Back to School: Mexico Style

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For most kids, back to school means fun trip to Target. New pencils, shinny new folders, and new clothes. Add a lunch box and a backpack and they are set. There are, of course, the usual complaints about getting up early and the impending bedtime routine.

I have to confess that I love back to school season. I always have. As a child, I loved the idea of new school supplies, of empty notebooks that would soon be filled with pages of information. It should be of no surprise that I grew up and became a school supply loving teacher. My favorite store is Staples and, in the 1990’s, I used to horde their supply catalogues. Yeap, that’s me.

Mackenzie, it turns out, inherited the school supply obsession gene. She loves to shop for these as much as her mother does. But this Fall semester is full of new school related experiences for us. My daughter, an incoming 4th grader, is enrolled at “Colegio Reina Isabel’- a private, Catholic, bilingual immersion school in Tijuana, Mexico.

This education journey is the mental equivalent of a marathon for us.

Instead of trips to our local Target, we now head to la papeleria. La papeleria is a small store akin to the few isles of back to school shopping at Target- except that’s all they sell year round. Then we will drive to la libreria to get her new school books. La libreria is a bookstore that specializes in school textbooks, reading books, and workbooks for the city’s classrooms. In Mexico’s private schools, each family is responsible for the purchase of ALL school supplies, including all the textbooks.

Its amazing how a place so seemingly similar to American culture can be so drastically different (and here let me be clear: I am talking about Tijuana, Mexico and not the rest of the country). To me, its an anthropological study to see how something as universal as going to school can be handled so differently in another country.

Of course you expect the small differences. For one, school will be in a completely different language. Also, the daily uniforms will be different. But that’s pretty much where the small changes end. The rest of the back to school experience is one big cultural immersion cold bath!

The Registration

As with any new endeavor there are countless forms to be painfully completed and submitted to a new school. At Colegio Reina Isabel they like to have all these forms in double. Forms include: copy of child’s birth certificate, parental information sheet, family history and questionnaire, student information and history, student health history, official student vaccine records, official past school attendance forms, official past school grades, parental disclaimer for medical purposes and four school-sized pictures of the child that is registering. All of these forms are collected online and then again when you show up at the school to pay your registration fees. The registration fee is a once a year fee collected by the school to secure your child’s spot in her class. For the 2015-2016 school year Colegio Reina Isabel collected a fee of $6,990.00 M.N. (Moneda Nacional, Mexican Pesos) per pupil. Additionally, there is an evaluation that is required of all students at the beginning of the school year and charged at $300.00 M.N. (pesos). Both of these fees must be paid and the receipt turned in with all the above paperwork in order for your child to be officially enrolled in the school. At the exchange rate of $16.00 pesos per U.S. dollar (at the time of purchase) that means the registration fee at Colegio Reina Isabel is $455.63 U.S. dollars.

At Mackenzie’s school, we are instructed to log into the school system every month and pay our monthly tuition fees. So how much does it cost to send your child to a private, Catholic, bilingual immersion school from 8am to 2:15pm every day per month? $6,650.00 M.N. (Moneda Nacional, Mexican Pesos). At the exchange rate of $16.00 pesos per U.S. dollar (at the time of last payment) that means that monthly tuition at Colegio Reina Isabel is $415.63 U.S. dollars.

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Total Registration fees: $7,290.00 M.N. or $455.63 U.S. dollars.

Total Monthly Tuition Fees: $6,650.00 M.N. or $415.63 U.S. dollars.

The School Supplies

In our last school (also a private, Catholic school, but in Pennsylvania), back to school shopping meant a one page list of supplies. Typically a quick trip to Target would suffice. So you can imagine my surprise when we received several lists from Colegio Reina Isabel.

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And that’s on top of the mandatory $70 pesos school pencil case.

The most interesting part of the list however is not the length but the specification of it all. The 12 pencils… they can’t just be regular pencils that you could buy at the dollar store. No, these are special pencils. Pencils you can only buy in Mexico and, because they are three sided, cost $6.80 pesos each. The erasers… no, they can’t just be any old eraser either. They must be white erasers. Pressumably because these are better at erasing, though I’ve seen no discernable difference myself. In any case, the list is very specific and you are expected to follow suit. Of course, after you have purchased all of these schools supplies, you must write your child’s first name, last name, and class room on each and EVERY item!

