Understanding the American school system

One of the biggest headaches for expat parents would have to be navigating the American school system. Working out how the American school system works, where’s best to enroll your child and get them settled in.

As a childless and fancy-free expat I have zero experience in this sector of expat life. Enter Aussie expat Mum, blogger and all-round glamorous LA-dweller Gwen. She’s been through it all before, so I asked her to impart some of her experience. You can check out more of her funny and sometimes surreal LA experiences on her blog It Started in LA.

Over to you Gwen:

Understanding schools can be difficult at the best of times. When you haven’t gone through school in that country, and it seems so foreign to anything you know and understand then you can very easily get overwhelmed.

School in the US is nothing like it is on TV or in the movies. But in the same breath, it sort of is. And the difference essentially comes down to Public versus Private school.

The lifecycle of a kid going to school

In general the evolution goes a little something like this:

  •  Preschool
  • Elementary School
  • Middle School
  • High School.

Let’s start at Elementary School – Otherwise known as Primary School in Australia. You start school when you’re five and go through to 5th Grade (Year Five) or 6th Grade (Year Six). This is where it gets a little tricky.

Elementary School used to go through to Year 6. Some schools go to Year Seven, others even Year Eight. The “typical” evolution of our school child would see them “graduate” Elementary School at 6th Grade for public school and 5th Grade in many Private schools and move onto their local Middle School.

In the public system a number of Elementary Schools feed into one Middle School. Middle School goes from 6th Grade (Year Six) to 8th Grade (Year Eight).

There may be some kids that don’t actually move schools to go to Middle School—they might stay at their Elementary School that has a Middle School campus. This is usually a matter of choice—make the break to Middle School or stay at the same school where the class sizes tend to get smaller for Years 7 & 8.

Similarly once Middle School is done, a number of Middle Schools feed into one gigantuous High School. High School starts at Year 9 and goes all the way through to Year 12.

Public Schools

Where you live will dictate which public Elementary School you go to: it’s as simple as that. Because of this, houses in some areas (where the school has a good reputation) are harder to buy into and more expensive than other areas.

When we were looking for a house we heard the public schools in the Santa Monica area were good. But, finding a house in that area (in exactly the right streets that fed into a particular school) was nearly impossible. We worked out that it was practically cheaper to pay for private school than the extra rent each month.

Pretty much what I described above refer to the lifecycle of a child going through public schools.

Sidebar – Public schools are “free” to local tax payers. Let me tell you it is absolutely NOT free. When you get your property tax for your house (like our rates but much, much more) it actually lists the amount of money you pay for the local schools. Similarly for the community colleges.

Unlike in Australia, landlords tend to pass their property tax bill onto their tenants (which probably explains the exorbitant rent here in LA and in San Francisco). So regardless of whether you rent or own a house you are paying for that local school.

Charter Schools

Charter Schools are a bit like a semi-private school. They are privately run but they still come under the domain of the government body as they are still funded by them and, as such, are accountable to them. Charter Schools can’t discriminate much, like a public school, but there is usually big competition for these schools and so you need to undergo a separate application process.

Charters are usually very popular because parents are required to fundraise to “prop up” the schools’ budget so they have better resources than most public schools.

Private Schools

When we found out we were moving to LA my first thought was, “Beauty, no more private school fees. We’re going to save a small fortune.” (It may also be true that I may have spent that money in my head already). But actually they have private schools in the US. And it’s more common than you think.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about private schools in the US is they are usually and most commonly referred to, or known as, College Preparatory schools. Private schools entice new families to their school by their record at getting their students into the best Colleges in the country.

So marketing materials put out by schools are often what clubs they offer (so it looks good on your College application), what their average GPA is, how many kids are in the National Honor Society and (like I said) which Colleges have accepted past students.

So, with smaller classes and more attention comes quite a bit of added pressure.

Funding for private schools

Private schools are 100 per cent paid for by the school community. There is absolutely no funding from the State or Federal Government. This makes private schools quite an expensive venture—in some cases more than College.

Standardised Tests

If you’re looking at private schools for your child then you’ll most likely have to sit a standardized test. The most common one is the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) but the Catholic schools have their own test.

