Jessica Reed thought she was being proactive when she registered to enroll her daughter Zara at Cayman Prep Primary School four years ago.
“We would have thought since she was registered at 9 months, she’d be in by now,” Ms. Reed, 33, said.
Zara, who recently turned 5 and attends preschool at Discovery Kids, will be attending Island Montessori school in the fall instead. Her mother had also put her on that waiting list.
While it’s not her first choice, Ms. Reed said she is relieved Zara has a spot in one of Grand Cayman’s private schools. She is among a growing group of parents who have been stymied by the lack of space in those schools.
Caymanians are given priority enrollment at the government schools on the island. Expatriates are usually relegated to using one of the private schools, many of which have long waiting lists. Parents can wait years hoping for an opening. As in Ms. Reed’s case, it sometimes never comes.
The anxiety the situation creates in a parent’s daily life is significant, Ms. Reed said.
“If she doesn’t get a place, what do you do?” she asked.
Expats who come to Grand Cayman with school-age children can face even more of a challenge. Some, Ms. Reed said, have to resort to homeschooling their children.
According to the Ministry of Education, there were 103 homeschooled students registered in 2016/17. That number rose by 17 percent to 120 in 2017/18.
Debbie Thompson is a board member of the Private Schools Association of the Cayman Islands. She said schools were not as impacted a few years ago.
“It’s been more of a concern in recent years,” said Ms. Thompson, who has been director of Montessori by the Sea for 16 years. “In the beginning, it was the preschool level that was the concern.”
Now upper grades have also been affected.
Samantha Tibbetts is president of the school association and principal of Hope Academy.
Her own school, she said, is impacted in the high school grades. She agrees that more classroom space is needed.
“I think every school would expand if they could,” Ms. Tibbetts said, “because every school is tight on space and every school is tight on money.”
One school that is expanding is Cayman International School. It plans to build on a 9-acre site next to the existing school. The $45-million project will allow it to increase its enrollment from 630 to 1,100.
“The waitlists and demand for seats is a major factor in this expansion,” said Jeremy Moore, the school’s director. “What the island is missing is extra capacity and programs for students with special needs. At the moment, there’s high demand for the youngest grade levels.”
He expects those classes to fill quickly after the expansion is complete.
“Any new school should look at the early years through grade 5 as the focus of a new facility,” he said.
Student numbers, he said, have increased every year at the school.
Limitations also come into play when parents are seeking a specific type of school structure.
“If you want the U.K. system, it’s pretty limited,” Ms. Thompson said. “You have Cayman Prep and the Catholic school [St. Ignatius]. Cayman Prep always seems to be in huge demand.”
Bonnie Finnigan, 36, came to Cayman in 2012 from England. She has two boys, 5 and 3, and wants them to be at a school that offers the British system, rather than the U.S. or and international structure.
After years of being waitlisted at the two U.K.-system schools, Ms. Finnigan said, her youngest son Jasper was accepted at St. Ignatius. As a consequence, her older son, Thaddeus, received a higher priority and was also admitted.
Ms. Finnigan said she is pleased not to have to deal with the stress of waiting for a school spot.
“It can impact things like talking about your future and your career,” she said. “If we can’t get them into school after the age of 5, do we stay on island? Do we quit work and stay home and homeschool them?”
A former event planner for Dart Enterprises, Ms. Finnigan changed her own career path. She is taking online courses to become a Montessori teacher. Her sons have been attending a Montessori school, one of the few options open to her when Thaddeus was ready for preschool, she said. At that time, he was still on the waiting list at St. Ignatius.
She could have increased his chances of getting into the Catholic school, however.
“They did suggest I have him christened Catholic,” Ms. Finnigan said. “It was something I didn’t feel quite right about morally, but I understand people do it.”
The St. Ignatius admissions policy states that non-Catholic students are welcome at the school, but that they will be placed on a waiting list.
Some schools are proposing to expand. Ms. Thompson said she would like to add another classroom to her Montessori school. Principal Tibbetts said Hope Academy has eventual plans to leave its rented space at Grand Harbour and build its own campus.
Several sources mentioned the much-anticipated opening of Blue Waters Academy. Some parents are already on the proposed-school’s waiting list.
Developer Sue Horrocks said she is hoping to open the doors this fall, but at the moment it is uncertain that will happen.
Until there is more space, parents and school officials say the same thing.
“We encourage people to apply as soon as possible,” said Renee Howell of Triple C Academy. “Last year, we had almost 70 children on our wait list. We’re doing assessments right now for next year.”
Ms. Howell said enrollment at the school is up 34 percent in the past five years.
“The earlier you enroll your student, the better,” she said.