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Schools in the USAWhen looking for good schools in Houston, you are definitely not spoiled for choice. However, good ones do exist and we have been struck by their welcoming and friendly atmospheres.

For the most part there appear to be very few waiting lists for the private schools (though some do have them, and in most of those cases you’d need to have a legacy or a fat wallet to gain entry) so once you have made your decision, the only thing stopping you will be the entry requirements…meet these and you’re in.  

Ages and grades

The first thing to remember is that the school years between the UK and the US systems are slightly out of sync. Compulsory schooling in the UK starts at Reception when children are four (turning five during that school year). In Texas children usually start school the following year in Kindergarten, but they are not required by law to start until they are six (1st Grade).

The Texas Education Code also states that once enrolled in Pre-K or Kindergarten, a child shall attend school. NB American kindergartens emphasise play and social development, and are not nearly as academic iright from the beginning as British schools. Each system comes as a jolt to parents used to the other, but rest assured, in good schools (either system) students do catch up with each other fairly quickly (certainly by, say, age 8). 

The chart below (fig. 1) shows the comparison between the two systems. Both systems allow for the (non-compulsory) preschool option, Nursery in the UK and Pre-K and Kindergarten in the US. Most Preschools (certainly in Houston) will take children as young as 18 months (and some even earlier) to start that all-important preparation for school.  In the British system children are assessed in years 2 and 6 as well as the GCSEs in year 11, and AS and A levels in years 12 and 13.

The Texan system allows for testing every year from 3rd Grade onwards.  Those tests simply show where the child is within age group, school etc but do not count towards passing or failing that year in school. Nor do they culminate in the High School Diploma. That is awarded at the end of four years of high school if the student has a passing grade point average... unless the student is in an IB school, where he/she can aim for the IB Diploma.

Age

UK Stage

UK Testing

UK School Year

US/Texas Testing

US Grade

3-4

Foundation

 

Nursery

 

Preschool

4-5

Foundation

 

Reception

 

Pre-K

5-6

Key Stage 1

 

Year 1

 

Kindergarten

6-7

Key Stage 1

SATS – Reading/Writing/
Maths/English

Year 2

 

1st Grade

7-8

Key Stage 2

 

Year 3

 

2nd Grade

8-9

Key Stage 2

 

Year 4

TAKS – Reading/Math

3rd Grade

9-10

Key Stage 2

 

Year 5

TAKS – Reading/Math/Writing

4th Grade

10-11

Key Stage 2

SATS – English/
Maths/Science

Year 6

TAKS – Reading/Math/Science

5th Grade

11-12

Key Stage 3

 

Year 7

TAKS – Reading/Math

6th Grade

12-13

Key Stage 3

 

Year 8

TAKS – Reading/Math/Writing

7th Grade

13-14

Key Stage 3

 

Year 9

TAKS – Reading/Math/Social Studies

8th Grade

14-15

Key Stage 4

 

Year 10

TAKS – Reading/Math

9th Grade

15-16

Key Stage 4

GCSEs (IGCSEs)

Year 11

TAKS –Math/Social Studies/Science/English Language Arts

10th Grade

16-17

 

AS Levels

Year 12

TAKS –Math/Social Studies/Science/English Language Arts

11th Grade

17-18

 

AS & A Levels or IB

Year 13

High School Diploma or IB / SATs

12th Grade

School Districts

All US schools are organised into Independent School Districts (or ISDs, as they're called in Texas). Depending on where you live, you are allocated an Elementary, Middle and High School within your zone of the ISD. You can transfer to another school within your ISD, but the reasons must be valid and supported by both the sending and receiving schools. It is not unheard of to attend a school outside your ISD but examples are few and far between, and usually involves a complicated application and approval process and sometimes an appearance before the school board. In short, if you want to pick a public school, it matters where you live.

An important point is that if you live in the zone for your chosen school, even if the school is ‘full’, unlike the British system, they have to find places for your children. Private schools on the other hand will take students from any school district as long as they meet the entrance requirements (usually an evaluation of both academic ability and behavioural standards) and once they’re full, they are full and you will be put on a waiting list. 

