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Choosing a High School in Belize

When we moved to Belize in 2017, Fay was 9 and Rex was 7. They were both still in primary school and I felt lucky to have found public school nearby that we have really enjoyed being a part of. The school is small, well run, and has been a huge source of community to us. Even though there are many times I have felt like an outsider here, the teachers at our school have always treated me with love and open arms. They look out for my kids as they would any of their own community’s kids.

From our first month here, after I figured out primary school, I’ve been anxious about figuring out high school. Because Belize has a small population, some kids have to travel by bus (about an hour) to attend high school. While even the smallest villages tend to have a primary school, there simply are not enough students to support a high school in each village.

Many families relocate during high school years

We live near Hopkins and Sittee River Villages. There is a primary school in each village. The closest high schools are in Dangriga which is a 45 minute bus ride from Hopkins. I’m told there are 2-3 buses full of kids that travel from Hopkins to Dangriga each day. It makes for a long day. The kids catch the bus at 6:45am, arrive at school before 7:45am. School starts around 8am and lets out around 3pm. After school, the kids wait around for the bus until 4. They don’t make it back to the village until after 4:30pm.

Over the past three years, living in Belize, I’ve heard of many different ways parents cope with sending their kids to high school. For many, it ends up being a temporary time of relocation for either the kid or both the parent and the kid. For example, a woman who works at Beaches and Dreams grew up in the Cayo district and loved her high school. She feels it is a very good high school and wants to send her daughter there when she reaches high school age. Her family still lives there, and she plans to send her daughter to live with grandma so she can attend the same high school.

Another family, who lives in the Hopkins/Sittee area sends their daughter to school in Belize City. Their daughter has always been studious and ambitious. She found a school in Belize City that has an excellent science lab. She wants to be a forensic scientist one day. Because the mom has younger kids, she cannot move to Belize City and she does not have family there. So she pays a family to board her daughter. They give her a room, meals, and ensure her safety when getting to and from school.

Three years of dormant anxiety surfaced

I moved to Belize partially to enjoy more family time with my kids. I thought living and working at our resort would allow me to be available when the kids are home from school. And I’m happy to say, I have definitely gained that extra family time over the past three years. And even though, I am now ready for my oldest to spread her wings, I am not excited at the idea of my daughter going to live with another family, just so she can attend high school. I’m not done being a daily part of my daughter’s life! Over the past three years I have compartmentalized my anxiety about high school, hoping that a good solution would present itself in due time. This past Spring it was time to start visiting high schools, to see what our options are.

We visited some schools in Belmopan first. A family we know with high school aged kids wanted to tour two schools in Belmopan for their son, and I basically tagged along. I didn’t really know what to expect. And I had no idea how I would handle living logistics if we actually chose a high school in Belmopan. Belmopan is the capital of Belize and is a great city, but it is a 1.5 hour drive from our home. We visited two private high schools:

Belmopan Schools

Quality Schools International (QSI): This is a school in Belmopan. It is an international school that was created about 10 years ago due to a need/request of embassy families. It has an American curriculum and mostly international students. We liked the curriculum, small class size and focus on getting into an American College. However, it is expensive. I had heard there was a reduced price for permanent residents of Belize, but I learned on our tour that reduced fees for locals are not guaranteed. It depends on how many full tuitions they receive and reduced tuitions are granted as “scholarships”. Only so many are allowed each year and the number for this year has in fact gone down. Also, one other thing that did not make this a good choice for us was the transient nature of the student body. If my kids made friends at school, those friends might move away when their parents are reassigned. And finally, the school was filled with mostly international students and I would like my kids to attend school with Belizeans.

Belize Christian Academy (BCA): Also in the Belmopan area. This seemed like an excellent school. It is private, so the tuition is more than a public high schools (public high schools aren’t free), but much more affordable than the international school. The campus is fantastic. It is located just outside of Belmopan down a long road that makes you feel like you are in a secluded acreage. Each classroom is a standalone Mennonite one room house. It feels like a little community; very safe and welcoming. The curriculum is good but also infused Christianity into each subject. Most schools in Belize do have religious element in that they are associated with a church (Catholic, Methodist) and have a dedicated subject devoted to bible learning. BCA takes it one step further, incorporating Christian learning into into each subject (science, math, language arts). We really liked the academic rigor, campus, and community feeling of this school, but ultimately, the extra emphasis on religious studies made it not the right choice for our needs. So we kept looking.

