"Big Expat Decision #1" ... Where to send the kids to school?

By: Laura Dennis

Teaching dance at my kids' preschool. Mostly fun, but as evidenced by the semi-chaos, it is often an exercise in futility thanks to my poor Serbian language skills.
Teaching dance at my kids' preschool. Mostly fun, but as evidenced by the semi-chaos, it is often an exercise in futility thanks to my poor Serbian language skills.


It’s just another in a long line of examples as to why and how I was holding onto preconceived notions that I could duplicate my SoCal mommy life in Belgrade of all places completely clueless about what life would be like when I became an expat.

Why are we not surprised? It's called denial, Laura.

Upon arriving in Serbia in the summer of 2010, I promptly began researching international schools for my toddler daughter. She was a very verbal (in English at the time) person, and wanted her to continue to learn English at school. I was pleased to find there are several English-speaking schools in and around Belgrade. ... Which cost $15,000 - $18,000. Per year. For preschool.

For preschool!

This might not sound so strange to those who’ve been through the infamous 15-page application New York City preschool merry-go-round exercise in stress management process. But this is not NYC; I’d moved to Belgrade, Serbia, formerly Serbia and Montenegro, before that Yugoslavia. (Yes, the country of Serbia is still somewhat war torn, but Serbs are survivors, no pity required.)

To give you a point-of-reference, the average monthly salary here is $500. And by this I mean, small families live on $500/month. And that $500 has to cover early childhood education, in addition to rent, food, clothes, utilities, etc, etc.

Even if my husband and I were willing to spend that exorbitant amount, the rigmarole of getting the kids into the car, sitting in morning and then afternoon traffic, crossing the bridge into the city (we don’t live in the center), just so my kid can go to a posh preschool? Not at the top of my To Do list.

Again, if you’re wondering what’s the big deal, Laura? Just hop in the car and drive for thirty minutes with a two-year-old and a six-month old! Check out my post on the joys of driving in Serbia, here.

We need a Plan B

Don’t get me wrong, the international schools here are amazing. They have completely westernized curriculum, are taught in English, and are replete with all the extracurricular activities any high-powered fast-track child might desire.

But given the price, you may be wondering who attends these international schools. I don’t have the attendance list. But, there are diplomat’s children, and the children of those foreign citizens who work at embassies. For them, tuition is generally subsidized by their sponsoring country. School teachers’ kids get to attend for free, so that’s a great way for domestic kids to have the opportunity to attend.

Then there are various foreign 1%-ers, and rich local mafia businessmen, who can afford the full tuition, and the haughty connections that come along with attendance. Those who work for European firms and NGOs, for example, may be sent to Serbia for just 1-2 years and are loathe to let their kids interrupt their Western education. Completely understandable.

But my family didn’t really fit into any of those categories. My kids aren’t even technically expats, because their dad is Serbian.

What to do? What to do?

Turns out, we had the good fortune to have an excellent private preschool ... just about 300 feet from my apartment. In walking distance! Even better, in walking distance for a toddler!

At $180/month, the cost is a fraction of international school, but there were a ton of unexpected benefits. My daughter, and eventually my son learned Serbian at their preschool (actually called vrtić). They are served breakfast, snacks, and a variety of fresh hot-cooked lunches each day. My kids eat pickled beets. My kids eat fresh and cooked cabbage. Voluntarily. I’m not kidding.

I could go on with the benefits of my kids’ vrtić. Suffice-it-to-say, international education as an expat is not an easy decision. But for my family, having my kids learn to speak the language of their heritage--as if they’re natives, priceless.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLaura Dennis is an American expat living in Serbia. Blog description: The Adaptable American - an expat mommy surviving and thriving in Belgrade, Serbia
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Contest Comments » There are 7 comments

Kellie wrote 6 years ago:

Ok, not an Expat, but I totally get the not want to pay the $18,000 tuition for PRESCHOOL! Wow! I don't like the idea of private schools. I've always sent my children to public even though we could have paid for private. We need to invest in everyone's education, not just the elite minority. I hope that didn't sound too American.

Anne Dennis wrote 6 years ago:

What a wonderful experience for your children to be true citizens of the world.

Corie Skolnick wrote 6 years ago:

I would go this route if I was a young mommy in a "foreign" country. Experiences like this really broaden a child's horizons. Great post!

Nada DaVeiga wrote 6 years ago:

Laura, Great post. It is kind of the same for us here just the other way. The cheapest preschool is $12,000 per year here in LA and the places are not very clean and serve pizza and hotdogs for lunch. I remember when Lucas started his preschool and I was the only mom insisting on "You mean you do not provide them fresh cooked hot meals everyday, really?", "You mean you cannot warm up their lunch boxes at least?". The rest of the parents were looking at me sideways and probably wondering when will I shut up. I guess it is all about what you are used to. It is great to hear that both your kids are doing so great and are so content and happy in Belgrade.

MuMuGB wrote 6 years ago:

In the end, it is all about what works for your family, isn't it? We had a similar situation in London. My daughters ended up at the small local school. It was great and we haven't looked back ever since.

Joy wrote 6 years ago:

Finding a good school for our kids is such a stressful experience. And this becomes even more complicated when we know we have choices. Ah, the pains of modern life... But you're absolutely right. How I wish Filipino was taught in Noah's school. (Yeah right...a public school in Middle TN...hahahhahaha!)

Sue Aitken wrote 5 years ago:

This is one of the main reasons that I started Blackhen Education. After moving to France in 2007 with my partner, we soon realised that the English speaking children living in France were losing their English skills. The level of English taught in French schools was poor and the children were often bored in lessons. So we designed online courses for children aged 7-16yrs, where they follow lessons simiar to what they wold be studying in the UK. www.blackheneducation.com

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