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Public school in the USA: A guide for immigrant parents

All children have a right to free public education in every state in the USA. Learn about public school in the United States. Find helpful information and know what to expect.

What is public school? 

Public schools provide free education to children in the United States. They are paid for by the government with local taxes, state money, and federal resources. 

Any child can attend public school. There are children from all different cultures who speak many different languages in public schools across the USA. You do not have to be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident for your child to go to public school. 

Public school levels

Public schools are split into different grade levels, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Children usually start school around age 5 and finish around age 18.

Elementary School (Ages 5 to 10)
In elementary school, kids learn the basics like reading, writing, and math. 

Middle School (Ages 11 to 13)
Middle school comes after elementary school. Here, kids learn more about math, science, and history, and they also explore other subjects like art and music. They also learn how to study better and organize their work. 

High School (Ages 14 to 18)
High school is where students get ready for their future. They take harder classes in things like math and history. They can also choose classes they are interested in and that help prepares them for college or a job.

States have different rules about what age your child is required by law to be in school.

Enrolling your child

The rules for signing your child up for school can vary depending on where you live. First, you will want to figure out what school serves the neighborhood you live in. You will then need to gather any needed paperwork, such as proof of residence and health records, and contact the school.

Learn more about enrolling your child.

Tips for starting a new school:

  • If your child needs help learning English, ask what help the school offers.  
  • Try to visit the school during events like a welcome day or ask for a tour of the school with your child. 
  • Ask about clubs or sports your child can join. It is a good way to make friends.
If you do not speak English, ask the school if they have an interpreter. There are also apps and tools you can use to help you communicate with your child’s school staff. Learn more


The term “curriculum” refers to the set of subjects and information that is taught in public schools. The curriculum in public schools can vary from one location to another.

Subjects typically include:

  • English language arts: reading, writing
  • Mathematics: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics
  • Science: biology, chemistry, physics, earth science
  • Arts: visual arts, music, performance arts
  • Physical education and fitness
  • Technology and computer science
  • Health: physical and mental health
  • Foreign languages

It is important to note that these can differ based on the grade level, school district, state, and standards in place.


Schools use grades to score a student’s performance in class. Grades can be based on things like class participation, homework, projects, and tests. Grades can show what a student knows. They can help determine if a student can take advanced classes or if they need extra help.

Grades are typically represented with letters (A, B, C, D, F) or numbers (90, 80, 70). ‘A’ is the highest grade and ‘F’ means a student did not pass. 

Some schools use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system as well as a letter grade. A GPA calculates a student’s academic performance over a specific period, such as a semester or academic year. Younger students might get alternatives to grades that simply state if the child is meeting age-level standards.  

Standardized tests

Students in the USA regularly take standardized tests, which are different from the tests they take in their regular classes. Standardized tests are designed in the same way to be given to all schools under the same conditions. They help measure how well both the students and schools are doing.

As your child gets older and considers college, they might also take specialized exams like the SAT or ACT. These tests are important for getting into college.

School meals 

Most schools give you the option of either having a school-provided meal or your child bringing their own food for lunch. You usually have to pay for a school-provided meal. 

Families who do not have the money to pay for meals can get free or lower-cost meals. Some schools also have free breakfast programs for families with low income. You can submit an application to your school or district for review. Reach out to school staff for more information. 

School expenses

U.S. public schools are free for your child to attend but there can still be other costs for families, these may include:

  • School lunch, as mentioned above.
  • School supplies, such as notebooks, pens, and a backpack.
  • Special programs, such as sports or after-school art.
  • Field trips, such as museums and parks. 
  • School uniforms or specific clothes.

Many schools and local organizations offer help to pay for school-related expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask the school office what your options are. They are there to help with things like this.

Student rights and laws

It is important for families new to the United States to know that students have rights within public schools. These rights include:

  • Your child cannot be treated differently because of their race, skin color, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or status.  
  • ​​If your child does not speak English, they have the right to free language assistance. 
  • Your child has the right to free expression and to practice their faith at school, including the right to wear religious clothing. 
  • Your child has the right to privacy. Schools cannot ask about a student’s immigration status.

Children in the U.S. must go to school. It is the law. Parents must make sure their children go to school regularly. If you do not, there may be legal consequences depending on the state you live in.

Learn more about student rights and laws.

Supporting your child

A child’s success at school includes support from their parents and caregivers. Here are a few things you can do to help them do well:

  • Read school emails and check other resources, like the school website, to know what your child is learning and what is happening at the school. 
  • Ask your child’s teacher, school office, and principal questions. Sometimes an email is a good way to give them time to answer.
  • Check in with your child. Ask them about what they are learning and offer help.
  • Be aware of your child’s homework and class expectations.
  • Sign up for school programs for parents.
  • Read and sign parent notices.
  • Review school rules and codes of conduct.

Learn more about supporting your child.


School staff and teachers

There are different school staff to help your child learn and be supported.

  • Teachers are responsible for their daily education.
  • Principals oversee the whole school and deal with issues that go beyond the teacher.
  • Guidance counselors provide both academic and personal support.
  • Front office staff can help with enrollment and general questions.
  • ESL (English as a Second Language) Specialists help English language learners improve their English skills.

Learn more about the role of staff and teachers

Extracurricular activities

Extracurricular activities are special clubs or groups that your child can join at school that are not part of their regular classes. They are usually free and happen before or after school. These activities are a great way for your child to learn new things, make friends, and feel a part of their new community.

Every school is different but some extracurricular activities can include:

  • Sports like soccer or basketball
  • Clubs for different hobbies like chess, drama, or art
  • Student government to help make decisions for the school
  • Community service to help people in your area
  • Academic contests like spelling bees or math challenges
  • Music and arts, like band or theater
  • Working on the school newspaper or yearbook
  • Clubs that celebrate different cultures
  • Programs to learn about leadership

Joining these activities can help your child grow in many ways, not just in school subjects. It is also a great chance to show off different talents and interests when it is time to apply for college or jobs. 

College and career preparation

High schools offer support for students preparing for life after graduation. Guidance counselors can discuss options such as college, vocational schools, and apprenticeships. Schools also provide classes, workshops, and internships to teach practical skills and provide real-life experiences.

Career fairs and college visits expose students to various options. These events help them make more informed decisions. You should start these conversations early and take advantage of available resources. 

School safety

Schools prioritize the safety of everyone. They have plans and drills to know what to do in emergencies, like fires or other dangerous situations. Some schools have security cameras and check IDs to make sure only the right people enter. 

Additionally, the school takes responsibility for addressing issues like bullying among students. It’s important to understand the school’s safety plan and to have conversations with school staff if you have concerns.

Other types of school

There are other options for education besides public school. 

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