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Total: $1,030.00 M.N. or $64.38 U.S. dollars

The Books

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In Mexico, private schools do not provide you with the class textbooks. The Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP) does give every child in public school the government textbooks, but in private schools these are considered extra materials. Each school can select its own set of textbooks for the year and, in the case of Mackenzie’s school, make their own! That’s right: Colegio Reina Isabel makes it own set of school textbooks. Of course, every child that attends the school must buy these books. Because it is a bilingual immersion school, there are two sets of textbooks: one in Spanish and one in English. For the 2015-2016 school year textbooks were a total of $4,445.00 M.N. (pesos). At the exchange rate of $16.00 pesos per dollar (at the time of purchase) that totals $277.81 U.S. dollars. But that is just for the primary textbooks.

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In addition to the general course textbooks, families need to purchase a very specific dictionary (one for English class and one for Spanish class), the religion textbook, 10 literature books in English and 10 literature books in Spanish. The kids complete a book report in each language every month and those literature books are obviously indispensable. To my amazement, it turns out that reading books are more expensive in Mexico than they are in the U.S. I find this egregious considering the wages in Mexico. Colegio Reina Isabel is nice enough to provide you with two bookstores where you may search for these additional books. The specific dictionaries were impossible to find and took us several days and over ten bookstore visits in order to locate. Eventually Mackenzie’s teachers were nice enough to lend her their personal copies. These additional school book purchases add up to $3,030.00 M.N. (pesos), or $189.38 U.S. dollars.

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Total: $7,475.00 M.N. (pesos) or $467.19 U.S. dollars

The Uniforms 

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Every school in Mexico has it own uniform, even public schools. And, with school emblems and mandatory names swen into the sweaters and vests, the uniform price quickly adds up. But the real interesting note about the uniforms at Colegio Reina Isabel is the lengths to which it goes to make sure every family is in compliance. Come winter, there will be no children in random hoodies or jackets because they haven’t purchased the school ones. The reason: The day before classes begin there is a school wide uniform check. That’s right. On Monday, the day before the official beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, EVERY child and a parent had to present themselves in their child’s classroom, to their child’s teacher, with EVERY piece of mandatory uniform in tow. Let me make this clear: every enrolled family is required to show up at school with every uniform piece required for the school year. I saw families with several large suitcases cruising the hallways!

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The school inform list includes(girls list): five white polo tops with school emblem embroidered, two school navy blue skirts that reach two inches below the knee, one yellow school vest with school emblem and name embroidered, one yellow school sweater with school emblem and name embroidered, one school gym uniform shorts, one school gym uniform pants, one school gym uniform sweatshirt with name embroidered, five pairs of navy blue knee high school socks, one pair of solid black school shoes with rubber sole, one pair of solid navy blue tennis shoes, one school jacket with name embroidered, one yellow, white, or navy blue school hair bow (Mandatory white bow to be worn on Mondays), one pair of white gloves for Monday assemblies, and Gala jacket for Monday assemblies . And, yes, the five pairs of blue school socks must be presented, along with the school winter jacket (with the child’s full name embroidered), the white gloves for Monday assembly must be there, the solid navy blue tennis shoes (take a look around the next time you’re shoe shopping, solid navy blue tennis shoes are scarce!), and color appropriate hair ribbons. Every single piece. All embroidered, all labeled, all in order and ready to go.

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I must admit that I LOVE this part. While I think it’s crazy to show up at school with several dozen pieces of clothing (imagine the moms that have two or three kids enrolled) I do love the fact that the uniform is enforced to a fault. if you’re gonna have it, do it right I say! And right they do. In our time at Colegio Reina Isabel I have never once seen a single child with an item that was not pre-approved by the school and in complete compliance with the uniform code. To me, Colegio Reina Isabel is a testament to how a school can have an enforce a successful uniform policy and have said policy run smoothly.

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The total cost for complete uniform compliance: $6,195.00 M.N. or $387.19 U.S. dollars.

