Axa really liked it.

Cartesius Lyceum. Axa and I caught the tram up to this school, which took us twenty-five minutes and one tram change. It’s an 18-minute bike ride from our house, so further than her current school, but very much within the 30-minute commute limit afforded me by an informal poll of expat Amsterdam moms of 12+-year-old kids.

It’s sort of the polar opposite of Het Amsterdams Lyceum – modern-looking, a bit more diverse, with a less ponderous atmosphere.

Cartesius caters to a somewhat wider range of academic ability. They had a lovely art studio up on the top floor, and some pretty fun gymnastics equipment in the gym. This school wasn’t near the top of my list of schools. However, my main thought while visiting was that if even the schools toward the bottom of my list are this good, there’s not too much to worry about.

Vossius. We visited this school last night, and I have to say it. If I were twelve and choosing a school, I’d pick Vossius. I fell in love with the attic library, complete with desks under the windows just outside, giving the indication that lots of kids actually hang out studying here. The school was absolutely full of happy current students, all of whom praised the warm atmosphere and high academic standards. They were nice, nerdy, and completely adorable. Axa was slightly less impressed than I was, except with the candy available. My phone was dead, so this is the only photo I managed to get of Vossius, in the English room.

She did like Vossius, but I think the place might have been a bit TOO nerdy for her. She’s more an all-around player: smart, athletic, and a bit of a socialite. She says she wouldn’t consider herself a nerd except perhaps where grammar is concerned. As a very good gymnasium with an 11-minute bike commute, Vossius will definitely stay on the list. But I don’t think it will make first choice. Maybe if I’m reincarnated someday as a Dutchie I’ll go myself.

So there you have it: our first few school visits accomplished. It’s too soon really for any concrete takeaways. I will say that I was able to gain a fairly good idea even of the feel of each school from its respective website (and the Dutch Education Facebook group, which you absolutely must join immediately if you are researching putting your kids in school in the Netherlands at any level). But it was still really valuable to actually go to the schools. I was quite nervous and intimidated, especially since my own Dutch is none too stellar (read: functionally nonexistent, at least when it comes to actually producing words out of my mouth), but really the open days are just a happy chaos of kids and parents and people from the school, eager to explain why you should definitely put it first on your list.

Stay tuned for more, including eventually the actual nail-biter: The School Lottery.

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