Matamoros, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 02/05/16
Personal Experiences from Matamoros, Mexico
St. Mary's Catholic School in Brownsville
1. Are you the parent of a child(ren) attending this school? A teacher at the school? Or both?
2. What grade or grades do/did your children attend at the school? During what year(s) did they attend the school?
5th and 6th (This school is preschool through 6th grade)
3. During what years were you affiliated with this school?
2015-2017 (currently in the school)
4. What was your reason for living in the city where the school is located (e.g., government, military, corporate, NGO, retired)?
USG Foreign Service
5. Are other schools available to expatriates in this city? Why did you choose this particular school?
A few reasons: No one from he consulate sends their school-aged kids to Matamoros schools and I'd heard from a previous officer who had sent his kids to local schools that they were inadequate; Consulate basically only lets you know that there is either St. Mary's, Episcopal, and Kenwood. We're Catholic and a family with kids at St. Mary's told us they really liked the school. So, given the kids would go to private school, and having talked to the principal, we were comfortable with choosing St. Mary's over the Episcopal school and didn't want the small/tiny Montessori program at Kenwood as that didn't fit my son's needs.
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?
A (They are fine with this. No issues. Great principal here.)
2. How would you rate the school's support and welcome/integration of new students and their families, and why?
B- (They really want to support new families and they are super kind and helpful. But, being a local school in a small town where most people stay their whole lives, they just do not fully understand a kid from the Foreign Service who has been around the world. They don't understand the moves or the dynamics. It's difficult for them to understand the ongoing difficulties a kid can have in moving here to this post.)
Administration & School Procedures:
1. Describe the general climate of the grade level that you teach or your child attends:
It's a very warm and welcoming environment with clearly spelled out Catholic values. The children attend mass once a week and are constantly reminded to be "Christ to one another." The children were all very kind to my children when they started the school and my children, generally say, that the children are good people. My children feel that the teachers, though nice, treat them as "babies" and this can possibly be understood in light of my children never experiencing a Catholic school environment previously.
2. For the following attributes, down to the next blank box, grade your experience at the school on a scale of A (excellent) to F (unacceptable/terrible) and provide comments:<br><br>Overall fair and equitable treatment of all students and families:
A (Seems to have clear expectations and treatment of all children).
3. How is the overall communication between teachers and parents, and the administration and parents? How is communication facilitated?
B+ (Teachers provide a weekly newsletter of what is going on in class. They don't use Renweb effectively with tracking of grading, though. They also aren't sophisticated enough to send emails directly to students about classwork/issues/etc. It's a missed opportunity. Teachers are always available to talk and they're an approachable group of teachers. However, as with all places, sometimes it depends on the particular teacher and one has to be careful in their approach.)
4. 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?
Lunches cost US$4/day and you pretty much have to buy them since you can't take food across the border. Uniforms are expensive, but there is a trade each year and you can get free uniforms during that trade. The other hidden cost is that it's about US$7 roundtrip every time you cross the border. So, if you want to go over and take your child to activities after school, this really adds up!
5. Services for gifted students who need academic challenge and students with learning difficulties:
C (They just don't have the resources to deal with acceleration or differentiation. They do not know how to deal well with learning difficulties. I say this, believing that they just don't have the training and resources compared to other places in the U.S. This definitely is not a Falls Church kind of school. That being said, they do have special events/activities that happen throughout the year where your child could be invited to participate in a special science program on a Saturday or complete in some math or science challenge in the community.)
6. Availability and variety of after-school activities for various ages:
B+ (For the size of the school, I think they do quite well in this area. They have lots of activities on offer from chess to basketball.)
7. Maintenance of appropriately high standards for all students:
B (They are on grade level with everything, but there's no going above and beyond. So, for my son who excels in math, he finds himself bored. Everything is fine, academically, but nothing is like "Wow," they're really doing well here. It's all adequate.
