The American school system

Grades, school hours and terms

The American school system is divided into elementary school and secondary school. If you are moving to the US, it is good to be familiar with the general setup of schools when it comes to grade levels, hours, terms and services.

The American school system

Children usually start school in kindergarten or first grade (at age five or six) and complete school after 12th grade (at age 17 or 18). Occasionally, a student must repeat a grade because of prolonged absence or poor grades, although this is rare. The 12 years following kindergarten are usually organised under a ‘5-3-4 plan’ where grades 1 to 5 are elementary (primary) school, grades 6 to 8 are junior high or middle school and grades 9 to 12 are high school. There can be variations on this plan, eg. a 6-3-3 or 6-2-4 plan, but the basic state-decreed curriculum for each grade remains the same. Usually, a student has one teacher for all major subjects during elementary school and a different teacher for each subject during secondary school.

Although in some states a child can legally leave school at 16 (known as dropping out), this is generally discouraged (the job prospects for anyone in the US without a high school diploma are not great) and the vast majority of students stay at high school until 18.

Registration and transportation

At elementary and secondary levels, students usually attend a public school close to their home. If you have a preference for a particular public school or school district, it is usually necessary to buy or rent a property in that area. It’s quite normal for Americans to ask a real estate agent to find them a home in a particular school district. Schools prefer children to start at the beginning of a new term (semester), although this isn’t necessary.

Many towns provide transport to school (buses), although this may only be provided for certain schools or age groups, and may depend on the travel distance to the school, e.g. there may be a bus service only when the distance from home to school is over 2 or 2.5 mi (3 to 5.5km). Some towns provide buses for children in special education only.

School hours and terms

The school year usually runs from early September until May or June (nine months) and is divided into ‘quarters’ or terms (semesters). Most schools use a semester system made up of two sessions: fall (September to December) and spring (January to May). Some schools use the quarter system, which comprises three sessions: fall (September to December), winter (January to March) and spring (March to May or June).

School vacation dates are published by schools well in advance, thus allowing parents plenty of time to schedule family holidays. Normally, parents aren’t permitted to withdraw children from classes, except for visits to a doctor or dentist, when the teacher should be informed in advance whenever possible. 

The school day in elementary and high schools can vary but usually runs from 8 am to 3 pm or 3.30 pm, with an hour for lunch. In high school, students take six one-hour classes or four 90-minute classes (with ten-minute breaks between classes). Extra-curricular activities and sports are scheduled after school hours. 

Health

In most states, school children must be immunised against a range of diseases before starting school. These may include polio, DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis or whooping cough) and MMR (measles, mumps and rubella or German measles). Tuberculin screening may also be necessary. (If your children have been vaccinated against tuberculosis, be sure the school knows this, as they will test positive when screening is performed.) Evidence (in English) of the appropriate inoculations, including exact dates, is required when you apply to a school.

Provisions and meals at school

It’s common for children in elementary school to take a packed lunch to school, although some schools allow children who live close to the school to go home for lunch. Most elementary and secondary schools provide a self-service cafeteria where children may purchase lunch, and some children receive free lunches under local welfare programmes.

High school students are provided with lockers where they can store their books and other possessions. Schools provide bike racks for students who bike to school and high schools also provide student parking lots.

Children usually start school in kindergarten or first grade (at age five or six) and complete school after 12th grade (at age 17 or 18). Occasionally, a student must repeat a grade because of prolonged absence or poor grades, although this is rare. The 12 years following kindergarten are usually organised under a ‘5-3-4 plan’ where grades 1 to 5 are elementary (primary) school, grades 6 to 8 are junior high or middle school and grades 9 to 12 are high school. There can be variations on this plan, eg. a 6-3-3 or 6-2-4 plan, but the basic state-decreed curriculum for each grade remains the same. Usually, a student has one teacher for all major subjects during elementary school and a different teacher for each subject during secondary school.

Although in some states a child can legally leave school at 16 (known as dropping out), this is generally discouraged (the job prospects for anyone in the US without a high school diploma are not great) and the vast majority of students stay at high school until 18.

Registration and transportation

At elementary and secondary levels, students usually attend a public school close to their home. If you have a preference for a particular public school or school district, it is usually necessary to buy or rent a property in that area. It’s quite normal for Americans to ask a real estate agent to find them a home in a particular school district. Schools prefer children to start at the beginning of a new term (semester), although this isn’t necessary.

Many towns provide transport to school (buses), although this may only be provided for certain schools or age groups, and may depend on the travel distance to the school, e.g. there may be a bus service only when the distance from home to school is over 2 or 2.5 mi (3 to 5.5km). Some towns provide buses for children in special education only.

School hours and terms

The school year usually runs from early September until May or June (nine months) and is divided into ‘quarters’ or terms (semesters). Most schools use a semester system made up of two sessions: fall (September to December) and spring (January to May). Some schools use the quarter system, which comprises three sessions: fall (September to December), winter (January to March) and spring (March to May or June).

School vacation dates are published by schools well in advance, thus allowing parents plenty of time to schedule family holidays. Normally, parents aren’t permitted to withdraw children from classes, except for visits to a doctor or dentist, when the teacher should be informed in advance whenever possible. 

The school day in elementary and high schools can vary but usually runs from 8 am to 3 pm or 3.30 pm, with an hour for lunch. In high school, students take six one-hour classes or four 90-minute classes (with ten-minute breaks between classes). Extra-curricular activities and sports are scheduled after school hours. 

Health

In most states, school children must be immunised against a range of diseases before starting school. These may include polio, DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis or whooping cough) and MMR (measles, mumps and rubella or German measles). Tuberculin screening may also be necessary. (If your children have been vaccinated against tuberculosis, be sure the school knows this, as they will test positive when screening is performed.) Evidence (in English) of the appropriate inoculations, including exact dates, is required when you apply to a school.

Provisions and meals at school

It’s common for children in elementary school to take a packed lunch to school, although some schools allow children who live close to the school to go home for lunch. Most elementary and secondary schools provide a self-service cafeteria where children may purchase lunch, and some children receive free lunches under local welfare programmes.

High school students are provided with lockers where they can store their books and other possessions. Schools provide bike racks for students who bike to school and high schools also provide student parking lots.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America.

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