Kindergarten or first grade?

We didn’t expect to be here so long.  We thought that by now, we’d be home already, or at least headed home.  Consequently, all of our plans for “real” school for the kids started with “Well, we’ll be home by then …”

When we left the US, our plan was to be in Austria for 1-2 years.  We’ve now been here more than 3, and although we’re psychologically ready to move home, we don’t yet have the opportunity to do so.  Last year, when we were going through the process of deciding whether to stay for this third year, the boys’ educational experience factored heavily.  I liked the idea if B completing preschool (“Kindergarten”, here) with his friends, and I loved the idea of Liam getting to join him at that school for a year.  The fact that this year of preschool, for both boys, would be free to us only heightened its appeal.  Their opportunity for school this past year is a large part of why we’re here now.  It was too good to pass up, and I feel like it was definitely the right decision.  B has really flourished at school this year, found his confidence, become nearly fluent in German and begun to discover which bits of school most ignite his enthusiasm for learning.  Liam has had a fantastic first experience with school, getting to follow in B’s footsteps and hold his hand along the way.

It’s good that we stayed.  I’m glad we did.

But our plan has ALWAYS been to have B home before “real” school started.  This year of school here, called “Vorschule”, is like half-day US kindergarten.  I had hoped to enroll him in full-day kindergarten in the US next fall, giving him a year to adjust to full-day school and to recover from our relocation.  Besides, he’d get to start right along with his classmates and be one of the oldest in his class instead of one of the youngest (he has a mid-July birthday).  So even though he’s definitely bright enough to handle first grade, I was thinking that kindergarten in the US would be right for him next year, and I was hoping that it would be easy to set that up.

But we aren’t in the US.  And however much we miss everyone, we realized a few months ago that without having found work in the US for Dan, we might be staying here a bit longer.  And if we might find ourselves still here this coming August, we need to have a plan for school next year for B.  (Liam can stay right where he is, thankfully, because I think we got the kids into one of the best preschools in Vienna, entirely by good luck.)

When we realized we needed a plan for the fall, we also realized we were entirely behind.  Parents of some of B’s friends had turned in applications to private schools in Vienna as early as last September.  We’d been assuming that we didn’t need to, because we expected that we’d already be home … so we hadn’t done anything.  Not a thing.  We didn’t even know which school we wanted him to attend.

We’re fortunate to have several good options to choose from.  The automatic path would be for B to go from his Viennese preschool straight into first grade in a Viennese primary school.  The instruction would be entirely in German, and, following that path, he would have quickly become completely fluent and bilingual.  The state schools are free (or maybe very nearly so) but, attractive as all of that is, we opted against this, except as a fallback plan.  Our sole objection was a big one — *our* German is insufficient to keep us abreast of the goings on, even at the preschool.  As B advances in his education, I don’t want to be entirely shut out of the process.  Besides, if our eventual plan is to return to the US and enroll him in school there, I think he might get a stronger base for that by learning in English.  I worry a bit that the holes in his ability to understand or communicate in German might prevent him from learning as much as he could, or could lead to frustration as he moves forward.

That decision narrowed our options to the two major English-speaking international schools in Vienna (yep, two) — the Vienna International School and the American International School.

All of this was really weird to me.  First, I honestly never imagined that either of the kids would attend elementary school outside of the US.  It was part of our fundamental thinking from the very beginning of deciding to live abroad — that we were going with enough time to come back before elementary school.  It was part of the PLAN (and oh, how I love a plan)!  Secondly, I absolutely never envisioned my kids attending private school at all.  I was fortunate enough to grow up in an area with some of the best public schools in the US, and, before we moved, we were raising our kids in an area with an equally impressive public school system.  Private school was never really on my radar.  And then, we moved here, and the Vienna public preschool that we got our kids into is amazing.  I just never considered private school.  So I’ve been left to ponder, whether I am really prepared to send my child, who will be just barely 6 years old, to a private school that costs nearly as much per year as college?  (Fortunately for us, the IAEA reimburses most of the expense.)  It’s not at all something I ever imagined we’d be doing.  Yet here we are.