8. Homework assigned (quality, quantity):
Depends (Son's homework in 6th grade seems fine. Daughters homework in 5th grade is far too much and often the science and social studies work is of poor quality. I'm not thrilled with the Science or Social Studies textbooks.)
9. Administration-parent communication:
A- (Very good, overall, in the sense that the principal is great and her main office assistants are terrific and will help with anything. You do get the sense of community at this school and it's pretty inclusive.)
10. Teacher-student communication:
B- (Seems ineffective, at times. See above comments about lack of use of technology. Also, I find that for new students, teachers assume too much and don't break down instructions enough. This is a result of it being a school where they rarely have kids like "ours" who rotate in and out. So, they don't know how to deal with them.)
11. Academics, answer the following questions "yes" or "no" with an explanation if appropriate:<br><br>Are there any classes or subjects where students are not appropriately challenged?
12. Does your child receive any special-needs assistance or instruction at this school? If yes, what types? Who provides services and where:
13. Do you believe the special-needs assistance is appropriate and fills your needs? Explain:
14. Does the gifted and talented program meet the needs of students? Please explain:
15. Does the school offer a wide variety of elective or non-core classes such as art, music, and drama?
No. There is only music (singing and recorder). There is no art.
16. Please describe any classes or programs that you believe are missing:
Art, musical instruments, higher level technology (teach the kids to type).
17. Are there academic requirements such as trips or other activities that cost money in addition to school fees?
Some field trip and out of the city trips. Cost of a trip to NASA this spring will be close to US$300.
18. What activities do you feel are missing?
Given we're on the border, they have as much as you can fairly expect.
19. Have your children participated in the activities offered? If no, please indicate why:
No because the school day is far too long. They leave the house at 7am. School starts at 8:15/8:30 and goes until 3:30pm. Then, they arrive home at 4pm, exhausted.
20. Does the school provide appropriate assistance to new students?
They try, but they don't really understand the FS child.
21. Please describe any problem areas or challenges in social interaction at the school:
The challenge is that our FS kids have been around the world, experienced different school systems, and so are different from the local population. So, they don't always fit in so well even though the kids are nice kids. There isn't a body of expats/foreigners here. There are families who have been transplanted from Mexico and have resettled in Brownsville, but they're still different from FS kinds of kids.
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?
Can't comment other than to say they do have a counselor on staff.
2. Does the school have a library? How large is it? How updated are the books? Can students borrow books to read at home?
C+ (Small library without many holdings. BUT-the public library in Brownsville is amazing. I was so impressed.)
3. How are information technology resources at the school. Are they up-to-date? Is there a computer lab?
B- (They just don't have the resources of these international schools that Foreign Service people often experience. They do have the white boards but they have few computers and systematically, they're behind in using technology to communicate effectively. So, for instance, they use Renweb to record grades, but use it poorly compared to our previous school. They're trying, and with time will get better.)
4. Describe the physical education resources at the school. Is there a gym? A swimming pool? Are there playing fields or tennis courts available?
A (Actually, this is the best PE my kids have had in 6 schools because the coach really works these kids out and gives them true exercise.)
5. What is the approximate teacher-to-student ratio in the grades that your child attended?
B+ (In 6th grade, it's about 18 students per class. In 5th grade it's about 20.)
6. 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?
7. Is the amount and type of homework generally appropriate for the age and grade of the students?
Too much homework the 5th grade year.
8. What fine arts electives are available (music, drama, visual arts)?
C (Compared to international schools in various parts of the world, you will not find their electives sufficient. I don't think the kids EVER do art. Music is only singing and then playing recorder. There are no electives. However, they do put on little programs during the year such as the Christmas program. They really do a lot with a little here. It's a good little school.)
9. Are the teachers at the school required to speak English as a first language--or at least fluently?
10. What services are available for gifted/advanced students at the school? Please describe your experience with these services, if applicable.
