Berlin, Germany Report of what it's like to live there - 09/18/18

Personal Experiences from Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany 09/18/18

Background Information:

1. Are you the parent of a child(ren) attending this school? A teacher at the school? Or both?


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2. What grade or grades do/did your children attend at the school? During what year(s) did they attend the school?

2016-2019, grades 3-5 and grades 5-7

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3. What was your reason for living in the city where the school is located (e.g., government, military, corporate, NGO, retired)?


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4. Are other schools available to expatriates in this city? Why did you choose this particular school?

There are other schools available. We chose this one initially because of its strong reputation as we understood it prior to post, and the bilingual learning appealed to us. My husband was able to visit the school, got a tour, and we were overall excited about the school prior to moving here.

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Admissions & Welcome:

1. Are the admissions and placement procedures clearly stated to prospective families, either on the school website or through other means of communication?

Admissions was fairly straightforward prior to arrival. The school website is kept up to date and that is the primary way the school communicates. Our new student orientation was pretty good, prior to the start of school.

For locals, it's highly competitive to get in, so we USG folks have a unique privilege in getting to bypass lines for placement. That is huge.

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2. How would you rate the school's support and welcome/integration of new students and their families, and why?

In general, all the initial steps of the school were positive. For us, the quality of the integration fell precipitously after that initial welcome.

The children of the school are very accustomed to students coming and going, and both of my kids felt welcomed by students. Teachers are largely welcoming too, but that is also really hit or miss.

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Administration & School Procedures:

1. How is the overall communication between teachers and parents, and the administration and parents? How is communication facilitated?

After that initial intake, the onus of communication is much more upon parents to pursue. The school updates the website and that's the best for information. Some teachers are more communicative than others. Teachers communicate to students directly, passing out handouts which are usually bilingual.

There is a Parent Council and parent representatives from other classes, which is also a well-used avenue of communication (by emails, meetings).

In general, you cannot take a passive consumer-oriented approach with this school. There isn't a lot of communication redundancy.

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2. Aside from school fees, are there required expenses such as uniforms, laptops/tablets, musical instruments, or field trips that parents are expected to cover? What are the approximate costs?

Nothing that is mandatory.

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Academics & Resources:

1. What personal or academic counseling resources are available at this school? Is there a dedicated college counselor at the school? Is he/she familiar with universities worldwide?

There are counseling resources. My kids have not used them. Academically, again, it's very dependent on the teacher. Our children needed more rigorous teaching, and their teachers did a lot to facilitate that.

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2. Is there before and/or after-school daycare available? What are the costs?

There is something called "Hort" that is both before and after school daycare. You'll have to apply through the local government to get the "gutschein" (or coupon) to qualify. Don't know about the costs. For our first year here, our younger child went to a non-Hort afterschool care, and it was very inexpensive (3 euro/hr). That price has significantly increased since and we no longer use it, but it's available. In general this kind of care is decent.

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3. Does the school have a library? How large is it? How updated are the books? Can students borrow books to read at home?

School has a library. Large and bilingual - one for elementary and one for high school. Because it's bilingual, there are a lot of materials that your child may not be able to read. With time and language learning, they'll be able to engage more of the partner-tongue materials. And they can even borrow them over the summer!

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4. How are information technology resources at the school. Are they up-to-date? Is there a computer lab?

There is a computer lab, but I cannot speak to how up to date it is. My children have both done projects on computers at school (powerpoint, etc.).

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5. What are the technology requirements for students? Do they need their own laptops/ipads? How is technology integrated into the classroom and homework?

No required laptops/ipads. Students get some computer instruction, but not much. Teachers in elementary will expect students to do typed assignments from time to time.

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6. Describe the physical education resources at the school. Is there a gym? A swimming pool? Are there playing fields or tennis courts available?

