Surprisingly enough, I have not been obsessing about the lottery every spare moment since we turned in Axa’s form almost a month ago. There were even some times when I forgot about it completely. However, as the time drew near for the blessed event, I did start to think about it more–several times a day by the final week. I had at least one nightmare where she got placed in a school that wasn’t even on her list. I was at pains not to mention the lottery to Axa (well, at least to not bring it up more than once every couple of days), since I didn’t want her to stress about it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it myself. I don’t do especially well when significant life events are up in the air (who does?), and finding out where Axa would spend the next six years of her life is a significant event. It reminded me a little of when I was Mormon, and we turned in our mission papers, and then waited for that big white envelope that would tell us where in the world we would be going.
Axa refused to visit the final school on our list, so I got an unexpected reprieve. And we are done! I must say that it has been an extremely educative process for me. I’ve learned more about the Dutch education system and the individual schools, but also come to understand better the importance they place here on school choice, both for parents and for children. The advantages of offering so many choices are obvious, I guess. Ideally, each student will find the program and school that is the perfect match as far as academic level, educational method, subject emphasis, individual accommodations, distance from home, and that indefinable “click” between the student and the school.
One of the best things about the way they do this whole high school thing here is that it’s so kid-focused. Whenever we walk into a school on an open day, it’s Axa who is greeted and handed a flyer, folder, bag of brochures, pen, water bottle, or whatever they’re handing out at this particular school (she promptly hands it all over to me to carry for her, but still). The students and teachers focus on talking to the visiting kids, although they are also polite and willing to answer the parents’ questions. Because let’s be real, the kids are 11-12, and sometimes they are more interested in the bowl of snacks on the table than in asking insightful questions about their future education. Yesterday I shared a rueful smile that transcended culture and language with a Dutch mother whose son had just grabbed a giant handful of potato chips out of a consumer research survey on whether Lays or generic chips tasted better.
There is one especially aggravating thing about this whole process: We spend by far the most time and effort on schools in which we have little interest, and to which it is very unlikely Axa will go. After all, 95% of kids get placed in one of their top three choices. It wasn’t very difficult to to choose those top three; we had a fairly good idea of which ones they would be based on their websites, programs offered, test scores, and proximity to our house. The visits were more to see how the school “felt” to Axa and rank them either one, two, or three.
While I was chatting with Donna Bardsley at Amsterdam Mamas after she interviewed me last week about this whole process, she said something that I can’t stop thinking about. She had asked me during the interview what I thought about the Dutch education system, and in particular about the streaming system that separates kids out by ability at the age of eleven. I’d responded fairly positively (as I have on this blog), partially because I’ve always had an inherent hesitation about publicly saying something overtly negative about the culture in which I live at the time, and partially because I really do see some clear benefits to the system. But the thing that Donna said was that the parents who tend to have positive things to say about the system are those whose kids have ended up with a VWO advies.
We visited a couple more schools with Axa this week. By now we pretty much have the drill down (and she knows to keep her eyes out for where they have the cookies). I am starting to feel more confident about the process, and a bit less shell-shocked. After all, at the end of the day she just writes down all her choices and then we wait for the lottery. And none of my agonising or nit-picking about this or that advantage of this or that school will make much of a difference, if at all. I’ve also spent some more time researching exactly how the lottery works, which has been somewhat reassuring. For the truly nerdy (or desperately anxious) among us, here’s the link to a pdf of the analysis (in Dutch, sorry) of how the lottery went last year.
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).
The year you turn twelve is an important year in the Netherlands. In fact, if I were to be melodramatic, I would say it can determine the entire course of your life. Because they have a sort of Divergent thing going on here, where kids get “tracked” at the age of twelve into a certain educational level which determines where they go to school, which types of higher education will be available to them in the future, and accordingly, for which sorts of jobs they will be qualified. That’s pretty heavy for a twelve-year-old. And my little eleven-year-old will be twelve in just a few short months.
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.
Once we had decided to send our children to school in Amsterdam, we were faced with the rather overwhelming prospect of finding a school that would be a good fit. Fortunately, as usual, the internet came to the rescue. There’s a wonderful expat parenting group called Amsterdam Mamas that has the answers to any question you might have when moving to or living in Amsterdam.
Besides the website, there’s an extremely active Facebook group where you can ask questions on anything, including what to expect when giving birth, which local restaurants are most family-friendly, or even what to do when your upstairs neighbor won’t stop banging on the ceiling (ask me why I want to know). There are a number of offshoots to the main Facebook group, including Amsterdam Mamas Book & Film Club, Amsterdam Mamas Write, and Dutch Education. It was to this last that I went to with all my questions about–Dutch education. I spent a couple of weeks poring over past posts and absorbing everything I could.