Among the biggest unknowns in coming to Barcelona was the kids’ schooling. They’ve been in Spanish immersion at César Chávez School in Portland since kindergarten. In fact, an original seed for the idea of moving was the chance for the kids to immerse in their second language.
But thinking about what a great opportunity that foreign school is much simpler than actually making it happen!
After we got serious in thinking about the move, I contacted coworkers with school-aged children. They helped with the names of several schools that we read up on and emailed.
These all proved dead-ends for one reason or another. A few had multiple-year-long waitlists that didn’t fit our couple-of-months schedule. Others communication snarled, either on language or process barriers. It wasn’t clear to us who we should be talking to, and school websites gave few answers.
We discovered basically three major types of schools to consider, though: public, concertados (semi-private though state funded), and fully private. Private schools dropped off the list when we saw the prices (honestly little loss since several were in English, and we weren’t making this move for our kids to go to school in English!)
This brought us to the central issue with public schools that, to be frank, we didn’t realize at first. Public schools in Barcelona are taught in Catalan, the regional language of Catalonia (one of several co-official languages in Spain.) We heard that concertados taught more Spanish, which initially drew our interest as a simpler transition for the kids.
In the end, though, it proved difficult to locate any solid information from outside the country. Once we arrived, we found that we’d have to decide where we were living, then apply to schools… so picking neighborhoods around a special school on a tight timeline just wasn’t going to work.
We ended up going with public school, and we’ve been happy with the choice.
With the help of coworkers, we learned the first step was a city-level registration called empadronamiento. This effectively says “Hey, I live here!” and is somewhat like US census or voting registration. We got this done during the week before we returned to the US for visas. This let us finally schedule an appointment with the central school administration the morning our flight left.
At that meeting we provided a list of desired schools. The list was solely based on our location in Poblenou, spiraling outward. We gave them contact information, including phone and email. The person assisting us spoke only a little English, but she told us our assignment would be texted to us. Unfortunately, since we were headed out of the country our new pre-paid Spanish phone numbers (whole other story there) wouldn’t work internationally, so we asked for an email. She seemed to understand, and I don’t know whether she didn’t or the message just got lost along the way. Either way, complete silence from the Barcelona school system our entire 5 weeks back in the states. We didn’t reach out directly until we were back in country–already a couple weeks after school had started.
With the help of Google Translate, I found a web page to submit questions. A couple days passed, and this message landed in my inbox:
Ens informen des de l’Oficina que ja heu rebut resposta a la vostra petició.
For those who don’t speak Catalan, this translates to: “We inform from the Office that you have already received a response to your request.” Um, if you’ve already responded, why don’t I know where my kids are going to school yet?!
After trying over phone to get the answers, my manager Franco graciously dashed over to the administration office on a sunny afternoon to serve as a translator for me. Within few minutes we had a name at last… the kids would be attending Escola les Acàcies.
We had to register with the school itself and meet with teachers, so another week passed before the kids actually started. But just knowing where was a massive relief.
So What’s It Like?
I was a bit nervous before our first visit. After all this build-up, all the effort, the long waits, the packing, the goodbyes, what sort of place would I be sending my kids each weekday? A wave of relief hit me as we walked in and found… a school. Sure, the signs were in another language (except science, which is taught in English apparently), but the artwork, the classrooms, the shouts of children at play, it was all warmly familiar.
Acàcies was on the lower half of our geographically prioritized list. Luckily, this being Barcelona, attending the fifth school on your list instead of the first means walking ten minutes instead of five.
Another concern going in was longer school days. Where in the US the kids went from 8-2:30 (roughly), school here went 9-4:30. That’s almost 9-5, you know, job hours. The later start was nice, but we wondered how the kids would cope.
A number of factors turned out to make this a non-issue. First and foremost is a two hour break in the middle of the day. Many kids go home for lunch, then return to school after the lunch break. Cora and Asher stay at school where there’s food and non-classroom activities available. In the US the kids had 30 minutes for getting lunch, eating, and playing. Spain almost across the board proves an easier, more relaxed pace. Fewer subjects are crammed in each day, and there’s more space for the kids to be kids. They even have swimming once a week, a major highlight for my water-loving children.
Another surprise shouldn’t have been–food. Lunches are cooked at the school, and the kids have consistently remarked about the quality of the food. It’s not unusual for Cora to pipe up with “Wasn’t that soup great today Ash?” to vigorous agreement. From kids who I normally struggle to pry three consecutive words from about their days, their enthusiasm for the food is pretty stunning. (Don’t get me wrong, a few menus have gone flat. Apparently there’s some “egg with ketchup” dish (as yet unidentified) that both kids agree “isn’t their favorite.”)
Starting several weeks after school officially began, the kids both entered with minor celebrity status. Cora loved this. I recall her asking, “Why didn’t you tell me that I’d make so many friends so fast?” This is hilarious given we’d been pointing out exactly this for months as she worried about the move. She can hardly take an elevator ride without forming a new friendship with someone. Asher struggled more with the attention–he just wanted to be left alone. Eventually, though, he figured how to strike up games of tag and everything in the seven-year-old set smoothed out.
Cora gets special Catalan classes (apparently provided for non-native speakers in third grade or higher.) Both are coming along with the language in bits and pieces. Honestly the first year I expect will be mostly about re-wiring their brains, yet again, to speak Catalan.
Language isn’t just a hurdle for the kids. School communication is all in Catalan. Amber and I are frequently copy-pasting into Google Translate and pouring over the cryptic results. Translation for Spanish is pretty good, but Catalan elicits from Google the sort of nonsense that automated translation is humorously known for. A Halloween announcement ended with something along the lines of “IT WILL BE A NIGHT OF PIE” when there was no pie involved as far as I could tell from either the message or the event. I’m still waiting for my pie.
Language also interferes with us engaging in the school community. Our recent life at César Chávez was so deeply hooked into the school, but now we can’t yet communicate with 95% of the families. We’ve found a few folks with English to help us along and develop friendships with, but we’re realizing now how long the road of language acquisition will be.
All in all, finally getting school started for the kids has brought a sense of rhythm and routine that we were desperately needing on the ultra-extended summer of 2018. Although it isn’t easy for any of us, it’s good, it’s growing us, and it’s on its way to being home.