When spending time in Panama, I had the pleasure of having a chat with Mikkel about his latest project, an international online school for expats.
I had already written about how to choose an international school for children, but I really enjoyed my chat with Mikkel who has a unique offering for expat children. You can watch the interview with him here.
If you want to find out more about Mikkel’s international online school for expat send him an email for a free call: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to discuss your internationalization and diversification plans, book a consulting session or send me an email.
Full transcript of International Online School for Expats review
LADISLAS MAURICE: Hello, everyone. Ladislas Maurice from thewanderinginvestor.com. So today, I’m very excited about this conversation. I’m with Mikkel from The Expat Money Show.
MIKKEL THORUP: Hello, everyone. Ladislas, super happy to be here. Thank you very much for having me.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So we have Panama City in our backdrop, where Mikkel spends, what, most of the year?
MIKKEL THORUP: Yeah, I spend a good amount of the time. We’re at Ocean Reef. It is really beautiful here, these are the man-made islands off the coast of Panama City. And nice day, beautiful day.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Today, we’ll be discussing international schooling for children. So it’s an issue that is crucial for people who travel a lot and who move to other countries, is what happens to their children’s schooling. So typically, when you go overseas, there are a few options, you either put your kids in the local schools, which may or may not be an option, depending on the country, or you put your children in these very expensive, private international schools. Typically, those schools are at least, what, $20,000. The cheapest I’ve seen is maybe $15,000.
MIKKEL THORUP: Yeah.
LADISLAS MAURICE: But generally, $20,000 to $30,000 per kid per year.
MIKKEL THORUP: Yeah, starting at kindergarten and going from that. Then when you get into high school, they grow exponentially.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So it can get very expensive. So sometimes, homeschooling is an option as well, which may or may not be accepted in some jurisdictions. So it’s a very complex space. And Mikkel and one of his business partners have recently started the–
MIKKEL THORUP: Expat International School. It really started from seeing a lot of the problems that you’re discussing. But actually, it goes a lot deeper than that. So if you like, we can start with kind of some of the challenges and reasons people might look at alternative forms of education, and then we can kind of go from there.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Sure, let’s do this.
MIKKEL THORUP: Okay. So as you said, the price can be prohibitive for a lot of people. If you have two, three, four children and the school start at $30,000 a year at, you know, kindergarten or grade one, and then you have to put the kids all the way through. Now sometimes, as an international family, Mom gets a job overseas, Dad gets a job overseas, and there might be some type of education budget in there, but not always. So that can help mitigate on some fronts.
But another problem that happens a lot with the expat families is they might go overseas for, say, two years. They might be in Dubai for two years, and then Mom gets transferred to Hong Kong, and then they move over there. And then they’re in London for a couple of years. So they’re in Frankfurt for a few years. Well, the children actually have to say goodbye to their friends every single time. Now, it was one thing to get your kids on the move the first go, but once they get settled in a new place, they probably don’t want to leave again. And even if you can convince them that time moving the third time, makes it really difficult. With our school, it’s completely online, so they stay with the same kids.
LADISLAS MAURICE: I had to go through this myself. On average, when I was a child, I had to change schools and countries every two years.
MIKKEL THORUP: Exactly. So there you go.
LADISLAS MAURICE: I think it turned out all right. But yeah, like, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy. (laughing)
MIKKEL THORUP: (laughing) So those are some of the problems. So we tried to look at all of these challenges that faced an international family, and try to come up with solutions for all of them. Something else that is going on is that the public education back in Europe or in North America, a lot of people don’t agree with what is happening with mask mandates, with these, you’ve seen the memes of the kids, and they’ve got the hula hoops around them and they have to social distance. And they’re singing these songs about doing the zombie walk and things like this, because they’re so worried about the kids interacting.
I don’t believe in any of these types of things. I think that this is really criminal what they’re doing to kids. And I think that there’s a lot of agenda that’s pushed in the schools. With our school, we’ve been really upfront. Our main focus is on liberty, on freedom, on entrepreneurship, on personal responsibility. These are our core values. So if you share those types of same core values, then you probably want to put your child in an institution, in an organization, I should say, that respects these.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So it is a bit political as well. It’s just you’ve chosen your side of things.