Children are usually expected to take a written exam but for the younger ones, a face to face evaluation is all that is required. We say ‘all’ but in some cases the evaluation is quite detailed; this editor was asked to leave her son at the school for a whole morning, and received a three page summary report a couple of days later. 

The greater Houston area is made up of over 50 ISDs, the largest being, not surprisingly, Houston ISD (HISD)- which does not cover the whole of Houston or even correspond to the city limits. Houston ISD covers everything inside the inner loop - 610 (so all of downtown) and quite a considerable amount inside the outer loop - Beltway 8. The other ISDs then spread out from there and cover at least 8 counties which are both inside and outside the city limits but are still considered as being Houston.  

Not only is it large by Houston standards, Houston ISD is the seventh largest ISD in the US. Big is not always better as we found out during the recent overnight flooding, where most affected ISDs shut down their schools to allow the flood waters to recede without the pantomime of children and teachers trying to reach schools through flooded streets. But HISD found it was simply too big to organise a mass closing of its schools at such short notice.

Just in case you are a fanatic for detail, we think this description of Texas school districts is the most succinct:

"In Texas, all but one of the state's school districts are considered 'Independent' since they do not fall under the direct control of any other local government and their boundaries are not constrained by any city or county border lines. Each district is run by an elected school board, which appoints a superintendent and sets budgets and tax rates. Only the state of Texas has the authority to regulate and oversee the actions of an Independent School District." - Diane Moser Properties website.

Schools and Neighbourhoods

There are whole School Districts that people want to live within. In fact we know of a family that recently made the decision to move to Katy (just to the west of Houston) to get into the Katy ISD. There are many reasons but the main one is a child with focus issues.

That family's research found that the state schools are much better able to accommodate him and offer a wide variety of motivational incentives (not true of all state schools, of course). The private school he currently attends is just not able to deal with children who require additional support and their research of other private schools suggests the same.

Katy ISD is considered one of the best in the Houston area alongside Spring Branch and Cypress Fairbanks, among others.

International Baccalaureate Schools

There are nine schools in the Houston area that currently offer the International Baccalaureate (IB). Three of those are private schools: the British School, Awty International School and Village School.

Both the British School and Awty International are located near the inner loop (610) on the north west and west side of Downtown while Village School is further west outside the outer loop (Beltway 8).

The British School and Awty International School have offered the IB since 2005 and 1987 respectively, and have the best reputations thus far for overall results. Village School has only recently opened its high school and qualified as an IB school in 2010, so their first 12th grade will graduate in the summer of 2012. 

The remaining six IB schools are public schools; Bellaire High, Dwight D. Eisenhower High, Mirabeau B. Lamar High and Westchester Academy for International Studies are spread out over the west side of Houston. The other two are located further north (each about 25 miles north of Downtown Houston): Klien Oak High (which is one of two of the nine that offers IB in both English and Spanish, the other being Westchester Academy for International Studies) and Humble High. There is talk of IB coming to Katy ISD but nothing has been confirmed as yet.

Homework

Homework can start as early as 4 years old in some pre-schools but Kindergarten is where it really starts. At this level kids are usually only required to read their home reader and complete the occasional work sheet. By 1st grade, a spelling list is added with a test at the end of the week. After this, daily math and weekly spelling, vocabulary, comprehension and reading can make a gruelling homework schedule for the recalcitrant student. 

Home projects such as the notorious ‘science project’ start in Kindergarten, are only once a year and are usually showcased at an organised event such as parent evening or science fair. In these early years, the projects are simple and fun and are usually determined by the class teacher (full instructions are given for any non-‘sciencey’ parents).

Discipline

Discipline seems to be quite rigorous (certainly in the better Houston schools anyway) and children are expected to obey all school rules without question. We’ve seen kids with one hand on their heads and the other one covering their mouths, so they can’t touch or speak to anyone else while walking between classrooms. There is no talking allowed in the halls or carpool lines. Lateness is recorded as a ‘Tardy’ on the report card and even uniform violations are noted. Bad behaviour is not tolerated by ‘good’ schools and for the most part dealt with pretty quickly with input from parents sought in all but the most minor of cases.

