Sunday, August 31, 2008

Good morning little school girl...

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, trying to find a school for Bethy long distance was my biggest stress by far back in the US. I had heard that waiting lists were ridiculous here in Dubai, and that getting your child into school was more difficult than getting into Grad school. Apparently this is all true.

In May I sent nearly 40 emails to every elementary school that I could find in the area.

Of the ones that answered, three said "don't bother", eleven made it understood that they were wait list only, and only three were delighted to hear from us and still had openings. Though we had an idea as to which what area we'd be getting a house, the online maps of Dubai aren't that great, and it was really difficult to figure out what was where, compounded by the fact that most places don't have addresses, just PO boxes.

Then there were huge discrepancies in price which were wholly unexplainable in most cases. I was making calls to Dubai at midnight, trying to figure out why.

There was one school that looked perfect in every regard. Their website was friendly, mostly grammatically correct, location looked plausible, I liked their stated philosophy of education, it was surprisingly inexpensive, and it had a British curriculum. (We had given up on caring too much about the curriculum type at that point, just something for English speaking children). Across the world, someone picked up the phone and I began my spiel about being from the USA with a 5 year old who needed schooling.

I was abruptly interrupted. "What nationality are you, Madam?"

"Er, from the United States?"

"This is a school for Indian children, Madam. It is not for you."

Oh. Got it.

I enlisted relatives and anyone else I could into the process, trying to make a good decision for Bethy without enough information, a position which made me crazy.

Most schools made it quite clear that they would consider us just as soon as we sent a bank transfer of widely varying application fee to accompany a lengthy application and 6-12 passport sized photos of Bethy. Each school wanted something different, from self-portraits to teacher's reports. To add to the confusion, it was difficult to ascertain which grade Bethy should be in. Was she Kindergarten 1 or 2? Year 1? Foundation? Key Stage 1? Finally I just started stating her birth date.

When I called Mike's company "school and housing representative" she was pretty much worthless. She told me to "go and cry" to the administrator of whichever school we chose when we got here.

I absolutely hate to cry, but this process was driving me very quickly in that direction.

At some point I flat out gave up. I made sure we had all the forms and photographs, shots given, addresses and documents, and decided that we'd figure it out when we got here. This may seem cavalier, but it would have taken longer to send the documents overseas than to deliver them personally.

It was a relief when Cat took us in hand with a list of "good" schools, and even more so when we visited Gems World Academy(GWA). It may be fanciful, it may be Seussian, it may only been in existence for a year, this building is brand new, but they welcomed Bethy, and she loves it.

The staff learned our names immediately, despite the number of students and parents they must see. It is the most expensive school by far that we've seen here, oh well. She would do well anywhere, and I am relieved to have her in someplace,and even better someplace that's not too far away and provides busing (for an additional fee, of course) and includes (!) athletic or artistic extracurricular activities.

All children who attend school here in Dubai wear uniforms, and GWA is no exception. We trekked out to the sole uniform store (which services 11 schools, no less) as her uniform is required to be worn from day one of attendance. For the kindergarten girls, it consists of a navy pleated pinafore with red piping over a white button-up short-sleeved shirt with light blue pinstripes, or she may wear the shirt and a pair of navy Bermuda shorts. White socks and navy or black dress shoes. To top this off, when the accessories arrive, we may purchase a particular straw hat with red ribbon (very cute) or bucket cap, and a red scrunchy or hairband. All of these, with the exception of the white socks and the dress shoes, must be purchased at the one store only.

Of course, there are also the required school "swim costume" (ie navy one piece swimsuit)and gym bag, book bag, sweaters, long and short-sleeved, PE Polo and T- shirts, navy shorts and trainers (sneakers), also from the one store, well, you get the idea.

The prices reflect, not surprisingly, that these items are required and the store has no need to compete for your business. Even better is that the uniform is different for each age group, so the gouging is an annual process.

The tiny uniform store was a madhouse of stressed-out parents trying to get the right outfits for their darlings, barking at their spouses, offspring and the help who were scurrying quickly up and down ladders, carrying packets of shirts and shorts. I had a difficult time even acquiring a handbasket to hold the stuff.

In the eye of this manic storm, perfectly serene, sat Bethy, who'd managed to ensnare one of the two floor staff from his ladder, and he was enamoured with her, carefully fitting her with shoes, putting on her pinafore, careful not to tangle her hair in the buttons. She charmed the life out of him and we escaped the store unscathed, purchases secured.

I bought what I felt was the minimum. The PE outfits and accessories weren't available yet, either, thus we have to return at some future date as dictated by the school. The sales slip is pictured above. Highway robbery.

The kids and I ate lunch in the car at the beach, a/c full blast as we watched a tanker pump unknown tons of sand onto the Palm Deira site.

When completed, this third of the Palm Islands will be the largest manmade island in the world. When done they've designed it to be 7 3/4 miles long and 4 2/3 miles wide and to house more than a million people.

That's a lot of sand.

Today, with much excitement, we accompanied Bethy to her first day of kindergarten.

While the parents admired the curvy, colorful decor and great kid areas, enjoyed fresh juices, (Thomas was particularly fond of the pineapple-watermelon juice), coffee or tea and a light catered meal, the children met their teachers and explored their classrooms.

Bethy was as friendly and social as ever, and by the end of a few hours was hugging several other little girls and sticking her tongue out at one little boy.

With our encouragement early on she tried to introduce herself to a little boy of Middle Eastern descent who was obviously somewhere between angry and furious. Finally, after scrawling down his full name for her on a piece of paper, he burst into tears and flung himself at his mother, who explained to us apologetically over his sobs that he spoke no English. Poor little guy. The other kids seemed happy and immediately immersed themselves in playing or drawing.

Bethy said the following about her school: "I really like it very very much. I like it because it has lots of things to do and lots of books to read. We can go out and around and there is a play area outside of my school room. I really like my teacher Mrs. Potts." (see photo. Bethy ended up both on her teacher's lap and later holding her hand as the little ones toured the school) "The school is blue and rainbow and there are stars and plants inside. The kids are very nice. I have a friend in another class too. My uniform dress has a rainbow and my new shoes have sparkle hearts."

We liked that Mrs Potts seems both confident and gentle, and that though she's from the UK, she plans to teach the children both spellings of words like color and colour, explaining to the kids that some words are special like that. In other words, she seems perfect, and Bethy seems content.

Not bad for a school in the middle of the desert.

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