Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 2

See also Part 1 and Part 3

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.

Not up to 19 pages of statistical analysis in a foreign language? Well, where’s your sense of adventure?

O.K., fine. I’ll give you the highlights, with the caveat that my reading Dutch, although steadily improving via my somewhat pathetic strategy of Dutch subtitles while watching Netflix, still relies heavily on Google translate; and a second caveat that I am way more of a grammar nerd than a statistics nerd. If I’ve made any mistakes, please, by all means bring them to my attention.

But here goes: there were, last year, 7453 children who participated in the secondary school lottery in Amsterdam. Of those, approximately 2000 received VWO, the advice Axa is expected to receive officially any time now (see page 3). Then there’s a breakdown by school of how many places the school has at each level, as well as how many students put the school in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. place on their lists (see pages 7-10). This chart sent me rather into fits when I first perused it, since it looked like all our favourite schools were the ones that didn’t have enough space to accommodate the demand. This is to some extent true, although it’s not necessarily quite as bad as it looks, since a great number of those kids are putting all the same schools on their list, just in different order, and each kid only needs one space somewhere.

But the good news comes after, with a graph showing which was the highest lottery number each school accepted (see page 13). Remember that in a lottery like this, what you want is a low number, since you are matched to your school in numerical order. What this means is that, for example, at St. Ignatius Gymnasium (the school we visited Friday night, which Axa has marked as her #2 choice), a kid would have to have gotten a lottery number higher than 6525 out of 7453 in order to not get a place at the school. So really, that’s not sounding so bad. In fact, there have been several academic papers on the Amsterdam secondary lottery over the years, and apparently due to various analyses they’ve recently switched the algorithm to encourage kids to rank their true preferences rather than attempting to choose strategically. However, even I have not delved into this literature beyond scanning through abstracts, because I am really truly trying not to be THAT parent. (Although I did have a nightmare about the lottery the other night, in which I suddenly discovered there were 20,000 kids in the lottery rather than 7500, and the same number of school spaces available.)

In any case, this particular analysis ends with the encouraging news that 95% of kids got placed in one of their top three choices (see page 16), and 97% in their top five. Axa has identified three schools that she really likes already, and we’ve visited about half of the schools on our list, so I expect she’ll add a few more to her favourites. So I really shouldn’t worry too much about this. But of course, being a parent and a worrier, I do. Anyway, on to the schools.

Cartesius II: This is an offshoot of Cartesius, which we visited last week. So it’s obviously a newer school, with some interesting new methods. Many Amsterdam schools that offer more than one academic level have what they call a brugklas or “bridge class” for the first year (or possibly even two), after which students can be re-evaluated academically and possibly end up following a different stream. Cartesius II does a three year brugklas, so could be a really great option for kids who are late bloomers and might have been disadvantaged by being tracked as 11-year-olds.

As someone who read a ton of educational theory whilst homeschooling my kids, I find the different approaches to education in Amsterdam schools at both primary and secondary levels (all government funded, by the way) fascinating. While the Dutch system has its detractors, I think this flexibility of methodology is great for parents seeking the right fit for their kids.

Like many of the newer, more experimental schools in Amsterdam, Cartesius II is a very project-based, computer-focused learning environment. Classes are 2.5 hours long and very hands-on. The kids finish school at 4:30, having done all their homework at school. They doesn’t offer the classical languages, although they do offer VWO+, which includes some extra elective classes, with a focus on design/math/IT. Here is Axa, attempting to hack into one of the student computers.

In the end, Axa didn’t love this school. Like her current school it is new and innovative, and equally like her current school they don’t yet have the organisation, full range of facilities, trips abroad, etc., of the more traditional, established schools, and she just wasn’t feeling it with the atmosphere.

St. Ignatius Gymnasium: I must confess to having missed almost this entire open evening whilst being interviewed for the Amsterdam Mamas Podcast about–you guessed it: Choosing a high school in Amsterdam. Donna Bardsley, the podcast host (and one of the first friends I met when I moved to Amsterdam) wanted to get some authentic atmosphere in the background of the interview. The atmosphere was, in fact, so very authentic that we were forced to retreat to the coatroom in search of a place quiet enough to record the interview.

Fortunately, Axa had plenty of company in the form of both Tony and Raj, the latter of whom had decided to come along after hearing stories of cookies at the other school open days we had attended. Since we will be repeating this whole process with him in just two short years, it was not a bad idea for him to come along and get an idea of what it’s like. Here they are, presumably in the science lab.

Tony reported that as soon as they walked into the gym, they were invited to play badminton with some of the current students. Axa also loved the “Orchestra”, which apparently at Ignatius comprises several musical genres (Classical, Jazz, Latin, and Rock), and figures fairly prominently in the curriculum. At six minutes away by bicycle, it’s also an attractive commute. So as things stand now, Ignatius is solidly in the number two spot behind Het Amsterdams Lyceum.

And we are officially done with week 2 of the great Amsterdam secondary school adventure. Only a few more weeks to go!

2 thoughts on “Choosing a High School in Amsterdam, Part 2

  • February 11, 2017 at 9:18 am

    I can’t remember: do your children currently go to the same school? And is it pretty likely they will end up at different high schools?

    • February 12, 2017 at 2:30 am

      Yes, they both currently go to a bilingual primary school called Denise. And they may very well end up at different high schools. I think that’s relatively common here, both because of the lottery, and because there’s this culture here of the kids choosing. I should definitely blog about that in a future post!


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