If you are considering enrolling your child in public school in Panama, or simply wonder what the government is doing to educate the citizenry among whom you will live, this post is for you. If you want a quick history with statistics and observations of how the school system performs in rural areas with the Indigenous peoples of Panama, read here.
The Panamanian school year runs from March to December. The school calendar is broken into trimesters, with a week recess after the first two and summer break after the third. The Ministry of Education determines the school calendar for all public schools. Private schools can do their own thing, but typically run on the same calendar or a North American version.
For 2015, the dates are as follows:
- First Trimester: March 2 to May 29
- Free Days: April 2, 3 for Easter Week; May 1 for Day of Work
- School Recess: June 1 to June 5
- Second Trimester: June 8 to September 11
- School Recess: September 14 to September 18
- Third Trimester: September 21 to December 18
- Free Days: November 3, 4, 5, 10 for National Holidays; December 8 for Mother’s Day
- Civic Days: October 27 for Day of Student; December 1 for Day of Teacher
- December 19 to 23 are for tests, graduation, etc.
Classes are generally given in Spanish. Note: When a public or private institution claims to be bilingual, this usually means English is taught as a second language and Spanish is taught as the first language. There is no English for English-speakers, nor Intro to Spanish.
Alternate school calendars (that run on a North American schedule from August/September to June) and primary instruction languages may be found in private international schools located in Panama City.
The school day typically begins from 7 am-9 am and runs until 2 pm-3:30 pm. Pre-K, kindergarten and grade one usually let out earlier, anywhere from 11:30 am-1 pm. It is also common for there to be one day of the week that all students get out mid-day. Grade school students go in the morning. The junior high and high school runs in the afternoon.
Age determines grade placement. Grade level placement is based on the cut-off date. If school starts in March, the cut-off date is in May. Pre-K students must be four years old, kindergarten students must be five years old and first grade students must be at least six years old.
In grades one through twelve, placement is determined by both the previous educational experience and age of the student. Note to ex-pats: Spanish proficiency matters during placement.
According to Panamanian Law, all students in schools (public and private) must wear uniforms. The standard uniform for the public schools is blue pants for the boys and blue skirts for the girls. A white top indicates either a grade school or high school student. Children with light blue shirts are in junior high. Everyone wears navy socks and black shoes.
Physical Education (PE) uniforms are required at all levels. Elementary students usually wear their PE uniforms to school on the day they have PE classes. MS and HS students change into their PE uniforms before PE class in the locker room facilities provided.
Bussing is not provided by the public school system. It is a private enterprise and an additional expense. In Boquete the service costs $10 per week from Boquete to AIB, and there is a central bus stop in town. This is not door-to-door service. I don’t know prices to other schools, nor if bus services are even available for public schools. I have seen many families using taxi service up and down our mountain during this first week of school.
Levels of Education in Panama
Preschool for toddlers and pre-K are optional but determined by age.
Kindergarten is not compulsory, but determined by age. The school year starts in March and the child must be five by May to attend, or wait another year.
Consists of the first six years of primary education, including “middle school,” for kids ages 7-12 years old. Primeria education is free and compulsory in Panama’s public education system.
Are the next three years of junior high school, grades seven, eight and nine, for kids ages 12-15 years old, which ends with a completion certificate. Premedia is free and compulsory in Panama’s public education system.
Are the three years of high school, grades ten, eleven and twelve, available for kids ages 15-18 years old, which ends with a diploma (Diploma de Bachiller) with a specialty in agriculture, business, literature, livestock, science or technology. Educación Media are optional and therefore not free.
The Role of The Ministry of Education
For anyone interested in legalities, here are the objectives listed on the website of the Ministry of Education, translated into English:
- Legislate on industrial primary, secondary, university, professional e. (Art. 1)
- Maintains compulsory and free public primary, secondary and vocational Normal. (Art. 2)
- Holds school aged 7-15 years in the first level of education. (Art. 3)
- Sets the direction and promotion of public education, in all its branches corresponds to the national government, without preventing the existence of private schools, but under the supervision and monitoring of it. (Art. 4)
- Placed under the direct control of the Ministry of Education all establishments of both public and private education (Art. 5).
- Divide education in public and private. The first is funded by the state and the second, which is taught in private schools (Art. 7).
- Develop primary education “aims to promote and manage gradual and simultaneously the intellectual, physical and moral development of the student (Art. 15).
- Divide elementary schools in complete and incomplete; the first consisting of six degrees and the latter can reach grade 5 (Art. 17).
- Select schools in urban and rural. (Art. 40 of the Consolidated Law).
- Regulates the number of students forty (40) per teacher (Art. 19).
- Regulates the tenure of Teachers (Art. 19).
- Change distritorial school population in the province (Art. 39 to 57).
- Vacation deals teachers and learners (Art. 69 to 71).
- Establishes and maintains special revenues to education (Art. 82 to 86)
- It refers to the residence of the teacher (Art. 112 to 113).
- Explains private schools (Art. 114).
- Enter provisions on industrial and agricultural education (Arts.136 to 143 to 115).
- Regulate upper secondary education, vocational and (Arts. 136 to 143).
- Municipalities in the Republic, whose annual incomes are greater than B / 10,000.00, contribute 20% to the field of education, and not reaching that amount, with 15% (Art. 81).
- It should be noted, finally, that the final establishment of a Ministry of Education, replacing the classical Secretary of Public Instruction, allowed the multiplication of the functions of the institution and a major expansion of its services for the community.