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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tips and pointers for navigating the Panama school system

Hey everybody,

Well, the stay at home gringo is staying at home again. I’m doing freelance work from home, for now, which has given me a lot more time to write. I just finished the first draft of my 2nd book, Mirror Images Book 2: Sons of Man, and hope to release it soon (it needs a little more work). I’m also working on a Panama-based book and a brand new expat-friendly website. I should have the website ready to go by the end of this month. I’ll fill you in on all the gritty details when I’m closer to wrapping everything up.

The support I’ve gotten on this blog has been amazing. I’ve been getting emails from some of you guys with great questions. I hope I’ve provided the answers you've needed. Some of these questions have helped with blog ideas. It was a question about schools that got me going on this “Enroll your kids in school” kick.

My last blog post was all about actually enrolling your kids in Panama schools. If you missed that one, just scroll down and you’ll find it below this post. I promised to tell you a little more about the ins and outs of the Panama school system. Where the last post was mostly information based, this one will be a lot more personal. I’ll tell you about my experiences here so far.

Please remember that these are my experiences. There are a lot of schools here and they all handle situations differently. I think I’m going to purposely present this in a totally random fashion. It’s more fun that way.

Folklore Class  

Panama takes its traditions very seriously. In most schools you’ll have a folklore class, and if you do, you’ll be required to buy folklore clothes.  Being new to Panama, this might be a bit confusing for you. The school will probably tell you where to go to buy these items, but just in case they don’t, you can find these stores in most of the big malls here. I know there are at least two in Metro Mall and I’m pretty sure there’s one in Multiplaza too. These are the same stores that sell souvenirs. 

Buying cutarras and sombreros for Matteo & Nico at Metro Mall

So, what will you need to buy for folklore class? The teacher should give you a list detailing what you need, but these things will definitely be on the list.

Cutarras (for boys) – These are the leather sandals.

Sombrero (for boys) – These are the hats, not like the Mexican one you’re probably imagining.  Look at the photo above to see what I’m talking about.

Pollera de saraza or faldon de saraza (for girls) – You might hear it referred to in either of these two ways. These are the bright skirts with tiny flowers all over them.

Babuchas (for girls) – These are the typical folklore dance shoes, usually requested in black. 

Buying folklore clothes at Sal si Puedes on Avenida Central

If you want to save money, you can stop by Avenida Central and search for the things you need. A street called Sal si Puedes, off of Avenida Central, is kind of the one-stop-shopping for tipico and folklore costumes or outfits. This is probably the cheapest way to go about it, but can be pick and choose, kind of time consuming as you'll spend most of your time hunting for the best bargains, finding some things you need at one stand and some at others. If your kid has a performance coming up and needs the full get-up, Sal si Puedes is probably your best bet.

At Los Pueblos

You can also head over to the Los Pueblos outdoor shopping center. There’s a store that sells all folklore stuff on the same side of the center as TGIF. Drive down that lane, and you’ll see the store on the left hand side, about halfway into the shopping center, if headed towards the Felix toy store.

Last time I passed this store, I saw that they also sold Congo attire, which is usually the African-style clothing used to celebrate some of the festivals on the Caribbean side of Panama. My sons needed to dress in congo clothes a few months ago and I had no idea where to buy the outfits. Now, I do.

Estefania during her folklore performance

In folklore class, your kids will learn Panamanian traditions, stories, and all about the heritage. They’ll probably play tipico instruments, learn all the traditional dances, and study Panamanian history. You may also see a valores class, which is all about values. 

School Uniforms

If your kids don't wear uniforms in their school back home, you can count on it here. Whether they’re enrolled in a private school or public school, they will definitely need to wear the school uniform. I remember back home when it was up for debate nearly every year, whether or not it made sense for kids to start wearing uniforms. No debate here. They will wear uniforms.

Usually the uniforms are not part of the enrollment fee. Sometimes books will be (depending on the school), but most schools will require you to buy the uniforms separately. Sometimes they’re sold right there in the school. My daughters’ school is like this. However, we’ve been to other schools where they just send you to the store that sells their uniforms. 

