What is public school?

What do I need to do to have my children go to public school in the United States?

You can help your child get a good education in the United States through public school.
You can help your child get a good education in the United States through public school.

Public School is free school available to all children in the United States. Many refugees say that helping their children get a good education is one of their main goals after resettlement. We hope this page will help you achieve that goal.

How do I start my child in public school?

To start your child at school in the United States, you have to enroll them at the school. Normally, your caseworker will help you enroll your children in school. The paperwork and process is different between school districts. A school district website is a great place to start the process. The school district website will tell you all the steps required. Neighbors can help you learn the school district or the website.

What are the eligibility requirements?

For most public schools, this is strictly based on age. The year your child was born will determine which school. (See “Schools by age” for more information.) Which school do we attend?

Usually, this is decided by age and the place where you live. The school district website is a great tool for this. If you cannot find the information on the website, call the school district office. You will need to know your address.

What paperwork do we need to enroll?

The necessary paperwork might include:

  • Proof of residency in the school district. Examples of proof of residency are a signed apartment lease, a bank statement, or a utility bill with an address. This is to show that you leave in a neighborhood where the school enrolls children.
  • Proof of age. For example, a birth certificate or passport with your child’s birthday.
  • Immunizations or other health records.
  • The school district may require a meeting with school administrators to get the student fully enrolled.
  • Each school district may have its own new student registration form. Find the form on the school district website. You can also go to the school and ask to talk to the school secretary.

When do I enroll my student?

You may get mail from the school district that tells you when to enroll. You can call or visit the school in July or the beginning of August. Most schools in the US begin at the end of the summer or early fall, in August or September. If you are enrolling in a school in the middle of the school year, start the enrollment process right away.

What types of schools are there?

Early childhood education

Early education is a term used to talk about young children being exposed to education. Even when your child is a baby, it is important to help read to them, sing with them and help them learn both your first language and English. There is research that shows children who are bilingual, speaking two or more languages, have more advantages than children who speak only one language. Early childhood education centers and daycare centers are available for infants through children age four or five.


Preschool helps children (ages three and four) develop. It helps them be ready for school at age five or six. One option for preschool is called Head Start. Preschool-aged children from low-income families can attend Head Start programs. Head Start is a low-cost preschool run by the government. You can search for a Head Start program near you.

Elementary school

Children usually begin elementary school with kindergarten (K) at age five and continue through grade five or six. They leave elementary school around age ten or eleven.  Children learn many subjects from one teacher in a single classroom.

Middle school (also called junior high school)

Middle school teaches students grades six through eight. They are around ages ten to 14. Middle school students usually switch from classroom to classroom. They may have many different teachers in one school day.

High school

Students attend high school between the ages of 14 and usually 17 or 18. The classes are arranged by subjects. A student may have many teachers in one day.  Some students can take advanced classes. Some students can take classes that prepare them for work or for college.  High schools have clubs, activities, sports, work-study arrangements, and other activities.

Who teaches at schools?

People you might meet at the school:


Teachers are the people directly responsible for educating students. They lead learning activities in classrooms. In the US, families show respect for teachers by working with the teachers to educate and support their children.


In many schools, aides help teachers in their classrooms. Some classrooms have multiple aides and some have none, depending on the needs of students within the classroom. Aides might help a student who is learning English. Aides might help small groups of students complete their work.


The principal is the head administrator at a school. The principal is responsible for overseeing all the teachers in the school building. The principal is the leader of the teachers. The principal does not teach students. Instead, the principal helps the teachers, helps with discipline, and leads the school.  In big schools, there are also vice principals. Vice principals help the principal. In the US, if a parent has trouble with a teacher, the parent usually talks to the principal.


School counselors help students’ academic, personal, social, and career development needs. School counselors lead programs that help students succeed in school. Counselors can be very helpful for refugee families. Counselors can help your student adjust to their new school. Counselors might know about special programs for refugee students. Counselors sometimes also help with mental and physical healthcare. A counselor is a good person to talk to at the school if you think your student might need extra help.


