Friday, March 2, 2012

The Saga of Searching for a School in Dubai...Part 1

It is that time of year for parents in Dubai who have a 4-year old, or a child approaching age 4.  We all must endure the crazy process of looking for, and getting accepted into a good primary school.

In Dubai, there are public schools, but these are for locals.  All foreigners here have to send their children to private schools.  Typically, companies provide some kind of reimbursement, but it may not cover 100% of it.  And if you consider moving here, note that the company just covers the base and does not include any extras on top of that.

Our quest for the right school started sometime last year.  I had heard different things when moms “talk shop” so I kind of had an idea about what might be good and what might not be based on reputation – or should I say gossip.  On top of the gossip, there are many systems – American, British, International, and a myriad of others.  Luckily I do not have to consider another language.  For example, if you were from France, would you put your child in a French speaking school, or somewhere else?  Since it doesn’t seem in the cards that we will return to the US anytime soon, I need to consider a few options.

I confirmed the gossip based on government reports here as well as a few visits to the facilities.  However, it was still difficult to make the preliminary list.   So starting sometime in Spring last year, I began the task of visiting schools and completing applications and all other paper work to get my child an education.

The first school I visited last year has always had a fantastic reputation.  It is rumored to educate children in a different, unique way that was the bomb - something about using movement and physical activity to support learning.  Before the world economy crashed, you had to wait probably two years to get into this school.  I decided to visit and let it be a benchmark if it was that great. 

I scheduled a visit and took a tour of the school.  Most of the parents touring were British, or maybe a few Australians as well.  Despite the unique delivery of education, the system seems to be primarily British, or at least attracts this clientele.  They had an amazing common area with all the kids’ art, which was fantastic, but I was incredibly freaked out when we walked by the computer lab.  All these children dressed identically, sitting at computers like droids.  I guess this is what all primary school computer labs look like these days, but it still freaked me out a bit.  

Probably the highlight of the tour was when we visited the playground.  This is when the principal/director, who was giving the tour, emphasized the importance of physical play for brain development.   And I quote, “One of the best things you can do for your child is to swing them around upside down.”  Is she kidding me?  Now I am not a prude, and kids love to play, climb and swing, but did she just say that to everyone?  Yes, she did.  She did not endorse shaking babies, but I was preparing my poker face just in case.

Fortunately, I was wearing my sunglasses, so I was able to do a quick check-in with the faces in the group - nobody flinched.  I am not sure if the crowd just got bored and were perhaps not listening at the time, or they wanted their child to get in so badly that they were afraid to question it.

The tour finished and I had a quick visit with the nurse to see if she had any experience or issues with a diabetic child before.  While the education is important, at this age, health and managing diabetes is a big deal for us.  They were very accommodating, but I can say the reaction from some other schools when I request to visit the nurse’s offices has been interesting.   They usually tell me that I can meet them the week before school starts.  Most are accommodating after I explain to them the importance of doing this sooner rather than later.  However, I had one school that was a little reluctant to direct me to the nurse’s office.

This person seemed surprised, so I tried to politely explain the need to meet with a nurse sooner rather than later.   It still wasn’t quite working, as that didn’t seem to follow the typical procedure.  I had to take it a step further and make the obvious as gentle as possible:  I will select and pay for the school with my (hard earned) money.  I finally got a “we usually don’t do this, but we’ll make an exception this time”. 

While they all have selection criteria, no one has yet offered to pay for my child to attend their school.  As fabulous as he is, I just don’t think that is going to happen.  I feel it is only fair that if I am going to provide this money to them, I need to ensure that my child’s health will not be an issue at school.

In May 2011, I dropped off an application form for my son at the school where he would be swung around upside down to induce learning.  They said they would be in touch…In September of 2011, they sent me an email to schedule an assessment for my son. 

One of the most critical requirements to get into a school here is a good assessment, or interview.  All schools here assess all applicants before they accept them.  I can somewhat understand why it is done, but I also think that some schools may abuse it.  The rumor is that this is how they look for “desirable passports”.  That may be different for each school.  At least one American school here openly states that North American passport holders get priority. 

The date they gave me was the same date we were scheduled to be in the US so my son could see his pediatric endocrinologist.  I explained this and they told me they would be in touch, but I knew better.  I called the number  they left in the email in case I had any questions.  Of course there was never any answer and the number never rolled over to voice mail. 

I sent an email explaining this, and that I would like to discuss when we could reschedule.  I received the same response, “We’ll be in touch”. 

I was not too disappointed or surprised.  After all, another friend tried to get her son into this school.  There was a massive waiting list, and every time she followed up, there was no space available.  Come school time, she had never heard anything from them, so obviously, her child was enrolled in another school.  Crazily enough, they called her on the second day of school informing her a place had opened.  This was around 10 or 11:00 in the morning.  She had a window until 2:00pm to get back to them, otherwise the spot would be gone.  With her son settled happily in another school, needless to say, my friend told them “no thanks”.

Wanting a second opinion to see what all the hoopla was about, I was waiting for my husband who had not yet had a chance to visit the school.  The morning he left to go there, a car hit his car in our parking lot.  They both had to go to the police station to get a report so the other driver’s insurance could pay for the damages.  Obviously, he missed the tour that day.

When he called to reschedule, they told him they did not really have any upcoming tours, nor were they sure when the next tour would be, if at all.  I am writing this in February, this happened a couple of months ago. 

Instead of all the secrecy and pretentiousness, a simple we do not like your passport, or we did not care for your wife’s shoe choice when she took the tour would suffice.  This is a game I do not subscribe to.  Needless to say, we happily did not give them a second thought.

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