For the younger grades punishment comes in the form of a ‘telling off’, time out, losing recess to finish work or a visit to the Principle’s office. However, from middle school (grade 6) detention is common in public schools. Students are required to carry a conduct folder with them at all times; any misbehaviour including talking in the halls, running, not being prepared for class etc is marked in the folder and is referred to as a conduct cut. The state of Texas has ‘No Pass, No Play’ policy, meaning that students whose grades fall below a 70 (which is considered a fail) will not be allowed to play in their sports team, band, drama or cheer leading.

Report Cards

Report cards are usually sent home multiple times a year and although they do not have a great deal of detail (usually just a grade for each area of study), they will certainly keep you up to date on your child’s classroom performance. These, together with regular (we have four a year at our school) parent-teacher conferences and a welcoming open door policy make for great communication between schools and families.

Most ISDs have an online grading system and private schools seem to be going the same way. The HISD (Houston Independent School District) system is called Grade Speed under the ‘Parent Student Connect’ banner and allows parents to track their child’s grades from the HISD website (some parents will admit to checking multiple times a day). The system allows parents to see what tests and assignments are coming up and what grades were achieved for ones already taken as well as alerts for grades falling below a certain level and notes from the subject teachers.

School Buses and Carpooling

School buses are available to all children going to public schools and, for a fee, some private schools. All school buses are bright yellow and have an array of flashing lights and pop out stop signs (there are stringent traffic laws against passing a school bus that has stopped to drop kids off). Children of all ages catch the bus and the driver knows all the children they carry and where they should be getting on and off each day. Individual stops are usually very close to home (we checked the schedule for all the schools in our zone of the ISD and found that two of them pick up and dropped off at the entrance to our neighbourhood, about 100 yards away and the other two stopped right outside our house!). Schedules can be found on each ISD’s website.

Carpooling is actually drive-thru dropping off and picking up as there is not much ‘pooling’ going on from what I have seen. This is the norm at most (if not all) schools here. It is a very efficient way of getting to and from school without turning off your car’s air conditioning! And very convenient if you have napping kids in the car at pick up time. Though some schools have quite long lines to sit in, others stagger the dismissal times to make the pick up pretty quick. A park and walk in option is always available and some parents prefer this for their younger children.

Lunch

Some schools have cafeterias and others do not. Either way, children can either bring their own packed lunch or buy a hot lunch from the cafeteria. For schools with no lunch facilities of their own, outside companies supplying hot lunches direct to the classrooms are utilised. These can now be ordered and paid for directly via the internet.

Sports

Sports tend to be an extra curricula activity for children in the early years. PE in Elementary school is limited to inclusive exercises and fun games such as dodge ball, soccer and T-ball. Many schools also offer soccer, Tai Kwon Do, Dance, T-ball to name a few, as an afterschool activity but the main thrust of early years sports are organised leagues.

Whether it be neighbourhood teams or national sports organisations, it’s all very serious stuff. The choice is wide with multiple leagues in, soccer, swimming, T-ball, little league (baseball), gymnastics, cheer leading (yes, really), volleyball, flag football (American football without the tackling) etc…  The nice thing about these young teams is that everyone is welcome regardless of ability.

The biggest young soccer league FFPS (Fun Fair Positive Soccer) starts at age 4 and is all about wearing a team kit (complete with local sponsorship – and yes, you have to find that sponsorship yourself!) and running around the pitch after the ball. Many Brits are horrified that the parent coaches don’t really know the rules themselves and opt for a more competitive league elsewhere. If your kids have done any soccer in the UK already, they will likely be frustrated with the ‘nobody is allowed to score more than 3 goals in a game’ rule; if this happens they have to sit out the rest of the game to ‘give the others a chance’.

Also, total scores are not counted so nobody wins or loses (fine for the really small ones but not for the serious young footballer). While the emphasis is on fun and sportsmanship, you could find yourself having to fit in multiple evening practices and at least one game at the weekend, make it to the playoffs and your life could be completely taken over by practices, games and team parties.