All dressed up and ready for school

In my girls’ school, they have to wear the plaid skirt and a white, button-down blouse, with a jacket and a little crossover tie, on Monday. Every other day of the week they wear the skirt with a Polo-style shirt. Boys wear slacks with a white blouse, jacket, and tie every Monday. They wear slacks and a Polo every other day of the week.

You’ll also need to buy gym clothes, which your kids will wear to school the day they have physical education. Usually this consists of jogging pants (typically navy blue or red) and a white T-shirt. Some schools require the kids to wear a specific T-shirt with the school’s emblem. They’ll probably have to wear all white sneakers too.

Most schools will have certain days where they’ll allow kids to wear their civvies (as we’d call them in the military) or regular clothes. In my daughters’ school I swear it seems like this is every Friday. At their school they have to each pay $1 to wear regular clothes.

Swimming Class

This is probably one of the coolest things about Panamanian schools. They teach your kids to swim. We moved around so much before finally settling in Panama, that my kids never had the chance to learn to swim. We were rarely anywhere near a pool. 

This is not what happens in school swimming class. 
This is Dad’s swimming class! Ahahahah!

In Panama, it’s part of the curriculum. You’ll need to buy a few things at the beginning of the school year. This year, we had to buy goggles, a swimming cap, and a floating board. If the school doesn’t have a pool, the kids will usually be bused to one nearby.

I can’t say that this is the norm with all schools, but my daughters have had swimming class at all three schools we’ve had them enrolled in.

Religion Class

I’m happy to have religion back in school, but I can understand why some parents may not feel the same way. You have to remember that you’re considering moving to a country that is very set in its Catholic ways. Yes, there are plenty of other religions in this country, and if you put your kids in a school that teaches a different religion, then you should have no problem, but if you enroll your kids in a regular private school, chances are, they’re going to have a religion class, and it will more than likely be teaching Christianity.

My daughters’ class is called “religion” class, but still, if you flip through the book, you’ll see that religion means Catholic. I’m glad that, unlike the schools in the U.S. where religion has been yanked right out of the classroom, my kids are getting a religious foundation here in Panama.


This is where I get to rant a little bit. Holy shit Panama teachers give out a lot of homework. I’ve always believed that kids should learn while they’re in school. Yes, homework is important, to teach kids responsibility, but don’t make the homework so complicated that parents have to spend hours every night helping the kids finish the work.

I’ve never seen anything like the amount (and type) of homework that I’ve seen here. When I was in school, we’d have to do a major project with a poster board and stuff, maybe once a month (at the most). Probably closer to a couple of times per year. Here, each teacher seems to want it done every night.

The teacher will tell the kids they have a speech to do, tomorrow, on their favorite actor (just an example). This doesn’t mean they just have to get up in front of the class and speak about their favorite actor. No, this means they need to have a poster board, fully decorated, with pictures of their favorite actor…BY TOMORROW.

The Nacho book

Again, this might not be at every school, but I can tell you that all three of my daughters’ schools have been like this. You’ll get used to spending a lot of time in the little pharmacies or stores (often called Chinos here, we’ll discuss this in a later blog post) buying cartulinas. These are thin poster boards, pieces of cardboard in just about any color you could want. They’re cheap, usually somewhere between $.25 and $1.50 depending on the store and the quality.  

You’ll also get used to buying figuritas. Remember back in school, when the teacher would make you sit and write each vocabulary word and its definition? Here they make the kids illustrate the words. So they write the word, and instead of writing the definition, they have to past a picture next to the word. And I don’t mean draw a picture. The teacher expects you to either cut pictures out of magazines or go to one of these little stores I previously mentioned and buy figurita sheets, which usually cost about $.25 and have a bunch of small pictures in tons of different categories.

Or you can buy a Nacho book, like in the photo above, which costs about $6 and goes along with whatever grade your child's in. So you’ll see a kindergarten book, 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. The problem with Nacho books is they don’t always have what you need, so you still end up rummaging through magazines. 


After about a year of daily visits to the store, I finally decided it made more sense to buy printer ribbons and just search the terms on Google images, paste the pictures onto a word document, and print the damned things. Trust me, this is the best way to go. Yes, you’ll need to buy $30 printer ribbons, but in the end, the joy of being able to knock this out in a few minutes rather than having to drive to the store or search through magazines and Nacho books, is well worth the money spent.