The ISEE is big business. You have a network of tutors available (at a hefty fee) to tutor your child, books written and printed to help get you through the test and of course the test itself which costs money to sit. (We’re thankful we thought this was a formality rather than huge business when our kids sat through this. And yes, it can be taken in Australia and other parts of the world.)

Funny names for high school grade levels

Let’s end on a less stressful note shall we? Once you get to High School they rarely call the grades 9, 10, 11 & 12. Why the need to call them a different name? Well they do. So here goes:

  • 9th Grade/Year 9 Freshmen
  • 10th Grade/Year 10 Sophomores
  • 11th Grade/Year 11 Juniors
  • 12th Grade/Year 12 Seniors

When you finish being a “Senior” at High School you start all over again to be a Freshmen at College. And yes, the American College system is a four-year program. That’s so they can make more money.

Schools in the US

US high schools aren’t all like they are on TV or the Breakfast Club/Sixteen Candles/Ferris Bueller/90210.

Many Charter and Private schools are much smaller than the big high schools. Our kids aren’t getting the “ra-ra” high school experience. But. They’re not doing too badly. The choice you make might well depend on where you land in this vast country. And the choices you end up with.


There are many resources to help you. First and foremost there is the Great Schools Website. It ranks every school in your area. This ranking shows up on all the Real Estate sites so when you’re looking at renting or buying a house you know what your school choices are in the area. And how they rank.

Here are a couple of books you might also be interested in:

And then there’s “College”. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Good luck!

xx It Started in LA xx

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12 thoughts on “Understanding the American school system

  1. Thanks for sharing – we are on the Peninsula and starting to think about school for our 2.5 year old. This was really a helpful read! Schools in the 'best' districts also come with rents upwards of an entire salary a month, so not sure what we are going to do!

  2. I always wondered what those funny names like sophomore and freshman were for and now I know. I thought Australian public schools were a bit steep, having to buy your own supplies and all but can't believe that the community has to foot the bill for the public schools stateside. In the UK public means free – you really don't have to pay a penny!

  3. Education system is different in every part of the world. Understanding every side of the educational system is very important. Your blog has given me a good insight on education in america.

  4. Mr M uses them all of the time for high school and college and I just nod and smile like I totally know what he's talking about, then quickly change the subject.
    Haha, I guess that nothing in the US is free. It's a lesson you learn early!

  5. This was interesting to read from the perspective of an American who grew up with the US school system but has also experienced the school system in the UK. I will say that what is written here is generally true but it depends SO much on location. Between Michigan and Massachusetts the public school system was structured differently in terms of both what was taught at which grade level and the grades in each school (there was a school just for grade 5 & 6). I can imagine that in LA the public schools aren't as nice as the private schools because of already existing economic inequalities that then exacerbate that divide. Where I went to school in Michigan the public schools were MUCH better than the local private schools – partially because there are many regulations on public schools (teachers must have an education qualification, for example), which don't exist for private schools (I have friends who got jobs teaching in private schools with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever). So the divide is really not as simple as either-or. As for charter schools, that is a whole other debate and the main reason behind the intense opposition to Betsy de Vos as education secretary. Charter schools also have less performance requirements and so actually, in many cases, fail or are outperformed by public schools. Public schools may not be perfect but they guarantee the education of many children who might be marginalized or at a socioeconomic disadvantage. Anyway, really interesting to read from an expat's perspective, I don't mean to criticize at all but just offer a few more tid bits from the perspective of someone who grew up in the US!

  6. Thanks so much for weighing in Sarah. I like it when people bring different perspectives in and you've got one that we don't, since we're both Aussies and living on the West coast at the moment.
    I guess it really just comes down to where you live and what the system is like in your state. But hopefully this article is a good starting point for people. 🙂

  7. Great post! I know as an American expat parent in the UK, navigating a new school system that you yourself didn’t grow up in is one of the biggest challenges, and the structure can change. When I was growing up, there weren’t middle schools in my state but now they are all the rage. Really helpful and informative.

    1. Thanks Jen, it’s definitely that unfamiliarity with a system that throws you off in the beginning. And you don’t really know what the social norms are either so that can make it tough. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

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