by Karen A. Wrobbel
Cross-cultural workers today are blessed with many options for children’s education. Each choice has its own advantages and challenges, and there is not one right option.
Cross-cultural workers today are blessed with many options for children’s education. However, with that blessing comes the parents’ challenge to select the best one for their children (which may differ for each child). Each choice has its own advantages and challenges, and there is not one right option. This article highlights the advantages and potential challenges for the options most commonly used by parents from North America.1 It also provides general guidelines for decision-making.
MK/INTERNATIONAL CHRISTIAN DAY SCHOOL
One of the most frequently chosen options is the missionary kid (MK) or international Christian day school. More than 135 international Christian schools exist worldwide. Parents like these schools (and often want to start one if there isn’t one in their city) because this option allows students to live at home, provides an education much like what the child would receive in the homeland (assuming the homeland is the US) and is taught in English. A further advantage is that it is a Christian school—teachers are Christians, and Bible-teaching and Christian discipleship are at the core of the curriculum. Often these schools have a multinational student body so students’ classmates come from many different nations. International Christian or MK schools typically offer a high-quality education that prepares students for entrance into competitive North American colleges and universities and sometimes those in other nations also.
One of the potential limitations is that students at MK or international Christian schools may live in a kind of expatriate bubble and have limited contact with the host culture. Because instruction is in English, students may have limited opportunities and/or motivation for learning the host country language. Families should seek ways for the child to have regular contact with the host culture and language if enrolled in an English-language school. Another potential limitation is that these schools may not always be able to offer programs for learners with special needs; most offer help for those with learning disabilities and/or English as a second language support, but nothing further.
A variation of the MK/international Christian school option is a boarding school instead of a day school. The advantages and limitations described above also apply to this situation. Positively, boarding school offers students an education like what they would receive in their homeland, international peers and a Christian environment. Boarding is especially helpful for families in isolated settings or situations where the circumstances are greatly limiting for an expatriate young person. Of course the greatest limitation is that the student is separated from parents for weeks or months. Children vary in their readiness, and living away from home may not be the best option for every young person. However, for others, boarding can offer great opportunities for development and maturity.
One challenging factor is when boarding introduces a third country for the family, such as when parents work in Ukraine and their teens board in Germany. Students may lose touch with the parents’ host country and language (or not have an opportunity to learn the language if the family arrives on the field when the children are older). However, boarding in a third country can offer the opportunity to add yet another language to a student’s repertoire.
Parents who are considering boarding should carefully consider their child’s individual personality and readiness for boarding. However, parents should not assume that just because they don’t like the idea, their child won’t be interested in boarding! (Believe it or not, some students ask to go to boarding school.) Do make time to write letters and/or e-mails and plan to visit the student at school. Build a positive relationship with the dorm parents. They are there to serve families and do not want to take over the parents’ job.
Host-country National School. An increasingly popular option is the host-country national school. On the plus side, students live at home and enjoy a high level of interaction with host culture. They are likely to learn the language and culture well. Local schools are convenient and inexpensive relative to other options. Depending on the country, the educational level may be as high as or higher than in the homeland.
There are potential limitations in using national schools. Students may have limited opportunities to develop English literacy and academic language. Parents should consider supplemental work in English at home, or at least provide a library of interesting reading materials in English. Remember that national schools prepare students to be citizens of that country, and expatriate students learn cultural values that may differ from those of their parents. Teaching philosophies, discipline methods and other things vary among cultures. Parents need to evaluate their child’s personality and how it fits with the culture’s educational approach. Parents need to be aware of possible anti-Christian, humanistic or other philosophies (just as in a secular school in the homeland), and be prepared to work with their student in these areas.
Here are two final thoughts about host country national schools. Some parents cite “making contacts with people” as a reason for choosing host country national schools. While this is definitely a benefit, I urge parents to consider it a fringe benefit, and not make it the primary reason for choosing to use national schools. Educational decisions should be based on what is best for the child, not the parents’ ministry contacts.
Second, when considering the national school, think about the host country’s schools in light of their general characteristics, but also in light of the individual school your child may attend. Just as schools and school districts vary greatly in the homeland, schools in other countries also vary.
INTERNATIONAL (NON-RELIGIOUS) SCHOOL
Sometimes MKs attend international (non-religious) schools. These schools generally offer an excellent education in English and opportunities to relate with students from various countries. Students are able to live at home. Cost is probably the major reason why more MKs do not attend international schools. Tuition is beyond reach for many missionaries’ pocketbooks. Even when arrangements can be made to cover the tuition costs, be aware that economic differences will continue to factor into student activities. (For example, our daughter’s drama club from an international school in Venezuela took a trip to New York to see Broadway plays.) With this option, parents also need to be prepared to counter secular humanist values, just like they would find in public school in the homeland. This option may also limit students’ contact with the host culture, or provide contact only with the wealthiest of the host culture.
