The schools that Madeline went to!
We arrived in Thailand a few weeks after Madeline turned three years old, and she started preschool about a month later. She was a year too young to start Pre-K at the International School Bangkok, which was the school in our community, but when Chris and I were on our house-hunting trip in May 2007, we toured one nearby preschool, the Early Learning Centre (Country School location out in Nonthaburi). It was the only preschool that we'd looked at, but we have no regrets about not checking out other schools because ELC was pretty darn perfect.
I can't say enough good things about ELC and the experiences that Madeline had there. The classrooms are bright and cozy, with the walls usually decorated with photographs of the little students hard at work at something. The playground has a shaded place for playing and a green space for running around, and the softest and whitest sand that I've ever seen. Madeline probably brought home a kilogram of it over two years, hitch-hiking in her shoes and, inexplicably, in her hair. The little library in K. Pum's office has a better variety of books than one would probably except for such a small space. Madeline had classes with specialist teachers for art, movement, and music. I hadn't heard of the Reggio Emilia philosophy before Madeline started attending ELC, but after a couple of months of watching her class's study of bears unfold, it looked like a wonderful and inquisitive way for small children to approach learning.
The school puts on a few events throughout the year, but the one that is the biggest deal is the annual charity art auction. The four classrooms and the art studio would be invaded by the parents of eighty-odd students, all bidding on the large group paintings/collages/sculptures that each class had worked on throughout the year. I was usually outbid on my favourite pieces by the parents of Madeline's classmates - the art auction is very competitive - but each year I managed to come home with a piece that her class made, and they are still hanging up in our home. I'm not talking about finger-paintings, either - under the direction of the art teacher, the small children create some really cool pieces. We have a piece that Madeline's class made when she was three, and it looks like they painting textured paper, tore it up into strips, and then put it back together to look like an underwater scene. From her K2 class when she was four, I have a large picture of flowers that are made from a collage of seeds.
This school is a great community unto itself. It's where Madeline made her friends, and it's where I met my friends for our time in BKK as well. Her teachers (who were dear and compassionate people) were always out on the playground before class and at dismissal, so it was never hard to ask about what her class had been doing. I helped out with reading and cooking in the classroom, and other parents were welcomed into the class to help out similarly. This place meant a lot to me for my first two years overseas, and I think that I was sadder than Madeline was on her last day of school at ELC.
Then, Madeline started kindergarten at International School Bangkok (about ten times bigger). Gosh, it was different. It was big, it felt impersonal, and navigating the parking lot was hectic. We were a bit overwhelmed on the first day, but now that kindergarten is over, we miss ISB a lot.
I wouldn't be being honest if I didn't say that we chose this school for Madeline because it was a ten minute walk (on clean, dog-free sidewalks) from our apartment in Nichada Thani. As the school year wore on, it became obvious that it had other things going for it, as well. Their playground equipment was fabulous and first-world-quality (not always the case in Nichada or in BKK in general), the elementary library was well-stocked and the librarian was an awesome individual, the school had a great level of communication with parents and had so many opportunities for parents to volunteer in the classroom (Actually, a lot of these things became more apparent after Madeline started school here in Saigon, where she doesn't have equipment in the school yard, the library only welcomes parents on Tuesdays for two hours, and parents generally aren't encouraged to help out). Madeline only spent one year at ISB, but she has so many good memories of her time there.
There were a few things that were mildly irritating, like the reminders that the school's worked closely with the US Embassy for security advisory purposes (why not other embassies as well?), and how the extracurricular events seemed to take over the whole community (like the time that my kids and I were trying to walk to the store and their parent volunteers for a race were hassling us over using the public bike lane for our tricyles). This stuff I could live with, though, and if we had the chance to enroll Madeline at ISB again in the future, I'd leave in a heartbeat.