One last thing about homework. Expect to have to put together ridiculous models…quite often. For some reason, rather than taking the kids out to a soccer field and teaching them all about the field and the game, the physical education teacher thought it would be a good idea to have each kid put together a model of a soccer field, complete with all goal lines, boundary lines, etc. Measurements needed to be included. Plus, players, nets, and a ball. This usually requires clay for the green field, and whatever else your creative mind can come up with. We even had to put together a model of a volleyball court. Seriously? How lazy can a teacher get that she just constantly makes the kids do these models? Sorry, had to vent a little bit.

School Buses – I’ve been informed that what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to all of the schools here, but it does apply to the three schools my daughters were enrolled in, so I’m assuming it applies to quite a few other schools.

Many of the schools here don’t have buses that belong to the school. The buses belong to individual drivers, who have some sort of contract with the school. And they’re not provided for free, like buses back in the United States. Here, most of the time, you’ll have to pay the driver directly, with cash. You’ll also see that the buses aren’t the large school buses you’re accustomed to. Here, they’re usually Coaster buses, more like large vans.

We’ve had some great drivers who always arrived on time, but we’ve also had to deal with other drivers who weren’t so reliable. One of our drivers drove his own bus, and he did an okay job. The kids arrived at school on time and the price was reasonable. Then, one day, my daughters were sitting on the couch waiting for him to pick them up, and I heard a car horn outside. I opened the door to see a little red car parked in the street in front of our house. The driver honked again. Finally, the driver stepped out and I saw that it was the bus driver. He explained that his bus had broken down and that he had to pick the kids up in his car. There was a woman in the passenger seat, which I think was his wife. 

I was uncomfortable with the situation. I apologized and explained that there was no way I was sending my daughters to school with him in his personal car. I don’t know about you, but it just seemed really strange. What if, and I know I’m probably stretching this a bit far, but what if he wanted to kidnap my kids. How was I going to explain that I put my daughters into a little red Toyota with some dude and his wife? I know the guy meant well, and he was trying to get the job done, but I told him we’d wait until he repaired his bus. 

A typical Panamanian school bus

For awhile, we had a terrific driver named Franklin, who went out of his way and drover farther than he usually would (when we moved), just to keep our daughters on his bus. We paid about $35 per month for each of our girls. He was fantastic, but unfortunately, when the government made it mandatory for all school buses to be painted yellow, he had to stop driving for the school. He ran a tour business on the side, and painting his bus yellow would have screwed up his business.

At the start of the new school year, we’d moved again, and the new driver, even though we were much closer to the school than we’d been before, charged us $50 for each of our girls, plus he refused to put the air conditioner on. He was trying to save money on gas. Our girls were squished in this bus with too many kids packed in, and they were sweating their butts off. For $100 per month I want my kids to be comfortable. 

We decided to just take them off the bus. Now, my father-in-law drops them off at school in the morning on his way to work, and I pick them up after school.

Again, I’ve been informed that this isn’t the case with all the schools, but in our experience, we’ve yet to find a school that handles the bus system efficiently.


This is a major problem right now, in most parts of the world, but it doesn't seem to be one here. 

I loved the schools my daughter attended back in the U.S. They were all public schools. While we appreciated the cleanliness and organization of the schools, I remember always hearing my oldest daughter talk about kids making fun of her in class. She had a tooth that had grown out behind one of her other teeth, and so it didn’t form right. The kids in her class would ask her if she was a vampire and would call her shark tooth. Kids are brutal. I remember being very worried about bullies. We had her in one school here that was filled with mostly international students, which included a lot of American kids, and some of the same stuff went on.

Since we put her in a regular Panamanian school, that has died down. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the religious background or just a different mindset. I’m not saying that bullying doesn’t go on. In fact, at one school here (a Catholic school), my daughter was picked on by a 16-year-old. My daughter was only 9 at the time. It was horrible. This had something to do with that girl though. Something was wrong with that chick.

