Navigating the US School System

Registering my kids in school has probably been the most difficult issue in my relocation from Italy. I was looking for institutions of all levels: elementary, middle and high schools.

The thing is that, for several personal reasons, we were only interested in public schools.

In our country, public schools are more or less equivalent to each SchoolBusother: curricula are designed by the government, teachers are hired nationwide through an open selection and then assigned to different schools, according to the needs of both the district and the teachers themselves. School system is financed by the State and all teachers get the same salary.

Also, all children below 18 years of age, no matter what their or their parents’ immigration status is, MUST attend school and the school cannot refuse to accept them.

We assumed we would find the same regulation here in the US. And theoretically we did, but…

But let’s start from the beginning.

All American schools are rated from 1 to 10, where 10 is the best. (

Silicon Valley has some of the best schools in the US. However, only a few of them are actually rated 10: all the others easily vary from 1 to 9. It was very difficult for us to understand how this could happen. The answer to our questions was always the same: the school’s quality standard depends on parents!

The truth is, California state schools ARE financed by the government. All schools get the same amount of money.

BUT: fundraising is a national commitment in the US! Everybody everywhere asks for money! This is an amazing cultural difference from Europe, where we expect that the government takes care of all public services.

The American school system is strongly based on donations. All schools will be organizing remarkable fundraising events throughout the school year and the more money they make the better equipment, teachers, curricula, fieldtrips, etc. they’ll have.

In order to enroll your children in a certain school, you must be living in that specific district and have a renting or purchasing contract, plus 2 utilities (gas +electricity, garbage, water, cable tv, telephone…)  under your name, BEFORE school starts. If you decide to change home, you’ll have to change school, too!

Of course, the wealthier the population of a certain area, the better the schools and the higher the prices of housing!!

As we were not aware of all these requirements, we were forced into an incredible tour de force to find the schools where we wanted to enroll our children, and consequently the place where we wanted to live. We had to rent or buy a house as fast as we could (which implies getting all documentation, credit history, legal authorization, money, mortgage, the house we liked and utilities BEFORE the deadline for enrollment! We actually managed to buy a house in 40 days, but I would not recommend it! (More on finding housing in my next article) Oh, and all students will need specific vaccinations, too!!!

In case you’re interested, we ended up in Belmont, which is located exactly half way between San Francisco and Palo Alto. It belongs to the Belmont Redwood Shores school district. My children and my husband and I are pretty satisfied with the schools and the community, and I personally dedicate lots of my time volunteering within my children’s schools.

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