Germans take sports SERIOUSLY. P/E isn't graded on effort; students are expected to perform at certain levels, hit benchmarks, so kids that aren't as sports-oriented are going to get bad grades. There is a nice gym, and an older smaller one too. (That is, multiple gyms.) No swimming pool, but pools all around town. Track field, etc. Lots of sports available here.

The school is used heavily throughout the week for sports.

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7. What is the approximate teacher-to-student ratio in the grades that your child attended?

I'd estimate that class sizes are around 25 students. Not sure about their official ratio. Comparable to what we had in the US public schools.

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8. Are Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses available in upper grades? If this is an IB school, is the full diploma required of all students?

Cannot speak to this from experience. AP is available - no IB available - check BBIS (Berlin Brandenburg Int'l School) for that.

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9. Are students generally challenged appropriately by the curriculum? Please describe any particular strengths or weaknesses in this area. Do you have any thoughts how the curriculum is applied and implemented at this school?

Our children have been challenged by the *culture* of the school -- a lot. Students are expected to be MUCH more independent than in the United States, which is good, but incredibly painful and murky when you first acclimate to the school. Overall, I have not been impressed with the rigor of the academics. Primary schooling seems a bit behind what our kids were doing in the States (our posting prior to moving here; and we have school experience at another post abroad as well). The quality of the instruction is very dependent on the teacher. We have mostly lucked out. Our kids have learned a lot of German, are now quite conversant/functional. Of the common schools that USG/American expats apply to, JFKS does language instruction well, I think.

Some of what we'd call "weaknesses" are related to culturally difference, especially with teacher quality and classroom management. In our experience, more traditionally minded German instructors still seem to think speaking sharply, combatively, barking at kids etc is "good tough teaching." It really detracts from the overall quality of the school, in my opinion. I think some (not all) German parents think of this as a good thing still and don't mind it at all.

For Americans that are more used to being hovering, "helicopter" parents, JFKS presents a great learning opportunity. Your kids will develop life-skills here that they simply will not in an American public school these days. Students are given a lot more responsibility for themselves, much higher expectations for what they are supposed to manage personally. JFKS culture also expects more failure because of that, and has a fairly high tolerance for failure as a way to learn. I think there is enormous value to that now, but I hated it when we first moved here, especially because the communication is so much thinner than at a American school. You have to work a lot harder to understand how the school functions, what the normal procedures are, and I still don't feel confident about a lot of it.

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10. Is the amount and type of homework generally appropriate for the age and grade of the students?


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11. What fine arts electives are available (music, drama, visual arts)?

Music - fantastic. Just fantastic. Lots of opportunities for students, international participation, and really great instruction. Drama - yes. Not sure about the breadth or depth of visual arts instruction.

Other electives - very spotty. Your child might want to sign up for "newspaper" and it's just a study hall with an inattentive teacher. Very up and down, very teacher dependent.

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12. Are the teachers at the school required to speak English as a first language--or at least fluently?

Most, but not all, teachers speak English, or at least willingly. American parents who don't have any German will often feel lost early on. Outside of formal communications from the school (which will always be bilingual), it's not uncommon to go to Back-To-School events, for example, where everyone is speaking German. You can typically ask for a summary interpretation.

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13. What services are available for gifted/advanced students at the school? Please describe your experience with these services, if applicable.

Totally teacher dependent. My children tried to do a math differential placement, which for one of them was sort of OK, offered mild challenge, but for the other, with another teacher, was just awful. Mercifully we had teachers who were willing to offer differentiated instruction to our kids. One of them also suggested that we accelerate one of our kids a grade, which we declined for social/peer reasons. That said, the age-range of classes tends to be bigger. Rather than instruct to a particular age-group/individually differentiating, there is a lot more openness to just accelerating a kid, so the age-bracket of students within a classroom can be big, with academically gifted kids just being moved up. That wasn't going to work for us knowing that we'd be transferring out, so we had to figure out alternative ways to keep the challenge up. Thankfully we had really supportive teachers for this. I do not take that for granted, but I also cannot say that all teachers will be willing to do that.