The Lunch

Mexican children are expected to bring a packed lunch to school. There are no cafeterias in Mexican schools- that’s what moms are for. There is, however, a little tiendita (store) on site. It is a candy store. Full of sugar and pop and nuts. There is no room for political correctness at the tiendita. If your kid has the money they will sell her/him chocolate, chips, lollipops, peanuts, Coke, lemonade, saladitos and an endless list of amazing and yummy none-health-conscience treats. Sometimes they sell sandwiches too. The point is that the responsibility lies with your kid knowing what they are allowed to eat. I give my daughter $20 pesos and in return she gets two things: 1. a daily sugar high (I have no issue knowing that she is not buying apples and oranges) and 2. a practical lesson in real math. The tiendita teaches kids about money identification, making change, addition and subtraction, the value of money, the power of money, and the barter system. It’s truly amazing the math you can observe happening at lunch time without the kids even realizing what a great lesson they are receiving. So, heck yes, I’d give my kid twice the amount if she asked!

The Class Schedule

There is no room for coddling or standardized tests in the Mexican curriculum. Kids are in school to do some real learning. Math class, Spanish class, Foreign language class, religion, art, technology. But my number one reason for loving the Mexican school system is the real class time devoted to social studies and science. While our last school taught about families and important people in our communities, kids in Mexico were learning the name and capitals of each state. While science class was rotated with social science and not even graded in the early elementary years, pupils in Mexico were learning about the respiratory system and identifying the different components to the digestive system. At Colegio Reina Isabel, both social studies and science are taught as real and integral classes in the curriculum. Both are graded and include tests and daily activities. Grammar and math, while seen as important, are not king in Mexico.

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The Pick-Up Line

Order and efficiency are the best words to describe the end of the school day at Colegio Reina Isabel. On the day that you register your student (and again on the first day of class) each student is given a big, yellow, name card. This name card is to be displayed on your cars dashboard whenever you go to pick up your child at the car pick-up line. As you approach the doorway, a man with a microphone will call our your child’s name. Your child, inside the school building, is sitting in the school courtyard waiting to hear her/his name and, upon hearing it, walks over to the doorway. Once your child is at the doorway and you are at the front of the line, a teacher on pick-up duty will open your car door and help your child into the car. And, voila! You’ve successfully picked up your child from school.

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If this seems like a none issue to you then you have not been attending the schools where we have been. In my childhood (and in most schools in Tijuana up until recently), pick up time was a time of friendly chaos. Moms waited in long car lines and people cut infront of others. Every child eventually made it home, but the process was not organized. In my daughters Pennsylvania school, children walk between two long car lines to find their car and get themselves settled into the back seat. In the rain, in the snow, in the scorching heat, children walk the one to three blocks equivalent distance to find their parents car. No teacher held umbrella in case of rain as they do here at Colegio Reina Isabel. The first time my parents went to pick up Mackenzie to our school in Pennsylvania (in the rain) they were horrified to find the kids walking in the pouring rain until they reached their parents car. They were horrified because they had sent my sister to school at Colegio Reina Isabel and knew of the pick up procedures there.

The Homework

A Monday through Thursday occurrence, homework in Mexico is tough. Too much in my opinion but I guess it goes hand in hand with the demanding curriculum. My biggest What?!! moment has been the weekly trips to the papeleria (school supply store). The papeleria is needed for the poster board, colorful paper, notecards, and other miscellaneous supplies you find your child needing as the school week moves along. The products are usually needed from one day to the other. As parents, you learn pretty quickly that you need to check your child’s backpack and homework assignments as soon as you they get home. Once you run around town trying to find the right size notecard paper at 7pm you never need to be reminded to check those homework notes again! Parents, essentially, end up getting homework too: driving. All of this, of course, is in addition to all the school supplies you presented to the school at the beginning of the year.

The Grand Total to enroll and get started at Colegio Reina Isabel: $21,990.00 M.N. or $1,374.38 U.S. dollars (not including the first months tuition payment which brings the total to $28,640 M.N. or $1,790.00 U.S. dollars). Just to put that into the local perspective, the daily minimum wage in Mexico was recently raised to $70.00 M.N. (pesos) per workday. That means that it takes someone 314 work days (that would be 52 weeks of 6 day workweeks) to be able to afford all the start up expenses of joining Colegio Reina Isabel (not including tuition!). I mention this because I think it’s worth noting that Mexico, like many developing nations, is a land of extremes. There are those who can afford a school like Colegio Reina Isabel and those who can not. Stereotypically, Mexico is represented as the land of those who can’t. But, clearly, there is a whole segment of the Mexican population that many abroad do not see.