MIKKEL THORUP: The school itself is not political, we don’t talk about politics, but our values are upfront. We don’t pretend to be otherwise. I think that this is a good way to go about things and I think that more organizations should do this.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Oh, your value proposition is clear.
MIKKEL THORUP: Yes, correct.
LADISLAS MAURICE: You have an international school. It’s essentially online.
MIKKEL THORUP: Correct.
LADISLAS MAURICE: How does it work concretely?
MIKKEL THORUP: Okay, so what most online school programs do, or most homeschooling programs do is it is a video program. Just your kids watch the program, then they might have some homework assignments. But what happens if they have questions? What happens to socialization and making friends and things like this? All of that is left by the wayside. For us, we do pods. So we do a maximum of 15 kids. They get on a video call, and they interact with each other all day long. We have different guides, we don’t even call them teachers, they’re guides, and they’re there to support your child.
We have three programs, we have the novice program that goes from, say, ages 6 to 11, the middle school program that goes 11 to 14, and the high school program that goes 14 to 19 years old. And in some of the classes, we actually mix them. So here, we didn’t do grade one, grade two, grade three. So all the kids are not at exactly their same age. There might be two, three years on either side, which is actually beneficial so that the older kids get a chance to be responsible and take care of the younger kids, and the younger kids get to model the behavior of the older kids.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Doesn’t it slow down the development of the older kids to be with younger kids?
MIKKEL THORUP: No, I don’t think so. Because, first of all, we’re not doing rote memorization. We don’t do things based on tests, or grade scores, or anything like that. We’re doing a lot on understanding and persuasive ideas. We built everything on Socratic thought. So we take an idea, like what is honesty? What is hope? What is ethics? And we have conversations based around these types of ideas.
The older students get a chance to communicate their ideas, and try to persuade and argue and fight over things. And if you spent time with high school kids, you will know that they love to argue and they love to fight in a constructive way. You know, we make sure things are done in a friendly manner. But we do encourage these types of behavior. It is not just a top down rote memorization for the kids. Having different types of age groups in there is actually a benefit, because can you give me any example in life where you were with people who are only your age?
LADISLAS MAURICE: Yeah, I agree. Is that why you call them guides and not teachers?
MIKKEL THORUP: Yes. A lot of the guides, first of all, did not go to Teachers College, they did not spend five years in university learning how to teach. Actually, our guides went out into the business world, built a business, did something with their own two hands, created something, and that’s who we take on. So although we have some of our teachers, our guides that have massive amounts of experience, they come from different types of backgrounds. It is either from the business world or, if they have experience in teaching, it’s from a Montessori background or these types of things. It’s not from public education.
LADISLAS MAURICE: And where are they from, typically?
MIKKEL THORUP: So great question. We have a lot of them from the United States and Canada, but we also have from Guatemala, from Honduras, from Mexico. We’re doing a lot in Latin America. Obviously, a lot of expat families like to move down to Latin America, so we put in a lot of the language, we try to look at different cultures. Some of our guides are Americans, but they’ve been living overseas for 20 years. We have one in Thailand, we have all over the world.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So from a time zone point of view, you really target the North American markets, or essentially the Americas?
MIKKEL THORUP: At the moment, yes. So right now, we run on Central time, because it’s just easy because we have a lot on the West Coast, we have a lot on the East Coast. But as the school grows, we’re going to be introducing a European time zone. That will probably be happening in upcoming September. Then the following year, Inshallah, we will also do an Asian time zone. So we’ll have three major time zones.
But saying that, we still have kids who are all over the world. We have a girl in Pakistan, she starts school at something like seven o’clock at night, and she does four, five hours of school. And that’s the sacrifice that she’s decided to make. Her family really wants her in this program, she really wants to be in this program, so it makes sense. We have another family in Oman, same type of thing. So a lot of the kids make a decision about this themselves. They’re not being forced to go into these programs, they’re not being pushed. This is something that they want to do. And if that means staying up late at night, well, that’s life, you know?
LADISLAS MAURICE: Isn’t it too much screen time, though, for children?
MIKKEL THORUP: Okay. The screen time is something that we have to deal with. We don’t spend the entire, say, five, six hours a day just in front of the screen. I’ll give you an example. So we mail out science kits. So we might do the explanation and talk about and discuss what we’re going to be doing with the science project. Then the kids go out and they have 45 minutes, an hour to do the experiments, write down their notes, then they come back and share things. We have a PE class where the kids have wearable devices, if the family chooses, and they go out there and do activities.
