The U.S. School System

The U.S. school education system is typically divided into three levels: 

  • Elementary school: Grades Kindergarten (“K”)–5, age 5-10
  • Middle, or junior high school: Grades 6–8, age 10-13
  • High school: Grades 9–12, age 13-17

Typically, elementary, middle and high schools are completely separate – they are located in separate buildings, have separate teachers and when students go from one level to the next, they get into a new class.

For administrative purposes, schools are organized in “school districts” – often one per city. Each school district has a website with the list of schools in the area it serves. On that website, you can find which school is assigned to your residential address and start the enrollment process. Most public schools accept primarily children who live within their school district, and will ask for a proof of residency in the area upon enrollment.  There may be several public schools available in your neighborhood, in which case the school district may place children in these schools based on a lottery system. 

Unfortunately, not all public schools are great. Neighborhoods with good public schools are in high demand and thus are typically more expensive to live in. If you have school-aged children, before moving into a neighborhood, check the ratings of public schools in it – for example, via website

If your public school is not great

If you are not satisfied with the public school assigned to your neighborhood, you have a couple of options:

Transfer through the Open Enrollment program

Many school districts and individual schools participate in the Open Enrollment program which allows certain children to transfer to another school in the same or another district. The terms of the Open Enrollment program vary from state to state and from district to district, and the capacity of better-quality schools may be limited. See for more information and a summary of the program in each state.

Charter Schools

Another option may be a charter school. Charter schools are free schools funded by the state, but the tuition program in these schools is not mandated by the school district. Rather, it is established by the school’s own self-appointed board. Charter schools have more flexibility in curriculum, teaching staff and other aspects of their management. Charter schools are open to all students and are not tied to your residence address, although they may give preference to students residing in their geographical area. Good charter schools that are in high demand admit students based on a lottery system.

Video about selecting a public school (in Russian)

Your Child’s Right to Public Education

In the U.S., all children regardless of the immigration status can attend public schools for free and participate in all school activities.

Things a school district can or cannot ask:

  • A school district cannot ask a student or a family about their immigration status.
  • A school district may require proof of residency in the district, such as utility bills, lease agreements, or an affidavit, but cannot require documents that would unlawfully bar or discourage an undocumented student or a student with undocumented parents.
  • A school district may request proof of age (this does not have to be a birth certificate) or prior school records. A school district may not bar a student from enrolling on the grounds of failing to present the birth certificate.
  • Providing a social security number for school enrollment is also optional.
  • Homeless children do not have to provide proof of residency; a school district must immediately enroll the child even if she or he doesn’t have the documents usually required.

In addition to free education, many public schools offer free or discounted lunches and sometimes even breakfasts as part of the National School Lunch Program. Please inquire in your local school district for more information. Qualification for school lunches within the National School Lunch Program is based on income and not on immigration status.

Grade Placement

The school may test your child’s level of knowledge and/or English language to determine what grade the child should be placed in. If you disagree with the placement the school has determined, speak to the principal or the school staff and ask for the reasoning behind their decision. Explain why you believe the placement is wrong – if they agree with you, they may change it.

In middle and high school, the “class” is fluid because each child can elect which subjects he or she wants to study. Subjects may be taught at a different level of difficulty – from the easiest classes labeled as “Basic” or “Inclusion” to advanced classes labeled “Honors,” “Advanced Placement – AP,” or “International Baccalaureate – IB” that are meant to prepare students for college.

English Lessons

All public schools offer English as a Second Language (ESL) lessons for children who are not native English speakers. In an elementary school, if there are many such students, they can be placed in a dedicated ESL class. If your child is in middle or high school, he or she will be offered ESL lessons in addition to the subjects the child elects to study.​

Studying in a mixed class with supplemental ESL lessons will likely allow your child to learn language faster by socializing with native speakers than being in an ESL class where no one is a native speaker.

Children with Special Needs

In the U.S., children with physical and mental disabilities have an opportunity to attend public school with the rest of the kids. The school will provide additional accommodations required by the child’s condition. This allows special children to socialize with their peers, feel included, and keep up with the rest of the class.

The school may address a variety of the child’s special needs, such as deafness, cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other conditions. The school will create a so-called “504 plan” for the student setting out accommodations the student needs to participate in the education process. The accommodations may include, for example, allowing the student to take a test in a separate, quieter environment, listen to an audiobook instead of a textbook, or receive extra time for homework. 

If the student needs a specialized educаtion plan, the school will create an individualized education program (IEP) for the student. The student will attend classes, but will be curated by a special education teacher trained to work with children who have special needs.

Immunization Requirements

Public and charter schools can require your child to be vaccinated with the standard set of vaccines in order to attend school. The laws vary state by state. Some, but not all, states allow exemptions from this rule on the basis of religious and/or personal beliefs. California does not have such exemptions. See the state-by state chart for more information.

Video about school vaccination requirements (California) (in Russian)


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