When 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. Additionally, for expats, there are now several, whilst not strictly international schools, offer the alternative curricula of the International Baccalaureate Programmes.
Private or Public?
Public (state) schools
A full list of public schools can be found at www.txschools.gov/schools.
Many public schools also maintain a Magnet Program within their school which runs alongside the mainstream. This is an advanced learning program for children who can sustain a faster learning speed than is typical for their grade. Places are limited so entry exams, references and interviews are conducted to determine entry and the child must keep up with the class to retain their place.
Elementary schools usually go up to grades 4 or 5, Intermediate schools take grades 5 and 6, Middle schools or Junior High school start at either 6th or 7th grade and include 8th grade and High School is 9th - 12th grade.
Rating and ranking the private schools is a more difficult task as they are not required to be included in the STAAR testing system (upon which the Accountability Rating is determined). Most, if not all private schools though, do participate in some form of standardised testing of their students and results of those can be discussed directly with each school.
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.
International Baccalaureate Schools
Several schools in the Houston area currently offer the International Baccalaureate (IB). Three of those are private schools: the British International School of Houston, Awty International School and The 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). These schools tend to have the best reputations thus far for overall results.
The remaining IB schools are public schools including Bellaire High School, Lamar High School and Westchester Academy for International Studies which 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 School is one of two schools that offers IB in both English and Spanish, the other being Westchester Academy for International Studies.
For more information on individual schools please go to the GSGI article 'Best schools in Houston considered by expats' or go to each school’s individual entry on ‘The Good Schools Guide International’ search.
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, right 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 US Department of Education requires both public and private schools to submit National Assessment of Education Progress testing every four years. Schooling culminates in the High School Diploma, which 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.
The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests are taken at every grade in all public and charter schools (but not necessarily in private schools) and consist of Reading, Maths, Writing, Science and Social Studies assessments. There are also five STAAR End of Course (EOC) tests which can be taken at the end of any semester between 9th and 12th grade. As soon as the student passes a test, that mark will contribute towards their High School Diploma and they will not have to sit the test again in their final year.
All US Schools are organised into Independent School Districts (ISDs) and you are allocated a school within your zone of ISD (according to where you live) and the school has to take your child. You can transfer to another school within your ISD but both the sending and receiving schools have to agree. It is very hard, although not unheard of to attend a school outside your ISD, so if you want to pick a particular school, it matters where you live.
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.
The greater Houston area is made up of over 50 ISDs, the largest being, not surprisingly, Houston ISD (HISD) which is the seventh largest in the US and 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 ‘Houston’ counties.
There can be whole School Districts that people want to live within. In fact we know of a family that made the decision to move to Katy (just to the west of Houston) to get into the Katy ISD, one of the best in the Houston area.
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.
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. 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.
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 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).
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 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..
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 Men’s clubs.
Qualifications and college entry
On completion of 12th Grade (equivalent 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. 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.
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. 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 home-schooled or attends a school that doesn’t offer AP, courses can still be studied through independent online study.
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.
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. To find out more, go to www.collegeboard.com.
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 part-time Mother’s Day Out programs (MDO).
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!