As I’ve said, we were way behind in the process, and initially Benjamin was wait-listed for next year.  A few weeks ago, though, we heard he’d gotten a place for next year for first grade.  And we are beyond thrilled about it.  I truly believe that it’s the right place for him if we’re in the “still in Vienna” situation.

Through the entire admissions process, it was simply assumed that he’d attend first grade next year, based on his age and the fact that we and his teachers raised no concerns that would preclude his placement in first grade.  After all, if he were going to Austrian school next year, he’d go to first grade, and other than his German (which isn’t an issue in an English-speaking school) he’s at a comparable academic, intellectual and emotional level to his peers.  So, first grade.

But, after the admissions hurdle was cleared, I started really thinking about that for the first time — was first grade really the right place for him next year?  Is he ready to go from a half-day Vorschule program to full day first grade?  The kids who are currently attending kindergarten at the international school (the kids who would be his classmates next year) are in full day kindergarten now, but he’s not.  He’ll be one of the youngest and smallest in his class, and, if he’s in first grade, then at whatever point in the next 12 months we get the chance to move back home (Dan’s contract expires next April, so it’ll happen sometime this year) he’ll have to transition from first grade at the international school to first grade in the US.  Wouldn’t that whole transition, which already means 2 new schools in 1 year, be a whole lot easier done in kindergarten than in first grade?  Add to that the fact that B’s best friend, who will also be attending the same school next year, will be in kindergarten next year (he has a November birthday, so his placement in kindergarten was as automatic as B’s was into first grade).  I think it really might be nice for him to make the switch with a friend or two.

These are the questions that I’ve been running around in my head for the past few weeks.

On the other hand . . . do I really want to be one of THOSE parents?  Do I really want to start hovering before my poor kid has even gotten hs foot in the door?  I mean, how typically American can I be?  Besides, he’s a bright kid, and he might be bored in kindergarten.  Maybe it’s time for him to be challenged a little more.  Am I really prepared to start meddling ALREADY?

Apparently I am.  We contacted the admissions counselor at the school and asked whether they would consider switching B’s placement for next year to kindergarten.  And I feel good about the decision.  I do think I’m being a bit meddling and overbearing.  But I also think it’s the right thing for him (I only wish I’d thought of it before we’d gone through the admissions process, because I get the impression it would have been a non-issue if I’d raised it at the beginning).

We don’t know their decision yet.  There’s a meeting of the admissions board next week, and they’re going to discuss it then.  I don’t know if this is a formality or not.  I have no sense of which way the decision is going to go.  But we’ve decided we’re going to fully and happily accept whatever they decide.  We wholeheartedly feel that this school IS the right place for him for next year (if we’re here), and we trust their judgement.  They do this all the time. This school, perhaps more than any other, is thoroughly experienced and well prepared to place a child in the right spot.  They are used to assimilating kids from all over the world and a wide variety of educational backgrounds, from the US and Japan, from Finland and Kenya.  They’re used to kids who speak different languages, who have only been home-schooled previously, kids with different learning challenges, and kids who have collected pieces of education in a variety of countries around the world.  We are going to trust their decision, and whatever they choose, we’ll go with it.

6 thoughts on “Kindergarten or first grade?

  1. Hi,

    Reading with interest as we are on our way in August from France. I’d be really interested to chat with you about schools and apartment-hunting, if you don’t mind (really interested in this choice between AIS and VIS). Could you email me?

  2. We’ve heard back from the school — the verdict is for first grade next year. I’m more disappointed than I thought I’d be. We just found out today. I’m trying to get used to the idea . . .

    • Reading back over this, nearly a year later, I have to say that I am really, really happy with the way that things have turned out. B still does, from time to time, mention that he wishes that he weren’t the youngest kid in his class (though he isn’t quite), but by and large, he is very happy in 1st grade.

  3. Pingback: Back to school night . . . sort of | A Mommy Abroad

  4. Hello,
    We are moving to Vienna in August. I am looking for any “beyond the website” insight to the ethos/atmosphere at AIS and VIS. Would you mind copying me the message you sent to Spalva?
    Thank you!

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