Education in the US: challenges and choices

For a family moving to the US, finding the right school in their new location is easier said than done – particularly since there are so many choices to be made.

By Martin Lenders for the U.S. Census Bureau (the U.S. Census Bureau Photo Services) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For a family moving to the US, finding the right school in their new location is easier said than done – particularly since there are so many choices to be made. Peggy Love, of Cleveland-based Dwellworks, gives Re:locate readers the inside track.In the US, there are public (state) schools, private (independent) schools, charter schools, magnet schools, religious schools, international schools, schools that offer different country diplomas, and schools that teach the International Baccalaureate (IB). The list goes on and on!In addition, there may be different programmes available within a school, such as ‘gifted and talented’ schemes, English as a Second Language (ESL), and special needs support.What makes life more complicated for relocating families is that, although there are federal guidelines concerning education, there is no national curriculum, as there is in England. Curriculum content is decided at state and district levels, which leads to huge variations in quality.Some cities have schools that follow the curriculum of a particular country. Students who graduate from these schools can go to university in those countries easily. For instance, German, French and British schools are found throughout the US.Parents would be well advised to do due diligence when seeking an ‘international’ school. The word ‘international’ can mean many things. Sometimes, a school just wants to have ‘international’ in its name.All these factors add to confusion for parents and can hinder the relocation process. A professional education consultant with knowledge and experience specific to the local education system can explain the different types of school and the differences between the US curriculum and the curriculum of an assignee’s home country, talk about cultural differences, class size, parental involvement, how to navigate the system, and how to approach the schools, and identify the best educational fit for each child.The curriculum is usually an issue for older children who may want to go to university in their home country. This is where education repatriation issues are paramount and need to be addressed.Often, it is not easy to find a solution. The IB is not necessarily the answer for all children, even though it is transferable and international.To help you advise your assignees, here are answers to some of the questions relocating families most often ask about the US education system, from Dwellworks’ director of education services, Alex Ruttenberg.Q. Are there IB programmes in both public and private schools in the US?
A. Yes, but the IB in public schools is very state dependent. Even though the IB is growing rapidly in the US, some states are more supportive of the programme than others. Some require extra courses that are not necessarily part of the IB curriculum.Q. What is your recommendation for a non-Englishspeaking child coming to the US?
A. As far as private schools are concerned, the older the child, the less likely a school will be to accommodate a child without English. This is mainly because of required tests. Sometimes, a private school will accommodate a young child with no English. The best solution for non-English speakers is a public school. By law, all public schools must provide ESL.Q. What would you advise parents to look for when visiting a private school?
A. Private schools are welcoming, but getting the inside scoop is not easy. Families often want to visit in the summer, when students are not there. See a school in actionif possible. Parents should ask themselves some questions. Does the teaching style work for you? How does the teacher interact with the students? What are the facilities like?Q. What advice would you give those visiting a public school?
A. Public schools will usually welcome the child, but may not have the personnel to take a family around for a tour. If a school is not user friendly, cross it off your list. In some large metropolitan areas with large schools, it may be harder to have a one-on-one visit. In smaller areas, schools are often more open to visits. Whether large or small, some important points should be covered. Ask about classroom size. Does the school have the programmes that the family is looking for?Q. Are tests required for entrance to US schools?
A. If a child speaks English, private schools will probably require a formal test, depending on the child’s age. There are two national private-school tests in the US. They are occasionally administered at overseas locations. For public schools (except magnet schools), there are no entrance exams.Q. Are extra-curricular activities part of the system?
A. Social and extra-curricular activities are considered part of a child’s education. Often, they take place before or after school.Q. How does it work when a child is coming from another country and may have started school earlier than he or she would have in the US?
A. It is very important for the HR adviser, and anyone else who has an initial consultation with the transferee, to get the birth dates of all the relocating children. Each state in the US mandates start dates. Public schools follow the dates, with no exceptions. Private schools set their own start dates. If a child has started school in another country, sometimes the school in the US will make an exception, but only with proof that the child has done the grade in another country. If the school makes the exception and puts a child in the grade ahead, it reserves the right to put the child back if necessary. Those decisions are usually made by the principal.Q. How do US schools handle children with special needs? A. In the US, if a family is choosing a private school, the school will be very clear about what it can handle. A private school is not required to take a child with special needs. Public schools are required by law to accept and serve all children with special needs.In summary, the US education system is complex and offers a variety of choices. Families should consider carefully how they make the critical decisions about the education of their children.

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