The U.S. School System

In the U.S., school attendance is mandatory for all school-aged children. The U.S. school education system is 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. 

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. The school district may not ask a student or his/her family about their immigration status. Nor can the school district demand a child’s social security number. Undocumented children have the same right to public education as U.S. citizens.

A school district may require proof of residency in the district, such as utility bills, lease agreement, or an affidavit that the child resides at his/her address.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act
Children who share housing with another family, or who live in motels, hotels, trailers or shelters are entitled to special protections of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The school district must enroll such students in school even if they lack immunization records or proof of residency. The school must provide transportation to allow the student to continue attending school far from their current place of stay. The school may also provide additional academic support and school supplies.

If you are staying in a temporary housing or with your supporter, inform the school district of your living situation and ask for accommodations for your children under the McKinney-Vento Act.

A school district may request proof of age (this does not have to be a birth certificate) or prior school records, but the school district may not bar a student from enrolling on the grounds of not having these documents.

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.

Enrolling Your Child in School

To enroll your child, start by visiting school district website. If you know which public school is assigned to your residence address, you can also enroll the child in that school. Sometimes, the assigned school may not have capacity to accept new students, in which case the district will assign your child to a different school.

School Transportation
Not all schools provide transportation for children. Some schools provide transportation only for children living farther than certain distance (e.g. more than 1.5 miles away). Be prepared to bring your child to school by car. If you do not have a car and the school your child is assigned to is too far from home, discuss this issue with the school district and ask it to make an exception or transfer your child to a closer school.

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 websites or

If your public school is not great

If you are not satisfied with the public school assigned to your neighborhood, you have a few 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 and Magnet 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.

Magnet schools are state schools that have a focused curriculum, such as science and math, the arts or world languages. Magnet schools are similar to charter schools in that they are free of charge and not tied to the residence address. They typically admit students via lottery and may require an entrance exam, interview or audition.

Move to another neighborhood

Sometimes, the easiest solution is to move to another neighborhood with a better school. Neighborhoods with good schools are typically more expensive to live it.

Video about selecting a public school (in Russian)

Immunization Requirements

Public, magnet and charter schools can require your child to be vaccinated with the standard set of vaccines in order to attend school. See the CDC website for school vaccination requirements 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.

Grade Placement

The school will place your child in a specific grade according to the child’s age. Do not stress if the child is placed in the same grade which the child has already completed in Ukraine or Europe. Being around children of the same age and having an easy curriculum at first will allow the child to socialize faster and improve his or her English skills without getting behind in class.

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.

American curriculum and approach to education differ from Ukrainian. In elementary school, the curriculum is fairly easy, and the focus is on teaching children to socialize in class and making school an enjoyable experience.

In middle and high school, the curriculum becomes more challenging. 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.
School enrollment and immunization

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.


Nova Ukraine has partnered with Computers2Kids to offer discounted computers for Ukrainian refugees.