Looking for a school in Cuenca, Ecuador

Once we made the decision to move to Cuenca for a year the most immediate need was to figure out where the kids would go to school in Cuenca. Given that one of the primary goals of the family sabbatical in Ecuador is for the kids to learn Spanish and immerse themselves in the culture, we felt strongly that they should attend a school with Ecuadorian children.

I asked all the Ecuadorians I know, starting with my parents, for recommendations, but most of the people I spoke with had left Ecuador decades ago and they were not up-to-date on the best schools in Cuenca today. Surprisingly, I also had trouble finding information online about middle schools in Cuenca. It quickly became clear that most of the content online about Cuenca, in English, is geared towards retirees and they are not interested in looking for schools for their kids. When I did come across information about expat families with kids they were often about home schooling. That said I did stumble onto a one very helpful article about  bilingual schools for expat kids in Cuenca.

The article introduced me to a few schools which I looked into. Then one day my mother calls and tells me that she was discussing the school issue with another family member that has a friend with school-age children in Cuenca. She quickly put me in contact with her friend so we could schedule a call. In addition to naming a couple of the schools I already knew about, he mentioned a school that I had not come across in any of my research – Unidad Educativa Alborada. The term “unidad educativa” means the school covers all grades from K-12.

With a short list of schools in hand and finding little information online, I decided to visit Cuenca to tour the schools personally and talk to the administration about our plan to enroll our kids in an Ecuadorian school for one year. Besides academics I wanted to get a feel for which schools would be most receptive and willing to support children who had never studied in a Spanish language school.

At the end of the day the choice was easy because we had to eliminate all the schools we considered for various reasons, except for one. Although I’ve heard many good things about the Colegio Aleman Stiechle (the German School) our kids do not speak German and we thought one new language would be enough of a challenge. For similar reasons we eliminated CEDEI, the most international of all the schools I visited. CEDEI is a dual language school with a strong focus on English, however beginning in the 4th grade the students also start to study French. This meant that in addition to learning Spanish, our kids would also study French for the first time with kids that have been studying French for years.  That left Santana and Alborada as two viable options.

It was easy to see why Santana is the most popular school among expats. Compared with the other schools I visited, both formally and informally, the facilities at Santana were impressive: multiple soccer fields, an indoor basketball gym, a rock-climbing wall and a large computer lab; just to name a few. However the school is so popular that they did not have any spaces available in next year’s class for either of our older kids. We were welcome to start the admissions process but there were no assurances that any of the kids would be offered a place. Additionally, I was informed that if a spot did become available all the kids wait listed for that spot would take an exam, and the spot would go to the student who performed the best. Given that the entrance exam would be in Spanish we did not think this was an option with a high probability of success.

Luckily, we had been introduced to Alborada. Unfortunately, there isn’t much information available about the school because it doesn’t have a website or a normal street address. After asking multiple people for directions we were advised to drive west on Av. Ordóñez Lasso as if we were leaving the city and after passing Via a Buenos Aires, to look for a small bridge crossing the Tomebamba river on the left-hand side. It took a couple of passes because there are no street signs in these outskirts but we finally noticed the tiny bridge down a little dirt road. Once we crossed the bridge the unpaved road got bad and all of a sudden it felt like we were in the middle of a forest. Then just as quickly the landscape cleared and we saw horses and cows as we drove past a farm. Just a bit further we reached a large gate and a security guard approached. Once we confirmed we were at the right place we were directed towards the parking area and shown the admissions office.

Alborada looks like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson, with log cabins dotting a hill surrounded by tall tress and a lush green landscape. At once I felt so far from the hustle and bustle of New York City and also like I had found a wonderful school for our kids. I don’t believe in fate, but when I met the lovely Admissions Coordinator and she told me that not only were there spots available for both our older kids, but there was also a spot available for our youngest daughter in their pre-K, I knew my search was over. I immediately gave her all the required information for the kids and even offered to leave a down payment to secure their spots. I was told not to worry and assured that they would be offered a spot as long as we provided notarized and translated school records from their current school, copies of their visa or proof of residency, vaccine records and photos of the children. Tuition per child will be $170 per month for 10 months. Additional expenses will include: uniforms, books, lunch, insurance and transportation, if we need it. When I know more about these expenses I’ll update this post.

There is still a long way to go, but knowing that we’ve secured schools for the all three kids brings the dream of our family sabbatical significantly closer to reality.

Let me know if you have any questions about the schools mentioned in this post and I’ll try to see if I can help.

The decision to take a family sabbatical

Williamsburg Bridge
Leaving NYC…

We’ve made a big decision. In six months my wife and I will both leave great jobs and the city we love – and have called home for the past 12 years – New York. We are doing this to take a one year family sabbatical in Cuenca, Ecuador.

It all started last summer while we were all on vacation visiting family in Northern Europe. Our older kids, 12 and 10 at the time, would spend eight weeks there. My wife managed to negotiate one month off from her employers so she and our youngest daughter would stay there for a month. I, on the other hand, had one week! While nearing the end of my week, just starting to feel my body and mind unwind, I concluded one week is just not enough time.

Maybe if I never lived in Europe myself, where month long vacations are the norm, I wouldn’t have seriously considered the possibility of an extended break from work. But I have lived in Europe, and there I experienced the benefits of a more healthy work-life balance. With that in mind, and with my one week vacation over, I started planning a way to actually achieve my goal of an extended break.

Today back in New York, another dynamic is occurring. Our older kids, now 13 and 11, are barrelling towards teenage-hood and quite honestly the changes have caught us by surprise. Maybe we weren’t paying attention close enough, but we’ve all developed routines and independent circles of friends with little to no overlap. This has awoken us to the very real fact that our children will be leaving the nest sooner then we think. Like most parents will tell you – don´t blink because it goes by quickly.

I started thinking – if the kids leave the house tomorrow or if something were to happen to me – what would I want to gift them? It would have to be something I can afford; something they could keep for the rest of their lives and something they could leverage professionally. I immediately knew the answer because, for years, I’ve carried the guilt of not imparting this asset earlier, when its easier for children to absorb it. The answer is another language – specifically the Spanish language.

The guilt comes from the fact that I am a native Spanish speaker myself.  Although born in Brooklyn, my parents were Ecuadorian immigrants to the United States and therefore only spoke Spanish to me as a child. They eventually learned English, but till this day we speak Spanish among ourselves. I am thankful that my parents insisted I speak Spanish to them and taught me to be proud I was bilingual. However, when my children were born another language was introduced into the mix. As you may of guessed my wife is from Northern Europe and she is determined to teach our children her mother-tongue. Therefore, we had a decision to make – speak three languages at home, since we spoke English to each other – or sacrifice the Spanish language. After some soul searching and admitting that all my formal education has been in English, I reluctantly faced the fact that my Spanish was not strong enough to be my primary language spoken to children.

You can see where this is going now. Combining our desire to take an extended break, my wife’s openness to change and my guilt, we’ve decided to leave our jobs for a year to live in Cuenca, Ecuador so our children can finally learn Spanish. We hope this immersive cultural experience will help all of us improve our Spanish, explore the South American continent while bringing our family closer together. Each family has a finite window in which to create familial experiences with their children, because they only stay children for so long, and we are determined to jump through that window before it shuts down on us.

While researching our move to Cuenca, I found many helpful resources regarding retiring in Ecuador, but very little regarding moving to Ecuador with middle-school children. Therefore I hope this blog serves as a resource and inspiration to families all over the world, who feel that window coming down, to take a family sabbatical, explore a different culture, learn a new language and create another chapter in your life.

If you have any questions feel free to ask and they may become the inspiration for a future post.