Nurses work in schools to keep students safe and healthy.  If a student is feeling sick, the teacher might send them to the nurse. If the student is sick, the nurse decides to send them home until they feel better. In the US, taking care of students’ mental health is an important part of going to school. Sometimes, students have a hard time in class because they are having a hard time adjusting to life in the US. They might need extra help because coming to the US from a different country is very hard. Nurses can help support students who are having difficulty adjusting.


The school secretary helps the principal and often works in the front office of the school building. When you come to your child’s school, you may need to sign a paper to check in. This helps keep students safe. The secretary will help you sign in. The secretary can show you where to go. If you need help signing up for school, the secretary helps. Some schools require you to sign a paper to take your child home from school early. The secretary will help you sign your child out. This is to keep your child safe. They can only go home with a trusted adult.


The superintendent leads many principals and schools. Superintendents lead decisions on policy, curriculum (what the students learn in classrooms), and district rules. Because superintendents work with many schools, they might not be in the same school building as your child.

How will the school decide what grade to place my child in?

Placement means deciding what grade level your student is in.

Many refugee students may have missed school while they were in camp or fleeing their country. They may be at different grade levels than a typical American student of the same age. Some students might be at a high grade level but do not speak English yet. Those students may have trouble in harder classes until they learn English better. Schools in the US sometimes place students in the wrong grades.

How will schools place my student?

Students may take some tests before the start of the school year or at the very beginning of the school year. The tests might be written. They might have an adult read questions to a student. It is different for every school district.

If you think your child is placed in the wrong grade, you can talk to the teacher, principal, or the school staff who tested and placed your child. Explain why you think the placement is wrong. Ask, “What was your reasoning?” The school can help you understand their decision. They may be able to change the placement if they agree with your reasons.

How does the school decide which class level my student takes?

Middle and high schools have classes that are taught at different levels. Some are harder and some are easier. The names of the courses sometimes describe the level of difficulty. The words change depending on the school district.

Descriptions for classes that are easier or use easier English levels:

  • Inclusion
  • Basic Skills

Descriptions for classes at a typical level for the grade:

  • Regular
  • Non-honors

Descriptions for classes at a higher or advanced level:

  • Honors
  • GTE (Gifted and Talented Education)
  • Advanced Placement (AP)
  • IB (International Baccalaureate)

The school can place students in different levels. There are many reasons the school chooses the level.

These are common reasons:

  • How well the student understands, or their scores
  • Parent/guardian recommendations
  • Standardized test scores, as appropriate
  • Willingness to complete challenging assignments
  • Student interest or motivation
  • Teacher or counselor recommendation
  • Samples of student work

Do my children have to attend school?

School attendance is required for students in the United States between the ages of six and 16. In some states, the ages might be different by one or two years. Also, regular attendance is very important for your student. Schools keep track of attendance. You can get in trouble with the law if your student misses too many days of school. You will get many warnings if your student starts to miss too many days. The exact number is different for different school districts.

An absence is when you are missing from school. Most schools have two types of absences. The two types are excused absences and unexcused absences.

Excused absences can include:

  • Sickness
  • Religious holiday
  • Suspension, a disciplinary action taken against a student showing unacceptable behavior
  • Dangerous weather conditions where you can’t get to school safely
  • Lack of authorized transportation (for example, if the bus does not show up)
  • Death in the immediate family
  • Permission from the principal
  • Visit to a college campus
  • Work, if part of an approved cooperative education program
  • Participation in short-term or full-time work
  • School sports team game or competition
  • School-sponsored club or activity special event

Unexcused absences can include

  • Missing school without telling the school in advance
  • Skipping (not going to) a class
  • Being late to school. Being late is also called a tardy. Tardies can be excused and unexcused. Excused tardies have the same list as excused absences.