Best Nearest School (Dangriga)

Our closest schools are in Dangriga. This is very likely the best choice for us due to academics and distance.

Ecumencial: Located in Dangriga. I was told the is the only accredited high school in southern Belize. This means the course work is strong enough to get kids into a US college. I have heard good stories and bad stories about this school. I’ve heard it is a diverse student body (representing all the cultures of Belize), has strong academics, and a strong social aspect — people I know have made their best friends at this high school. But I’ve also heard that the teachers exhibit favoritism (and the opposite), and I know a kid that got bullied there. We visited the school for an evening fundraiser and I met one of the principals. The campus seems like a nice size, and safe. The buses pull into the gated campus and the kids cannot leave the grounds except by bus at the end of the day. Ultimately, this school seems similar to what we’ve experience in primary school, but with a lot more students. It is definitely our choice if we don’t find another school which is exceptional enough to cause us to travel or move further from our home.

As the last year of primary school for my daughter came to a close, we were set on attending Ecumenical in Dangriga. This left me with lingering anxiety, because I was pretty sure it wasn’t the right school for Fay, but it might be the easiest and therefore best solution. Ever since moving to Belize, I’ve had mom guilt about the amount of friends my kids have and the fact that they miss their old school. I really wanted high school to be a fresh start, with new friends and exciting learning. When I went to pickup Fay’s final report card, her primary school teacher and principal suggested we check out BHS in Belize City. It is far away but she said she knew of some families that did some shared boarding there — maybe I could find some help with the distance or re-location.

The Big City School

Belize High School (BHS): Located in Belize City, this school is only 10 years old, but is also associated with an older and much more well known school at the primary level — Belize Elementary School (BES). They share a campus but have different buildings. We decided to visit to this school in the beginning of the pandemic, so we didn’t see any students, just empty classrooms. We were able to meet the principal and one teacher and the office staff. The campus is small but well laid out and full of life. There are teacher and student made posters/decor everywhere. Of all the schools we have visited, it immediately felt the most familiar to me in terms of the high school I attended as a kid in the states. They have a partial American curriculum and vigorously prepare the kids for the SATs and for applying for scholarships and acceptance to US colleges. This is a private school, but the tuition is affordable. What really stood out to me was the emphasis on leadership and finding one’s own voice. There are ample opportunities to participate in extra curricular contests, organizations, community service. And the teachers seem to really champion the kids. The principal is very responsive, communicative and organized. I loved it almost immediately.

We decided to apply to BHS! I was nervous we would not be offered a spot because the students from the primary school (BES) feed into BHS. I wasn’t sure how many extra seats there were for transferring students. Luckily, we were accepted and I started considering how my daughter would attend a school in Belize City, 3.5 hours away by car.

We decided to rent an apartment near the school. I or Ryan would live in Belize City during the week with Fay, while the other parent lives at the resort with Rex. He would still be attending school at Sittee River, so we need to split up the family. Not ideal, but it is a plan we can live with for the first part of high school. As we move through the semesters and years and the kids get older, our logistics may change to boarding or sharing with another family.

Covid Times

PANDEMIC REALITY: After renting the apartment, all schools in Belize were directed to close just 3 days before we were due to move. For the Fall semester all classes will be online using google classroom. This has the silver lining: not needing to move to Belize City. Ryan and I can both be home with the kids for school this Fall. And I have been SUPER impressed with the coordination and scheduling of classwork using google classroom. It seems BHS got some practice last spring when the pandemic closed the schools the first time around. Now they are pros at it. My kid is engaged and meeting other kids through video classes. Not an ideal way to start her high school career, but not so bad in today’s reality.