The problems multiply when your children chose different sports or are in different age groups…next thing you know, you’re a ‘Team Mom’ and find you have to organise the rest of the team as well! NB. My advice is not to volunteer for anything until you’ve done a season or two and you really know what you’re in for. 

Athletics (includes school teams) start at middle school in grade 7 and are very serious through high school. It’s normal for high schools to have a full range of facilities such as football (American football) stadiums, swimming pools, baseball pitches, athletic tracks and basketball courts. The elusive sports scholarship to college is a strong driving force for a lot of families and the need to keep their grades up to be able to play seems to be an excellent way of keeping the students well-rounded and prepared for college. The organised leagues are still a big thing for the older kids, some being on both a school team and an independent league.

Parent Volunteering

Parent volunteering is a BIG thing here and at some point or another you will be expected to do your part. There is always a parent-teacher group but the function of each group varies between schools. Parents are asked to help in many ways, sports days, field trips, school plays and associated costume making, recycling programs, fundraising and class parties are all events when parents become invaluable and in many cases the schools would struggle to provide these activities without the extra help.

A Room Mom is usually selected to ‘organise’ the other moms in the class. This job involves organising the class parties (and making sure some of the other moms help out too), being available to help the teacher with any class projects, collecting money for teacher gifts and relaying important information to the rest of the parents. Class parties (for the pre-school and elementary grades) are held for each special event throughout the school year (fall/Halloween, Christmas, Valentines, Easter and end of year) and can involve a themed craft or activity, games and lunch (or a snack) to be provided by the parents. Sometimes the moms decorate the classroom as well but it all depends on how far the class teacher wants to go.

Other social events to be aware of are the High School Prom, Homecoming and in some cases a parent-sponsored members-only social ‘club’ for seniors. Parents take on the organisation of a social club (for want of a better term) which is often split into Girls and Mens. Students in their senior year must become members for a hefty $300-$400 and for that they will be included in the social events that have been organised: it must be noted that not everyone joins this club. As you may or may not already know, the Prom is equivalent to the leaving ball and the Homecoming is the tradition of welcoming back former students and while is often centred around a football game (American football), also includes events such as a ball, a dinner and a parade.

Home Schooling

Home Schooling has become more popular in Texas in recent years as families have become increasingly dissatisfied with offerings from their local school districts. The Texas Education Agency announced in 1985 that homeschooling was illegal and many families were criminally prosecuted for truancy  But the court ruled in favour of the families and as a result home schools are now considered private schools and are not regulated by the State.

You are therefore not required to register your child with the local school district if you intend to school your children from home. Pre-prepared curricula can be obtained from a variety of sources but as long as your curriculum includes reading, spelling, grammar, math and a course of good citizenship, you can pretty much do as you like. There are many extra curricula activities available to supplement home academics: music classes, sports, foreign languages, dance, computer studies, local theatre and many more activities can be added to your home based program as part of local organised programs specifically directed at home schooled children. The Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston Space Centre, Houston Arboretum, Moody Gardens and the Houston Zoo all provide specific Home School programs.

Qualifications and College Entry

On completion of 12th Grade (equvilent of Year 13) most students in State schools will graduate with a High School Diploma. Students who pass 12th Grade by obtaining enough credits or by completing all core courses but do not meet the standard graduation requirements will not receive their High School Diploma, but will instead receive a Certificate of Attendance.

International schools (including overseas British Schools) tend to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum to students completing their final two years of High School, culminating in the IB Diploma for students who successfully complete the two year course and have appropriate scores on the IB exam. 

In many universities, credit towards a degree can be earned from A levels, IB and AP (Advanced Placement) courses and exams. It is compulsory for students to remain at school until 10th Grade (or the equivalent of Year 11), but students who leave at 16 are considered ‘drop outs’ and have no qualifications so it is generally considered that school finishes at 12th grade.