Another frequent choice is home schooling. Students can live at home and enjoy maximum parent/child interaction. (For some families, though, there may be too much parent/child interaction.) Parents can teach Christian values and plan a curriculum that blends home and host cultures. Learning can be individualized. Many home-schooling families are able to complete their school day in less time than a typical “school day,” leaving time for children to spend on other enriching activities. Home schooling can also be mobile for families who need to travel regularly.
Home schooling requires a significant time commitment on the part of one or both parents. Successful home schoolers tend to be parents who are disciplined in setting time aside for schooling and needed preparations. This can be a challenge when parents’ ministry involves frequent visitors or calls. Parents need to find ways to balance these ministry demands with the demands of home schooling. Even families that have successfully home schooled in the homeland should recognize that the field may lack support structures like library access, home school groups and sports clubs. Each situation needs to be considered individually. Opportunities to socialize need to be provided, especially for teenagers. Finally, parents should check on local laws pertaining to home schooling because it is not permitted in all world areas.
Correspondence study is a form of home study and a familiar option in many mission circles. Before home schooling became popular, it was a frequently selected option for mission families that did not want to send their younger children to boarding school. The student lives at home and completes lessons that have been assigned by the correspondence school (thus freeing the parent from the task of planning the scope and sequence of study, selecting materials and planning lessons and evaluation). Parents may elect to have additional input from teachers at the correspondence school, which can be helpful if the child doesn’t understand something. Because correspondence programs are recognized by other schools, transferring credits and schools may be easier. Some parents who continue home study in high school select a program such as the University of Nebraska because it provides an external progress evaluation and a transcript.
Parents choosing a correspondence program should plan to help meet their child’s needs for interacting with peers. Parents should consider how their children can learn the local language and develop relationships in the host culture. Finally, reliability of mail service should be considered before selecting this option, especially if lessons must travel via snail mail. Some programs have e-mail and fax options.
HOME SCHOOL VARIATIONS
A variation of home schooling is a one-room school or home-school co-op. In this arrangement, a teacher may teach the children of one or more families in a kind of one-room school, or home-schooling parents may share responsibility for instruction. An advantage of a co-op is that teaching responsibility is shared (or even taken over by a teacher in the one-room school), thus reducing parents’ preparation and teaching time. A co-op can also provide expertise if parents are able to assign science lessons to the mother who is a nurse, art class to the father who paints, and reading to the mother who majored in literature. These options also provide opportunities for social interaction, students can live at home, and cost is reasonable. Because of the multi-age setting, students can be enriched by observing and learning from the other grades.
Running a home-school coop still requires significant contributions from parents, both in teaching and organization. Some may find it difficult to prepare lessons for a multi-age setting; this is applicable to both parents in a co-op and teachers in a one room school. Not all teachers have training or experience in multi-grade classrooms. Another potential limitation is that students are frequently expected to work independently. For some students that’s no problem, while for others it’s a great challenge.
A relatively recent addition to the menu of educational options is online schooling. An online program, such as Northstar Academy (www.northstar-academy. org) or The Potter’s School (www. pottersschool.com) can offer an academically rigorous education while the student lives at home. Students interact online so discussion with classmates and teachers is possible. Teachers are assigned to each class. They make and evaluate assignments and provide feedback, much like a regular classroom teacher. Teachers’ expertise also enables students to take courses that parents might not feel able to teach, such as physics or calculus. Perhaps the greatest limitation of online schooling for many missionary families is the connectivity requirements. Online schooling necessitates that students be online daily to down- and upload assignments and talk with teachers and peers. Students need regular access to a computer, so it probably cannot be the same computer their parents use for ministry work.
Selecting an educational option can be challenging. There is no right option. All have positive factors and challenges that you must consider. The key to decision-making is to prayerfully evaluate the options in light of your child, yourselves as parents, the practical and the future. Think about what is most appropriate for each child, and recognize that what worked for older sister may not be the best choice for younger brother. Consider your own expectations and philosophy. Look at what is practical; one option may seem like a great idea but if it’s not available where you’re serving or costs two-thirds of your annual salary, it’s probably not practical. Finally, think about how the educational choices you make for your children will impact their future. Seek to make choices that give children options as they grow and become ready to make their own decisions for college, career and beyond. May God give you great wisdom.
1. While the author recognizes that today’s missionary force comes from multiple nations, addressing specifics on educational options for all nationalities would be too much for an article of this length. Therefore, this article focuses on evaluating options from a North American perspective. The author trusts that readers of other nationalities will still find the information useful even though it does not specifically address their situation.
Karen Wrobbel is assistant professor of education at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. Previously, she was the worldwide MK education coordinator for The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM). Karen and her husband, Paul, also served as teachers and school administrators in Spain and Venezuela during their twenty-two-year ministry with TEAM. They are the parents of two young adult MKs, Beth and Rebekah.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 204-210. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.