DENISE School Review, Primary School

This post concerns DENISE primary school (ages 4-11). You can also read my review of DENISE secondary school (ages 12-18). However, since it is the same school administration in the same building, you may find both articles helpful regardless of the age of your kids.

It is hard to believe my baby just graduated from Group 8 this week, and will soon be headed off to a new school. For our entire past four years in Amsterdam, DENISE (De Nieuwe Internationale School Esprit) has played a big part in our family’s experience of the city. The school has gone through many changes during its five years of existence so far, and I’ve had a front-row seat to most of them.

Since people regularly arrive on my blog searching for information about DENISE, I thought it might be helpful to give an updated review here, in the form of frequently asked questions I’ve heard over and over from parents evaluating the school for their children. To give some context and help you evaluate how closely our experience might predict yours, we are an American family planning to stay long-term in Amsterdam. We speak English as our home language. My kids are both quite academic, and they attended the primary school from ages 7 and 10 to age 12.

Is DENISE an International School?

Well, yes and no. From its title, De Nieuwe Internationale School Esprit, it is obvious that DENISE considers itself a sort of international school. And indeed it is quite international in the sense that a large percentage of the student body hail from different countries, instruction is bilingual (Dutch/English), and the curriculum (IPC for primary, MYP/IB for secondary) is an international one. You can expect school communications, parent meetings, student reports, etc. to be in both English and Dutch. Different cultural traditions are accepted and celebrated, and Intercultural Competency is an actual class that the kids take.

On the other hand, DENISE is officially a Dutch public school. While the school fees for DENISE are much higher than at most Dutch schools, they are several times less expensive than even the cheapest government-subsidised international schools (e.g. AICS). Although the school population at DENISE is more transient than at a typical Dutch school, it does tend to attract international families that are planning to be in the Netherlands for longer than a 2-4 year expat assignment.

Finally, unlike most international schools in Amsterdam, DENISE is a bilingual rather than an English-language school, so children must be able to speak Dutch up to a certain level before they can attend the school. Unfortunately, DENISE no longer offers its own Dutch language programme for newcomer children. This means that non-Dutch-speaking children over the age of six must first attend a separate Dutch language school (usually for around one year) before they can begin at DENISE.

Does DENISE Have High Academic Standards?

From our experience at DENISE primary school, I would say that the academic standards are more or less average. The student body includes a wide range of academic and language abilities, so it is sometimes difficult for the teachers to provide academic support and enrichment for high achieving kids. For highly motivated learners this isn’t necessarily a problem, and they may actually benefit from the lack of academic pressure. However, if you see that your child seems to be slacking off, be prepared as a parent to be proactive in asking the teachers what you can do to help your child achieve his/her potential, since the teacher may see no problem with average performance even if the child is capable of more.

To be fair, this is as much a cultural Dutch thing as specifically a feature of DENISE; but it is good to be aware. Some of the kids at DENISE are still working on gaining fluency in either Dutch or English (or in some cases both), so you won’t necessarily find the same kind of focussed intensity as is achievable in a classroom full of fluent speakers.

See my review on DENISE Secondary School for commentary on academic standards for kids aged 12-18.

How Does Bilingual Education Work at DENISE?

DENISE has tried out various different bilingual models over the past few years. At times they have tried to adhere to a strict system of Dutch days/English days; e.g. Dutch on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and English on Wednesday and Friday. At other times they have chosen to teach certain subjects in Dutch and others in English. Some of the classes have a Dutch teacher and an English teacher (language, not nationality); others have a single bilingual teacher. No matter what the current system, the teachers often do end up explaining some things in the other language to help individual students, so the Dutch/English balance is always an approximation.

I can’t comment on language dynamics below age 7 or 8, but in the older groups where my children attended, the language on the playground between the children tended to be almost exclusively English. What this meant in practice was that my kids got more English input than was ideal for their Dutch language development, especially since we have strong continued English input at home. This might be an advantage for some parents (e.g. those with a different home language) who are hoping that DENISE will give a boost to their children’s English language development.

