By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
We, and many in our Huatulco community, have long been astonished at our friend Carminia’s command of the English language. Her enormous vocabulary, unaccented pronunciation, and ability to translate Spanish into English for audiences have amazed many of us. For several years we attributed her ability to her years of living in the U.S. But then, as we began to meet her childhood friends who were also fluent in English and who had spent less time in English-speaking countries, we realized that the common factor was their matriculation in the American School.
Carminia and many of her friends are alumni of the American School in Mexico City – one of the several American Schools in Mexico and hundreds of American Schools around the world. The vast majority of these schools were first started to provide private high quality education for the children of Americans working outside the U.S. Many of the Americans who initiated these schools were educational pioneers who saw the merits of including children from the local communities, albeit very selectively, and providing classes in both English and the predominant local language. However, essential courses are all taught in English.
A large subset of these schools, 195 as of 2012, receive direct or indirect aid from the Office of Overseas Schools division of the United States Department of State. The mission of the division is not only to provide excellent educational opportunities from the preschool years through the secondary level for dependents of Americans carrying out programs for the U.S. Government but also to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries….” And what better way than to raise kids from the US and other countries in the same supportive environment and teach them effective communication skills in each other’s language.
In Mexico, in addition to the American School Foundation in Mexico City, American Schools in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Puerto Vallarta are associated with the US Department of State. The school in Mexico City, founded in 1888, is the oldest and has the largest enrollment, over 2500 students served on the 17-acre campus. The school in Guadalajara, founded in 1908, enrolls over 1400 students who attend classes on the 6-acre site.
The American School of Monterrey, initiated in 1928, has two campuses on a 50-acre site and serves over 2200. Puerto Vallarta is the newest school, established in 1986, and the smallest, with an enrollment of about 300.
These four American Schools associated with the US Department of State are a subset of the 18 schools in Mexico who are members of the Association of American Schools in Mexico. Together these 18 schools are attended annually by over 15,000 students. These schools are located throughout Mexico in cities including Cancun, Durango, Puebla, Tampico and Torreon. As with the four US State Department affiliates, all offer a bilingual environment and stress cross cultural experiences.
The majority of the American Schools offer quality high school level education qualifying for US, Mexican, and international diplomas. They essentially function as preparatory schools for top tier colleges and universities in the US, Mexico or other nations. Some of the schools begin at the pre-kindergarten level and continue through 9 or 12 grade. The infrastructure necessary to hire faculty with the skills to carry out this mission and to coordinate and foster the education and well-being of students is without doubt expensive. Most of the costs are met through relatively high tuition (for example, 140,000 pesos a year in Mexico City). While some of the schools offer aid in obtaining financial assistance, most students are drawn from families that can afford the tuition.
Schools tend to be very selective in admitting students who apply as transfers from other primary or secondary schools and are frankly looking for youth who have the potential of achieving leaderships roles as adults in government or international corporations or becoming recognized artists, authors or scientists. Judging from the alumni we’ve met, the schools are more than meeting this mandate. The distinguished alums that we have met appear proud to discuss their professional accomplishments and as proud to say, “I’m a graduate of the American School.”
Marcia and Jan Chaiken enjoy teaching English to adults as volunteers in Huatulco.