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14. What services are available for students with learning disabilities at this school? Please describe your experience with these services, if applicable.

Not much personal experience here. We have friends who chose other schools because of the lack of support for learning disabilities.

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15. What services are available for students with physical disabilities at this school? Please describe your experience with these services, if applicable.

There are elevators, but there are also a lot of stairs. Students are expected to rotate in and out of classrooms much earlier than in the US, managing their time and having to navigate themselves around - this is in the elementary school even, not just in the middle and high school grades. So, the school technically has capacity for physical disabilities, but I don't know how they'd accommodate this. Worth being proactive if your child has physical needs that require additional services.

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16. What services are provided for speakers of English as a second language at this school? Please describe your experience with these services, if applicable.

The school is English-German. There are German kids who attend that have very little English, and vice versa. So language learning is happening everywhere, with the focus on one's "mother" and "partner" tongue. It's pretty impressive how much juggling this requires.

Not sure about other language speakers.

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17. What extra-curricular activities (including sports) are available at this school? Have your children participated in these activities? What activities do you feel are missing at the school?

Lots of extra-curricular stuff. Don't feel like anything is missing that we were looking for. Check the website for some of the info.

My kids have done all kinds of extra-curricular things and I don't feel like we scratched the surface of available options.

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Social & Emotional Well-Being:

1. Do expatriate students socialize with local students at the school? Are both groups successfully integrated into the school culture?

Yes, and yes. That is the big value of JFKS is that American kids really do make friends with Germans, and largely, good integration, good partnership.

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2. Are there are any problems with exclusionary behavior, cliques, or bullying at this school? Please describe any problems your children may have experienced in this area.

There have been problems with bullying but I wouldn't say it's endemic to the culture of the school. My kids have not had that experience, personally, and the students don't tolerate it. It's not cultivated.

I cannot say the same thing about the adult leadership of the school. There was one particular case that's been in the news recently that was awful, but in my opinion, it got awful because of administrative inaction. Overall, I think that bullying is not common and hopefully there will be a better protocol in place after this unfortunate episode.

I do think there is a wide, wide range of acceptable classroom management in the school but this is true anywhere, I think, but it takes some getting used to when you are getting barked at in German. Berliners in general are very direct, come across as unsympathetic, hard, and just unfriendly in the way they interact. It doesn't translate well to Americans, especially on arrival, although again, this is something you grow to tolerate.

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Overall Impressions:

1. What letter grade (ranging from A, excellent, to F, fail) would you assign to this school based on your overall experience? Would you choose it again?

between a B and a C, but I don't think I'd rank any school here higher than that, which was a painful reality to discover when we first arrived.

I think I still would chose it again, because while the independence factor has been hard to acclimate to, I think our kids are better for it. They have learned German which I cannot say would happen elsewhere. The school, I think, rests on the laurels of its reputation more than it should, but there are some really special teachers in the school that make it a good place -- really committed, kind, creative, and respectful.

Early on, within a week or so of arriving, a parent who was rotating out of post gave me some "warning words" about JFKS, coupled with "you can make it work, just advocate hard if you need to," and it made me really nervous. From this side of our experience, I understand why she said this, and I think it's worth going in with eyes wide open. Definitely give BBIS a solid look. We didn't chose it, and are still comfortable with our decision, but definitely give the available schools a good look to know what you value and what your kids' experience will be like.

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2. Please tell us anything else you think prospective parents and students should know about this school. Thanks for your contribution!

Odd fact: Berlin does not permit there being outside substitute teachers, so in-house teachers have to cover for those sick or on vacation. It's bonkers, and adds to that disorganized/flying-by-seat-of-your-pants feel to the school some days. Sometimes an adult shows up to cover for their colleague, and other times, kids are farmed out to other classrooms. Seems to contribute to a lot of lost time for kids in their learning, but I think this practice is true throughout the city.

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