In general, the teachers all have excellent English, although not native. English grammar and mechanics teaching was almost always correct, but if native English teaching/accent is what you are after, DENISE may not be the best choice. By the same token, if your primary concern is giving your child the best chance at rapid Dutch fluency, the fact that they will probably speak English with their friends is a significant drawback to consider. Bilingual education is a valuable middle ground, and a wonderful asset for some families, but you will possibly be giving up a degree of fluency in one or both languages, at least in the short run, depending on what your child’s language environment looks like outside of school.

My daughter, who arrived here at age ten, graduated from DENISE primary school after two years, and was able to go straight into the highest level of Dutch secondary school at a local gymnasium. She was still shy about speaking Dutch for the first few months of secondary school, and I saw a swift improvement in her language confidence and ability once she was finally immersed in Dutch there.

In retrospect, we likely would have made the same choice to put her in DENISE, given the options available at the time. However, since children now need to go learn Dutch at a different location before attending DENISE, I would probably recommend putting an older child into a fully Dutch school rather than DENISE if they want to eventually attend Dutch secondary school, since they will likely gain fluency much quicker without the bilingual component. For younger children who will have more time to learn Dutch, it may not be as important.

What is the School Atmosphere Like at DENISE?

Both of my children had very positive experiences going to DENISE. They had friends from all over the world, and felt safe, respected, and eager to go to school. Despite being so new, DENISE has cultivated wonderful school traditions. They go all out for the group 8 musical each year, and there’s a lot of school pride. Parents are invited to come in and talk about and help the class celebrate holidays from their home culture. The school is very supportive of home languages, and goes out of its way to help parents find resources and methods to keep up their kids’ mother tongue(s), as well as being sure to grant equal prestige to all languages. From what I hear, this progressive attitude towards multilingualism is not a given at all Dutch schools.

My children never had a problem with bullying, but other parents have complained about the way bullying is sometimes (not) dealt with at DENISE. Again, expecting kids to deal with bullying on their own is apparently something that happens at other Dutch schools as well; there are quite a few parents at DENISE who have transferred their kids from other Dutch schools where they were bullied, and find the environment at DENISE much better. DENISE does incorporate training for the kids with regard to communication, respect, consent, self-awareness, etc., so they give the children a good foundation for dealing with interpersonal issues.

Does DENISE Do the CITO Test?

Yes. The CITO eindtoets (end-test) is one of several equivalent standardised tests used to help determine which level of secondary school children should attend at age 12. DENISE administers yearly standardised tests, as well as an end test equivalent to the CITO called the IEP test. If your child finishes group 8 at DENISE, he or she will receive a recommendation (VWO, HAVO, VMBO, or a combination) that can be used to participate in the Amsterdam Middlebare Lottery.

For children who have lived in the Netherlands for less than four years, the end test is optional (which is why DENISE did not offer it for the first couple of years), although in practice most children take it anyway. The end-test comes after the children have already received their teacher recommendation anyway. The recommendation is based on the results of previous tests, the child’s individual learning trajectory, and the teacher’s assessment of traits like motivation, persistence, responsibility, emotional maturity, etc.

We found that DENISE did an excellent job of taking into account our children’s learning curve as they progressed in Dutch (and therefore in every subject taught in Dutch) over the years they attended DENISE. One big plus side of DENISE is that they are very experienced at evaluating the abilities of international children who may still be improving their Dutch, so that they can be placed in a secondary school that matches their true academic ability without penalising them for slight deficiencies in current language ability.

DENISE also makes a big deal of focussing more on real learning than on tests in general. I know several Dutch parents who have switched their children to DENISE because they didn’t like the excessive focus on test scores and test prep at their previous Dutch school.

How are School Communications?

If there is one thing I have stressed and complained about more than any other when it comes to DENISE, it is the (lack of) quality, accuracy, and effectiveness in the school communications. The one good thing that can be said about DENISE school communications is that they are always provided both in Dutch and English. That said, nobody ever seems to really know what is going on. The subject lines of school emails tend to be cryptic or unspecific. Important announcements are often buried in a single line of a PDF that is one of several attached to an email. We are often promised details at a later date, only to never receive them, or receive them at the very last moment after multiple times prodding the school.