You will find that IGCSEs (International General Certificate in Secondary Education) are only available (in Houston) at The British School. This is something to seriously consider if you think you might be moving back to the UK at any time during your child’s secondary school years. If you put your child in an American school and you move back to the UK at the end of 10th Grade (Year 11) having missed the GCSE exams, he will not have had the formal preparation to move onto AS and A level courses.  This is less of a problem if the student is coming from an extremely rigorous US school, but does put extra pressure on the less well-prepared student.

By the same token, students applying to British universities from good US high schools will find that UK universities are very up to speed on US curricula and exams. Universities like Oxford clearly state on their website the qualifications they look for on applications from the US.  

If applying to US Colleges, while GCSE’s (or IGCSEs) are considered to be the equivalent of the High School Diploma, college applicants should be aware that American colleges and universities will think odd (and usually disregard) someone applying for post-secondary education who has not gone on with A Levels, IB or a High School Diploma as well. 

Advanced Placement (AP) Courses and Exams

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program is designed to give students a head start on their college level work.  Through AP courses, high school students can explore a full range of college level subjects. The accompanying AP exams give students  the opportunity to earn credit or advanced standing at most of the nation’s colleges and universities.  Not only does enrolling in AP courses allow a student to get ahead by earning college credits early, it demonstrates his maturity and readiness for college, as well as his drive and commitment to further academic study which can give him an edge when applying for a college place.

Many high schools will have an AP teacher or coordinator who will guide students on which AP courses can best suit their abilities and current workload. If the student is homeschooled or attends a school that doesn’t offer AP, courses can still be studied through independent online study. See www.collegeboard.com for a list of AP courses available.  

American SAT and ACT

Not to be confused with the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) of the British Curriculum, the SAT is an essential part of College entry in the US. The three hour exam (made up of writing, critical reading and math) is widely considered a measure of a high school student’s chance of academic success in the first year of college, making that all-important SAT score of critical importance in the application process.

The American College Testing (ACT) assessment is an alternative to the SAT, and both are accepted by virtually all colleges and universities.  Most colleges require students to report either SAT or ACT Assessment scores on application. SATs are offered seven times a year and while students can retake the test as many times as they feel necessary, taking it too many times is not advisable. As colleges generally "count" the highest score for each of the three sections, they do have access to all your test scores, so it is generally advised not to take this test more than three times.

The highest achievable SAT score is 2400 (800 per section) but the average score is approximately 1540. To put a bit of perspective to the score, unofficially it is thought that a score of 2200 or more would be required to achieve success at a top University like Harvard but it is also alleged that Harvard turns away 300 students with perfect scores every year. 

Preschools, Mother’s Day Out and Day Care

Children who attend some form of childcare before they reach School age (must be 6 on September 1st to start 1st Grade) will either attend a Preschool or a Day Care Centre. The age of acceptance to Preschool varies from place to place but some take children as young as 9 months for their Mother’s Day Out programs (MDO). MDO is a part time childcare for, just as the name suggests, mothers who want the odd day or two to do other things without their children in tow.

Usually following the school calendar, (some are closed during school holidays) most are four to five hours a day and two or three days a week which can be a life saver for those who need a few hours a week to go to the dentist, doctor, hairdresser or just have a quiet coffee with friends and in my experience there’s always something that needs to be done without the kids.

Preschools will often only take children up to Pre-K or Kindergarten but some are part of a school making the transition to Elementary school and beyond that much easier. Most schools and some preschools also provide ‘before’ and ‘after’ (school) care which effectively makes them a Day Care for those parents who work full time outside the home. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services provide their inspection findings online, where you can look up a childcare facility and read their inspection report, warts and all! http://www.dfps.state.tx.us/child_care/Search_Texas_Child_Care/ppFacilitySearchDayCare.asp 

See article: ‘Preschools, Mothers’ Day Out and Day Care’ for a list of organisations.

Resources:

www.hslda.org  - HSLDA Advocates for Homeschooling

www.statemaster.com  – StateMaster

www.thsc.org – Texas Home School Coalition

sat.collegeboard.com – The College Board

www.tea.state.tx.us  - Texas Education Agency

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