Other than that one situation, I’ve found that the kids seem much more mellow and happy here. There’s a lot more playing instead of bullying.

Education Level

If you’re worried about the education level here in Panama compared to whatever country you’re moving from, don’t be. My wife is Panamanian and she remembers when she was sent to the U.S. for a study abroad program in high school. She was dumbfounded by how far behind the kids seemed in the U.S. She couldn’t believe her school in Panama was so much more advanced.

The difference in education level actually caused a bit of a problem for us when we first moved to Panama. One of my daughters, Victoria, was just starting pre-kindergarten here, so she was fine. She didn't know any different.

My other daughter, Estefania, was starting the 3rd grade here. I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, 3rd grade was kind of the turning point. We learned how to write in cursive in the 3rd grade and we started learning multiplication and studying the times tables in the 3rd grade. So, since she was starting in Panama, I thought she’d be fine. I thought wrong.

In Panama, kids don't start writing with manuscript. They learn to write in cursive. So while the kids back home were just about to start their cursive journey, my daughter was really far behind the rest of her class here. Then, we found out that the kids had already learned the times tables. So, my daughter had to struggle with learning Spanish (she understood quite a bit, but didn’t really speak Spanish), had to learn to write in cursive, and struggled with multiplication.

The only class that I've noticed is lacking here, is English, especially if your kid is in a traditional, Panamanian school. They do study English, but my daughter will always be way ahead of her class.

School Schedule

When you enroll your kids in a Panama school, you’ll need to decide whether you want them to stay with the school schedule from back home, or switch to the Panamanian school schedule.

We tried the U.S. schedule at first. It’s what we were used to so we stuck with what we knew. Then, we realized during the first Panama “summer” break, which actually takes place in December and usually goes all the way through February (giving them the holidays and carnaval off), that our kids’ cousins were having a blast in the interior of the country, traveling around with their parents, living it up, while our kids were stuck in school. 

See? They would've been in school during this trip

Then, when our kids reached their vacation time in June, nobody else was out of school, except their classmates.

Everything seems to go on during the Panamanian break. All of the fairs take place in that time, usually towards the end of January or February. Most of the parks have activities during that time. It's not a great time to be stuck in school. 

The Panamanian summer

If you're planning to move here permanently, or for a long time, I’d suggest going with a school that’s on the Panamanian schedule. It’s just part of the way of life here. 

School Lunch

I’m not sure what it’s like at the Boston School or the other newer, more expensive schools, but I’ve yet to see a Panamanian school that had a cafeteria like we had back in the U.S. Emma, if you’re reading this (Emma is a teacher here and runs her own blog at, you might be able to speak more about this. I know you work in a great school. You guys might have a cafeteria.

Not only are some schools lacking a cafeteria, but many of them don’t even have a full, dedicated lunch time.

I figured this out at my daughters’ first school here. Every morning I'd pack their lunches and send them off to school. We’d been packing their lunches because we found out their school didn’t have a cafeteria. Like many of the schools here, there was a small snack stand whre they could buy candy, some pastries like empanadas, and maybe juice, but there wasn’t an actual cafeteria serving food. 

One day I  noticed that my oldest daughter came home with most of her food still in her lunch box. I asked her why she hadn’t eaten. She said that her teacher got angry because she showed up to school late (the bus driver’s fault) and made all the kids that were late spend their 15-minute recess writing over and over again, “I will not be late to school.”

I was already pissed because it wasn’t her fault, but the bus driver’s, and more pissed because she’d been forced to write instead of eat. The first parent-teacher conference was only a couple of days away, so I waited, and once there, I raised my hand in front of the other parents and asked, “What’s the deal with lunch time?”

The teacher asked, “What do you mean?”

I replied, “Why are you having them write ‘I will not be late for school’ instead of eating their lunch?”

She said, “That was just the first recess. They have another.”

“You mean they have two recesses? What about lunch?”

“They have two 15-minute recesses. They can eat during either of those, it’s up to them.”

I was shocked. I flipped.

“You mean to tell me that my kids have only two breaks, each 15 minutes long, and they’re left to decide whether or not they’d rather eat or play during those breaks? We’re talking about 9 and 10 year olds. What do you think they’re going to decide if you give them the option? My daughter’s starving when she comes home. And have you ever tried to eat an entire meal in 15 minutes?”