There are frequent changes made with very little notice or explanation; e.g. the parents will suddenly be told that children are unexpectedly off school for one day next week, or that parent volunteers are needed for an activity tomorrow. The school calendar, both as posted on the website and as sent out at the beginning of the year, is notoriously unreliable. When issues arise, e.g. with bullying, curriculum, safety, etc. the school is unforthcoming with details and has a tendency to minimise or sweep things under the rug.

In the early days when the school was just a few tight-knit families, there were a lot of opportunities for informal meetings with management, and the school was very open to making changes and fixing problems. With a much larger student body now, the school management has of necessity become a bit more bureaucratic and less open, so it is more difficult as a parent to feel that your concerns are heard.

That said, one of the strengths of DENISE has always been the high number of involved and caring parents. The parent association is active and does a good job interfacing between parents and the school. Personally, I was willing to put up with the communication issues, because although there were a lot of them, most were quite minor, and my kids were so happy at the school. If you can tolerate a degree of chaos and on-the-fly planning, DENISE has many other virtues, and could easily be a good fit for you. However, if timely, accurate and clear school communication is very important to you, be aware that DENISE needs some significant improvement in this area.

What About the New Mondriaanstraat 140 Location?

The new building is beautiful and spacious, with a lovely theatre and lots of windows. It remains to be seen if or how the student body will change as a result of the school now being located in Nieuwe West rather than near Museumplein. As was predicted, many families have transferred out of the school because it is now too far for them to travel, but many new families have transferred in because they found the new location more convenient. I am unsure whether the school will be able to add significant numbers of children from the immediate vicinity (which socioeconomically is very different from the previous location in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods of Amsterdam), since its school fees are so much higher than a normal Dutch public school.

The student body of DENISE has always come from a much wider area than a normal Dutch school, and some families continue to travel from the other side of Amsterdam or even Amstelveen. It is still easier at DENISE than at a neighbourhood Dutch school to organise playdates with friends if you live relatively far away, but not all parents will be willing/able to pick up their child from your house if you are not within reasonable biking distance.

Security at DENISE

There were some significant security and other issues with the new school when it first opened in May of 2019. It was broken into multiple times, and equipment was stolen. Local kids threw rocks at the building and broke windows. Some middle and older primary DENISE students were threatened by children from the neighbourhood, and it appears that there was some local resistance to the school. The school administration was less than forthcoming about the extent and longevity of the animosity, so I don’t know how serious it was, or whether we can expect it to be quickly resolved. Unrelatedly (but also worryingly) the school didn’t have electricity in classrooms for weeks after the move.

As a parent, my biggest security concern is that DENISE chose not to fully fence in its schoolyard, as a gesture of openness to the community. I appreciate the gesture, but feel that a fenced schoolyard is something of a basic security measure for a primary school. The new DENISE location also shares part of its schoolyard with the next door Muslim primary school, and the two school administrations are working together to build bridges.

All this said, most (but not all) of the negative incidents that I know of occurred within the first week that DENISE was in the new building. Things appear to have mostly settled down now, so I am hoping that such incidents will not be repeated in the future.

Should I send my child to DENISE?

That depends a lot on your individual child and family situation. We had a positive experience there, as have a lot of my friends whose kids have gone to the primary school. It was a warm, nurturing environment with an international feel, but we still learned a lot about Dutch traditions, and my kids ended up fairly fluent in Dutch. It’s not the most academic primary school in the world, but we liked the fact that our kids had virtually no homework during all their years there, and there was very much a focus on the whole child, rather than just the academic side.

That said, here’s my giant caveat: if you are making a decision about DENISE primary school based on a plan for your children to continue on to the secondary school, I would recommend reading my post on DENISE secondary school as well. Best of luck, and may you and your family thrive in Amsterdam!

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