We do a lot of things to integrate and make sure that it’s not too much screen time. And add to that, the screen time that they are getting is interacting with other human beings. So it’s not just receiving information, like watching Netflix, or playing video games, which are highly addictive. This is talking and discussing ideas all day long with your peers, with people who are just slightly ahead of you in the age groups, which we discussed before. So we do ways of mitigating this, because I know it is a common concern for people.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So what kind of certificate do children actually get? So, let’s say, my child goes and enrolls in your school for grades two and three, and then I decide that the kid will then go to an international school. What sort of certificate or equivalences do the children actually receive for their education?
MIKKEL THORUP: A lot of parents are very concerned about these types of things, about where they’re going to fit in later in life, how they’re going to go back into the system, if that is the path for them. So first of all, we have two main programs, we have an accredited and a non-accredited program. Personally, I like the non-accredited program a lot more. With the accreditation program, we do have to do some types of tests and some type of standard grading. At the moment, we’re using the US system, because my business partner, that’s where a lot of– me and my business partner are both from North America, so that’s the system that works well for us.
We have looked at the British system of grading, but at the moment, we’re doing the US side. Our accredited program is actually done through the school board in Maine. So it will be exactly the same as any other type of high school program or middle school program, same type of grading system, everything like this. Now, with a non-accredited program, we don’t do a lot of the grading, we don’t do these types of things. But we do do a report so the parents know what the child is working on.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So wait, no grading?
MIKKEL THORUP: Correct. On the non-accredited program, we don’t do grading, but we do do reports so that they know what’s going on, where they’re getting along, what they’re struggling with, what we need to spend more time on, all of these types of things.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So no actual grades? No you got a grade one, grade two, whatever?
MIKKEL THORUP: Correct.
LADISLAS MAURICE: And not a bit radical? What’s your thinking behind that?
MIKKEL THORUP: Personally, I don’t find it radical. Because, first of all, you have two choices, as I said, you have the accredited or non-accredited program. With a non-accredited program, the one we’re discussing, which we don’t do grading, there’s report after report that say that standardized testing does not work.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Even for maths?
MIKKEL THORUP: So even for maths, even for a lot of these problem solving. Our kids have a very high advanced level of mathematics and problem solving. Actually, we have kids who are in 14, 15, 16 years old who have gotten into MIT, gotten into very high level elite math programs through university at teenage years. The kids are put through a very rigorous math and math techniques program where they really understand things. And you also have to understand that we do a lot of projects with the kids. So it’s based on what they need. If they say that they want to go forwards and be an engineer, or an architect, or something like this, then we’ll know what their math requirements are going to be.
If your child wants to grow up and be a dancer, or a professional pool player, or an artist, or an entrepreneur, well, then we can gauge their math level and what they need to bring it in line with what their goals are. Does that make sense?
LADISLAS MAURICE: I hope sending my daughter to your school won’t result in her wanting to be a dancer.
MIKKEL THORUP: No. (laughing) Every child has their own path, and our job is to support them in that path.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So what final graduation exam or certificate do children receive once they graduate from high school to then go to university?
MIKKEL THORUP: So what most universities are looking for right now is unique candidates. There’s a culmination of two things. First of all, it’s your SAT scores, which we do an immense amount of SAT prep, if that is the path for your child. As I said, if it is not the path of your child and the family decides they don’t want to go on to university, then we don’t force it. But for those that do want to go to university, we do SAT prep and on a regular basis. So the child scores on SAT are considerably higher and the projects that the kids do are interesting. So when they sit down for admissions, and they write their cover letter, the child has a much more unique position.
We’ve had kids who have gone through and built the website for the American Idol finalist. It was they were using it for their business. They ended up getting fired, which was an amazing experience for the child to see how this works, to get let down from a job. You know, all of these types of things go in the cover letter when applying for university. As I said, we’ve had a family, the child went to MIT. We’ve had many elite colleges and universities in the United States and internationally that they’ve gone on to, and there is a path forward for that if it is right for the family.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Okay. Because I’m not too sure universities in Europe would be that flexible. So for the US, Canada, Australia, I can see how the admissions office would be more flexible. But in Switzerland, for example, I don’t think that would roll.