She argued that it wasn’t her policy. It was the school’s policy. I took my daughters out of that school shortly after (had a bunch of other issues too). At their current school, they do have a set lunchtime, but there’s no cafeteria. They can buy little snacks, but they need to bring lunch with them. Sadly, my kids will never experience the Mexican pizza from my youth. L 

Birthday Parties in Class

I’ve discovered that in Panama, quite often, instead of splurging on a big party outside of school, the parents will just bring a cake, goody bags, and sometimes even a piƱata to the classroom.

It’s a great way to make sure all of your kids’ friends are involved in the party because let’s face it, when you spend money on a huge party outside of the school, half the kids don’t show up.

This can put a little bit of weight on your pockets though, as a parent, when you consider that your kid’s class probably has over 20 students. With 20 students, and only 12 months in a year, you can see where this is going. Your monthly budget won’t be only rent, electric, water, and gas anymore. You better make sure you save $20 for the present needed for the kid’s party that’s going to be taking place that month, if there’s only one party.

School Supplies

This should probably be a post all its own as there’s so much info to cover here. I’ve never seen the variety of school supplies that I’ve seen here in Panama.

First, let me say that Panama isn’t my worst school shopping experience. That trophy belongs to the city of Chicago, a city I love, but a city that charges you to fart. That place is crazy expensive. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got my daughter’s 2nd grade school supply list and saw that she needed all the regular stuff, but also a disposable camera, Ziploc baggies in every size available, 3 different sizes of Tupperware containers, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree. 

Panama isn’t nearly that bad, but it’s different. You’ll see all the regular stuff on the school list, like pencils, colored pencils, glue, erasers, scissors, modeling clay, and all that stuff. Goma Fria threw me for a loop. That’s the clear glue. You’ll probably need to buy the regular Elmer’s kind of glue, but also this goma fria. 

Get ready to scratch your head in the notebook aisle

What really messes me up here is the amount of notebooks you need to buy, and the different kinds. Some teachers, not unlike the teachers in the States, want large notebooks while others want small ones. That’s all the same. However, back home, I had only two choices. Did I need wide ruled notebooks or college ruled? It’s not that easy here. You’ll know what I mean when you get to the school-supply section of the store and you see the shelves labeled. 

Here are some of the notebooks you'll find on your kid's supply list:

Raya Ancha is the regular lined notebook. Like wide ruled.

Doble Raya is the double lined notebook. They look the same as the Raya Ancha on the outside, but the pages are more like what you’d imagine seeing in a handwriting class (see the page displayed in the photo above).

Cuanderno de Cuadritos is the math notebook. This is the one with the little squares on the page.

Cuaderno de Musica is the music book. It’s usually longer than a regular notebook. The pages on the inside are set up with the lines you’d see on sheet music pages.  

Dibujo is the art class notebook. These are the blank white pages. The outside might look exactly like the regular notebooks, or it might be long, like the music notebook.

I think those are all the main cuadernos you'll find. When you have two daughters who don’t want any of their notebooks to be the same as the other’s, this becomes a nightmare. Good luck with this one!
The 1-5 Grading System

I’ll never forget the first time my daughter brought home a test with a big number 5 on it, circled, in red. She was so proud.

I looked at her and asked, “What is this?”

“It’s a five,” she replied, hands on her hips, grinning from ear to ear.

“Like 5 out of a hundred? Like 5%?” I asked, not sure what she  was so proud of.

Turns out 5 is the Panamanian “A.” They don’t use the A,B,C,D, (not sure why we skip E), F system. Instead, they use the 5,4,3,2,1 system. It’s basically the same thing. 5 is A, 4 is B, etc. 4.5 would be like a B+.

Just thought I’d give you a heads up so you don’t ground your kid when he gets his first 5.
Okay, that’s all that comes to mind for now. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the differences between the Panamanian schools and the American or Canadian or wherever else you may be residing schools. If I did, please let me know in the comments, so we can all share and learn a little.

As always, love you guys, and thanks for reading,