No, they are not able to deal with acceleration, though they would like to think they are. Those teachers just don't have the time to develop acceleration programs for advanced kids.
11. 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?
Yes. See above.
Social & Emotional Well-Being:
1. Do expatriate students socialize with local students at the school? Are both groups successfully integrated into the school culture?
They socialize with the local kids and I have to say that families here are easier to get to know and integrate with than in Guadalajara where we were also posted. So, that has been a pleasant surprise. There are some super families around here.
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.
1. What is the greatest strength of this school?
They work to live their Catholic values and seem to be consistent in expressing them and creating a warm community.
2. Greatest challenge?
FS families considering Matamoros as a post should think LONG and HARD about the impact on the children. We did do our research and thought ourselves prepared. And, we are getting through it and our kids are learning a lot from this experience. But, of course, researching a place, knowing some of the challenges, and then actually living them are different things.
A previous family endorsed St. Mary's (but of course curtailed after a year to go to another post). What they told us about St. Mary's was true, generally speaking. And, their kids did have a good experience there. But, their kids were younger with less FS experiences. Another family with school-aged kids is curtailing as it's been rough for them. Generally speaking, our kids are really isolated here. The Overseas School office should put more honest information out there about border issues for kids. While we're glad they opened up the boarding school options for people on the post, that really only works if you want to send your child away. Most of us aren't interested in sending primary school children away. This might be a great post if you have a high schooler who is interested in boarding school in the U.S. Or, if you want to keep your child in a particular high school (to finish out senior year) while you come to this post. I don't recommend this post for school-aged children who want to remain with their families here.
Some things to understand about how kids are affected, living in Matamoros: First, It's a long school day. A consulate vehicle picks kids up at 7am and they don't get back until 4pm. They're exhausted. My son refuses to partake in any after school activity as it would extend his day. Second, crossing the border costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time for the parent. Not only is it costly, it's emotionally exhausting.
Really, I'm writing this school report so that incoming families who have school aged children will have a bit of info about the hardship of this post. While we love the consulate team and the work has been good, this is an extremely difficult post for school-aged children. It's mostly totally fine for the preschool aged families, but it's hard to say whether I'd choose this post again, given how difficult it's been on my children. The school community is very nice and the school itself is adequate (though just not sophisticated). But, it has been terribly difficult for our kids because no one will allow their children to come play at our house (dangers of Matamoros). Our kids cannot go outside to play nor is there anything to do outside our houses (we are not in a complex). It's a complete joke that you can go to Guadalajara where you can get your hardship post in (15% differential) when this place truly is hardship and Guadalajara is a lot of luxury (I lived there too so I can speak to this). We're so restricted in Matamoros that there is nothing to do here nor any sport/activities for kids here. Crossing over can be terrible, at time, taking an hour. My daughter does do gymnastics in Brownsville, but it makes for a very long day. Really, this is not a good post for school-aged kids. We knew it would be rough coming here and we chose it and, as I said, the consulate is actually has a great team and I suspect often has a great team of ELOs and mid-level managers, but if the FSO has another post where s/he thinks s/he will enjoy the work, go for that.
Also, we are sooooo far south in Texas, that it's hard to drive anywhere cool for a weekend. So,the whole thing or "oh, you can just hop into America and all is well" doesn't really work here. Brownsville and South Padre Island do not have much. And, to get to a city like Austin can take 6 or 7 hours (not good for a weekend trip). I think other border towns are safer and have more on offer on the U.S. side. Brownsville has a mall, a movie theatre, and one decent pizza place.
3. Would you choose this school again? Why?
Yes, I'd choose the school again as there aren't too many other choices. However, my son is going to a public school next year of which I have higher hopes for in terms of challenge. My daughter will remain at the Catholic school. I thought there weren't any good public school choices down here, but I've that there actually are. For middle school/high school prospective families, check out the South Texas Independent School District. I'm impressed so far. Also, there are IDEA charter schools here. Good luck!