MIKKEL THORUP: Well, with an SAT score, usually there’s a translation or an equivalent that they’d be able to take when moving overseas. Because American families move overseas all the time every day with their child, and has to implant them in a foreign system. So that’s really not a problem. What it’s going to come down to is the story and understanding where they came from.
This is not a, I would say, is not a radical school at all, it is a very highly flexible School, where we really take the child’s needs and the family’s wants into consideration. We run at a very high academic level. The children are running at advanced math skills, advanced communication, advanced reading, writing, and comprehension of reading material. They’re usually much further ahead, and we’re able to showcase this when applying for universities.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Clear. And what about class sizes, one of the most important questions that I should have asked earlier?
MIKKEL THORUP: (laughing) So class sizes, we do a maximum of 15 students per class. And that will be with one teacher. Now, we do have classes that might run with 12 kids, or 11 kids, or something like that. Now, when I went to school, there were 32 kids in my program. And I was even talking to a family recently, their child was born and raised in Thailand, there was 60 kids per teacher. At that point, you really are not teaching anything, you’re not helping, you’re not guiding. It’s just crowd control. It’s just herding cats all day long. And when they came into our program, they were severely behind.
Now, over the last three or four months, we brought them up to speed quite quickly. We have a lot of work to do, but the advancement in the child’s education is drastic and noticeable.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So this is all great, but do you have a background in education?
MIKKEL THORUP: No, absolutely not. I am an entrepreneur. I build businesses. I came at this from an entrepreneurial standpoint. Now my business partner, on the other hand, his name is Michael Strong, he is one of the most world-famous curriculum developers in the world. He has over 30, 35 years’ experience. He built Montessoris in something like seven or eight different states in the United States. He literally wrote the book on Socratic thought. He’s a twice-published author on education. He has a massive amount of experience, and he does a lot of the curriculum design.
I’ve come in from the entrepreneurial side to help the families and as well come from the expat and international side. I’ve been an expat. I’ve been living overseas for over 21 years straight now. And this is something that I actually had to develop for my family. I have two children, and I come from a homeschooling background. I did not want my kids to go to traditional education or public education. And when I met Michael, when he came on my podcast, he described his ideas as homeschooling or unschooling by professionals. And this really spoke to me, Ladislas. I really enjoyed this, I thought this was a great way to approach it.
So we started discussing things and decided how we’re going to come together to create something to solve a lot of these problems that we discussed at the beginning of this conversation.
LADISLAS MAURICE: So he takes care of the education and you do the marketing?
MIKKEL THORUP: I do marketing, sales, websites, webinars, these types of things. I have a huge audience, so I’m actually bringing this to my audience. I am not a teacher, I don’t pretend to be a teacher, I don’t want to be a teacher. I do help out things, like I work with the kids as a mentor. So I have some teenagers that I work with, and we meet on a weekly basis. And they bounce ideas, they have questions, I’m there to support them. I have an integral part of the school, but I’m not running the classes myself. That is not my place. That is not my strength. And I think that in everything in life, we should always speak to our strengths.
LADISLAS MAURICE: You should probably teach the marketing class (laughing).
MIKKEL THORUP: I could definitely teach the marketing class. I could definitely do that one, yeah.
LADISLAS MAURICE: And your own children, do they attend?
MIKKEL THORUP: So the program, as I said, is from 8 to 19 years old. At the moment, my daughter is five years old, so we have another couple years of homeschooling, then she will be enrolling, for sure. My son is only seven months old, so he’s got a ways to go, for sure. (laughing)
LADISLAS MAURICE: Cool. Fantastic. Great. So if you’re interested in finding out more about the International School, there is a link below (send email to email@example.com), and Mikkel will send you the whole information package as well as the price list depending on ages, correct?
MIKKEL THORUP: Yeah, and depending on the accredited or non-accredited program we have. It’s dependent if you pay on a one-time payment, we have payment plans, we have different things like this. We’re really flexible all around with the program to try to accommodate the families.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Great. And then Mikkel also has a very good podcast called The Expat Money Show, the link is below.
MIKKEL THORUP: Yes. And Ladislas was a guest on my show, probably two or three years ago, probably two years ago at this point. You guys should go check out that episode. It was a good one.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Cool. All right, Mikkel.
MIKKEL THORUP: Thanks very much.
LADISLAS MAURICE: Thank you.