The return on our investment has been amazing. Mackenzie is speaking, singing and reading in Spanish. It’s been two months and I can already see the many benefits that this educational immersion has produced.

I have to say that enrolling at Colegio Reina Isabel has been a learning experience, school cultural immersion, and daily adventure. And I grew up here! 19 years after leaving home I’ve come back with my own child and am discovering what it’s like to be a mom to an elementary school kid. I have to say, so far, it’s a lot like work. The best kind of work.

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4 thoughts on “Back to School: Mexico Style

  1. Hi! We live in San Diego and are thinking of moving down to our house around k55 for a year with our kids. We were thinking of putting our oldest son at the preschool at Reina Isabel. This is the first thing I can find on an American attending school there. How does she like it? It sounds like you are a fan. Did she have problems fitting in? Did she speak Spanish previous to attending school? I know its a lot of questions but am very interested!!!

    1. I am very happy to help you. Question: there is a campus at Real Del Mar and a campus in Tijuana (both about equal distance to k55). Which one have you looked at? We are at the Tijuana campus and, yes, I am a big fan.

      She is very happy at school. She made friends very fast and all the kids were quick to include her in activities, lunch time, etc. In Tijuana there are several American kids and several Korean children (that I know of) and the faculty has dealt with kids who start the school year with NO Spanish abilities. In five months my daughter has gone from speaking some Spanish to being able to have whole conversations in Spanish. She did understand a lot when she started the year but could not read or write or speak whole sentences- all of which she can now do! I am very happy with the amount of Spanish she has learned. And, like I said, I know there are children who start with no Spanish ability and quickly catch on.

      In my daughters class there is a Korean girl who spoke no Spanish, or English for that matter (the school’s second language of instruction) in August. Four months later she is speaking a lot of Spanish too!

      This is actually our second year at Reina Isabel. We enrolled my daughter in K2 six years ago (at age 3 1/2). We were so happy with how she did then that we decided to come back. If that is your child’s age/ grade level then I am happy to tell you more about the school year (a magnificent one!).

  2. Thanks for getting back. My son will be 4 next month and we plan on enrolling him this coming fall. We would be interested in the Real Del Mar campus, however I did not know that they had a campus in Tijuana as well:) I would love to here your info on the preschool there. I believe when we chatted with them it was cheaper than the grade school, but I may be mistaken, we chatted a year ago. I love your other post as well and have also though about blogging our experience when we move down!!!!!!

    1. We really enjoyed the preschool at Colegio Reina Isabel. And, yes, it is cheaper than the Elementary school. The school prides itself on being academically rigorous and they are. CRI was my daughter’s first school experience and so I had nothing to compare it to. But once I spoke with friends in the U.S. I was amazed at what they were learning there vs what my daughter was exposed to. There are three preschool/ kindergarten levels at CRI- pk1, pk2, and K (then you move on to elementary school). My daughter was enrolled in pk2 (at age 3.5). Half of the day was in Spanish and the other half in English. They learned to identify, write and read all the letters and numbers up to 50. This was, of course, the official number. My daughter was actually counting to 80-something by 4 years old (while she jumped and counting beans and toys). At some point (I forgot the month, sorry) they also started to learn to read. Ma, sa, da, me, se, de, etc… and then they started to put the sounds together to read out words like ma-sa, me-sa, ca-sa, etc. By the end of the year, at 4.5 years old, the kids could read simple words. They also were writing words in both cursive and script. I have a beautiful note she wrote to me, either for valentine’s day or mother’s day (its a heart shaped note) that says “Te amo mami” in cursive. They also have a very active art and sports program, plenty of celebrations and fun activities throughout the year (pajama day, costume day, silly hat day, etc), and technology class. I found it to be very well rounded and impressive. To be honest I do not remember much about the math program but I do remember her thinking math was super easy and that she had already done everything when she went to the U.S. the following school year. She actually told me, the following year, that school was too easy and boring in the U.S. and that she had learned a lot more at CRI. Also, before I forget, CRI is a Catholic school and there is regular religious instruction, mass attendance, and activities around Catholic principles and holidays.

      I hope all this helps give you an idea of the school and, please, let me know if you have any other questions. They are all very nice and I know both campuses use the same textbooks. Maybe you can make an appointment and observe a class or look through the textbooks that your child would be using.

      Have a great day and let me know how it goes!

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