Choosing the right school in the US – tips for expats

Moving to another continent is not something one does every day, therefore, it should be carefully planned. It is never too early to start the preparation process. Yes, there are a million things to think about before moving from Europe to America,  and one of them is choosing the right school in the US. But don’t let that overwhelm you. In the era of modern technology, every little piece of information is just a few seconds away. So, start searching on time. These are the most important things to consider before moving:

  • Finding a suitable house/apartment for your family;
  • Getting a job to support your family;
  • Choosing the right school in the US.

If you have school-age children, the earlier you start searching for their new school, the better. Choosing the right school in the US will ease the transition and help them adjust to the new environment.

Choosing the right school in the US - tips for expats
Choosing the right school in the US is a big responsibility

Get to know the American schooling system before finding the right US school

The US education system is decentralized, unlike most systems in Europe. This means that the federal government and the Department of Education are not in charge of creating curricula and setting educational standards. The state and local school districts are the ones in charge, which gives them a lot of freedom. This could be the reason why districts and schools vary greatly in quality.

The system is divided into 3 levels (12 grades total):

  • Elementary school (age 5-10)
  • Middle school or junior high (age 11-13)
  • High school (age 14-17/18)

Think about the budget – private vs public schools


There is a wide choice of private schools, especially in big cities, for both Americans and expats. If you can afford to pay a high fee, this is a very good option. Even though the choice is wide, these schools often have long waiting lists, which brings us back to planning ahead. Private and magnet schools are often located in areas where public schools are not the best. There are not many private boarding schools in America and most of them are located in the Northeast. However, they are very good schools with great college admission track records.

International schools are popular among expats from Europe and other continents. They offer the International Baccalaureate – a qualification recognized in international schools across the globe. This will come in handy in case you decide to move again.

Public (state schools)

Choosing the right school in the US
Public schools have their own school buses

A public school may also be an excellent choice, not only because they are free but also because many of them are highly achieving. But be careful – some of them are not doing well. Children of expats have a right to attend their local state school. In rich areas, these schools have better facilities, since they are funded by property tax.

Location is important but not crucial

Obviously, the closer the better. This rule applies to anything – your workplace, grocery store, hospital or school. However, sometimes a longer commute can be worth it because quality should come first. If there are no good schools in your new neighborhood, you should opt for another neighborhood or another school. Not everything has to be within walking distance. Some schools offer their school buses, but if they don’t, someone will have to drive your children to school or show them how to use public transportation.

Get to know individual schools before choosing the right school in the US

Once you’ve narrowed your choice, get to know the potential schools better. See if the school has its official website, Facebook or Twitter account. Join Internet forums and consult other parents, especially expats. Contact the principals, teachers and students and ask them to share their experiences. Your child could even have pen pals from the chosen school before moving to the US. You are basically invited to visit potential schools before choosing the right one, since most schools have open days for new students.

Choosing the right school in the US - tips for expats
Start thinking about college on time

Try to find information on how well the school is doing before choosing the right school in the US. School report cards are released annually in each state by the Department of Education, and every school is included. Testing in mathematics, arts and language for public school students is compulsory all states. Since the results are public, you can easily compare different schools. Bear in mind that each state has its own criteria. If your high school student is moving to the US, it is time to start thinking about further education. Some states publish reports on high school graduation rates. Lists of colleges that offered admission to graduating classes in previous years are available on school district websites.

Overcome the language barrier

Being fluent in English is definitely a huge advantage when moving to the US, but what if your child does not speak the language well? No worries because he/she is not the only one. Public schools provide different options for overcoming the language barrier:

  • additional English lessons that can be attended during regular classes;
  • separate bilingual classrooms for students with the same mother tongue;
  • after-school tutoring in English;
  • translation services for meetings with parents who do not speak English.

Application and enrollment

If your child reaches school age after moving to the US, the application procedure is usually the same as for any other resident. In case your child has already reached school age, as an expat, you can apply to attend the school at any time during the school year. Nevertheless, there could be an entrance test designed to determine the student’s level, no matter how young the student is. Gather the information regarding these tests on time and start practicing. Various helpful mock tests can be found online.

School plays such a big role in children’s lives. It provides the skills and knowledge necessary for a future career, develops their social skills and shapes them as individuals, which is why making the right choice is of great importance. One mistake could have irreparable consequences. Changing schools is not easy for most students, especially the introverts, but changing countries as well could be extremely stressful. Therefore, be extra careful because choosing the right school in the US will definitely help your child cope with this potentially difficult period. In conclusion: always plan ahead, do your research, talk to other expat families and most importantly ask for your children’s opinion.

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