The student is always responsible for making up all work he or she missed. You, or a parent or guardian, are responsible for telling the school the reason for the absence. Tell the school by calling the office or attendance office, or by writing and signing a note to the teacher, secretary, or principal. If you know your child will miss school ahead of time, it is better to tell the school before. Sometimes, the absence is unexpected. That is okay. Call the school in the morning or the next day.

What do my children need for school?

What do my children need for school?Students usually have to bring supplies, or tools, to school with them. The school district website, the school website, or the classroom teacher will have a list. The list can be different for different grades.

Notebook paper and pencils or pens are usually required. A three-ring binder or folders to hold papers are also helpful.

School supplies can get expensive. The simplest paper, pencils, and pens work. You do not need to buy the most popular or fanciest. Sometimes, teachers or schools have extra supplies and can provide them if you need. Schools or community or religious organizations sometimes give away school supplies. Search for school supply help a couple of weeks before school starts. Most of the giveaways will be right before the school year starts.

How will my children get to school?

School busMost school districts provide transportation to get to school. If you live close to the school, the school might expect that you can walk or ride a bike. The school district website will have information on busing and transportation. It will tell you where to wait for the bus and what time the bus will be at the stop. Contact the school secretary about transportation information.

School districts consider transportation a student privilege, not a student right. The privilege can be taken away if students are not behaving properly. Riding the school bus requires the same behavior as being in school.

What are immunizations?

Immunizations are shots that children in the United States are normally required to have to go to school. These requirements vary by school district. They are sometimes ruled by state laws. Your child needs to have all the required immunizations or needs to have a waiver showing why they do not have them. Records of immunizations are usually required for enrolling a student or when they start school.

What will my children eat at school?

Public and private schools offer low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. This is a federally funded program called the National School Lunch Program. The amount of money a household earns determines whether a student qualifies to receive a free lunch, reduced-cost lunch, or neither. Some school districts send information home about the National School Lunch Program. Ask the school secretary for more information.

Some schools provide breakfasts as a part of this program. Some schools provide food to students in low-income families for the weekend, school breaks, or summer vacation. The school secretary can talk to you about free and reduced lunches. Or, the school secretary will help you find the person who can help you.

What activities can my child do at school?

Schools in the US do more than provide classes. Schools offer other opportunities, like field trips, extra-curricular activities, events, after-school programs, and summer camps. These can help your student make friends. The opportunities can help your student feel welcome at the school. This means they can help your student succeed at school!

Tutoring support

Tutoring helps students. An adult, teacher, or another student may be able to tutor a student. Your student may be able to tutor other students, too. Some schools have programs after school or during certain classes for students to receive tutoring.

Individuals and private companies also tutor. Tutors are typically available for any subject matter. Private tutoring usually happens after school and will cost money. You may also be able to find free tutoring help for your student from a local program at a nearby organization, religious community, or after-school program. There may be organizations just for helping refugees and other newcomer students. Your school office may have a list of private tutors and free tutoring nearby.

Does my child have to go to public school? What is private school?

There are other types of schools in the United States besides public schools. There are private schools that students must pay to attend. Many private schools are managed by churches or religious organizations. Each private school has different costs. They also may have different rules.

Another type of school is a charter school. Charter schools meet the same academic and legal requirements as traditional public schools, but they have different operators than public schools, which are operated by the government. Charter schools do not have to follow some of the constraints that public schools must follow. Charter schools are free. Usually you apply to enroll, and sometimes they have a waiting list.

Home schooling is another method of education. Home-schooled students are taught at home by their parents. There are rules in every state about home schooling. The parent is responsible for knowing the state’s rules for home schooling and for making sure the rules are followed.

More Resources

What is public school required to do for me and my children?

Read about the rights you and your student have in schools in America.

Welcoming and Orienting Newcomer Students to U.S. Schools
A newsletter about the challenges of adapting to US schools.

Back to School: Challenges and Strengths of Refugee Students
A newsletter about differences between US students and refugee students.

Parent Notes
A list of notes to help parents communicate with teachers.

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