United States School System

Wrap Text around ImageSchool systems vary from country to country. The structure of the United States School system is as follows:

  • The first mandatory year of schooling for children in the U.S. (like many things, this varies from region to region; education is for the most part considered a local matter under U.S. law) is first grade. It typically begins in the fall after the child’s sixth birthday, though in some areas five-year-olds who are near their sixth birthday are allowed to enter first grade. Grades 2 through 12 follow for the next eleven years; education is not compulsory past 16 in most states, though some states are debating raising the drop-out age to 18.

In addition, there are several years of “schooling” prior to first grade. Kindergarten (German for “children’s garden”) is a class for 5-year-olds. It is generally optional (though recommended); in some districts it is only half-day. Most public school districts make kindergarten available for children within their district.   Before kindergarten one finds preschool–typically offered for 3- and 4-year olds. In many places, 3-year olds attend preschool two days a week, 4-year olds for 3 days a week. Preschool focuses more on physical, social, and emotional development of young children, and far less on “education”. Preschoolers are often introduced to reading, writing, and the alphabet–but at a very early level. Preschoolers generally are not expected to have mastered these. Unlike kindergarten, preschool is generally not offered by public school districts; instead it is provided by churches, daycares, or cooperatives.

In most districts, the grade levels K-12 are physically segregated into three different types of school: primary school (or elementary school), middle school (or junior high), and high school. Depending on the district, primary school is usually K-5 or K-6, middle school is 6-8, 7-8, or 7-9; and high school (sometimes “senior high school”) is 9-12 or 10-12. Other districts may do different things. Some use the term “middle school” to refer to a 6-8 school and “junior high” to refer to a 7-9 school, but this distinction is far from universal.   In some districts, different grade levels may be consolidated into a single class–usually no more than 2. (Though in very small rural districts, one may still find the one-room schoolhouse, where five-year-olds and pre-teens are all educated in the same room by the same teacher). The following terms are used to describe students in grades 9-12; confusingly, they are also used for college undergraduates.

  • Freshman: Grade 9, or first year of college (American usage of the word “college”)
  • Sophomore: Grade 10, second year of college
  • Junior: Grade 11, third year of college
  • Senior: Grade 12, fourth year of college.


Hours and Times of Attendance

In most parts of the United States, school attendance is for 5 days of the week (Monday through Friday), nine months (180 instruction days) of the year. A full school day is usually 7-8 hours, including a break for lunch, excluding extracurricular activities such as sports. The school year generally starts anywhere from mid-August (e.g. Kansas City, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia) to late September, and generally ends anywhere from mid-May to late June (though snow days in northern districts can sometimes push this into July). Two major breaks during the School year are winter vacation (often called Christmas vacation, though many frown on public schools even mentioning Christmas due to church and state separation), typically 2-1/2 weeks in December, and Spring Break–a week off in late March (sometimes early April). Generally, younger children (grades 3 and lower) don’t attend a full day–they get to go home a bit earlier. In some places, kindergarten is 1/2 day.

Schoolchildren above a certain age are assigned homework–when homework starts varies from district to district.

Colleges and Universities: The words college and university are nearly interchangeable in the United States. Either can refer to a 4 year school. This general usage is somewhat inaccurate. Properly speaking, a university is composed of a number of colleges, e.g. Trinity College of Oxford University. Oxford University is made up of 39 colleges. Colleges tend to be focused on a general discipline such as medicine, or art. (Many US universities are structured on this model; though not necessarily all of them.)   All universities are colleges but not all colleges are universities. A student at Foo University would likely feel equally comfortable stating in casual conversation that they’re attending “college” or “university.” However, a student wearing a Bar College sweatshirt would probably be looked at oddly if they were to say, “I’m in my first year of university.” It would be very rare to hear an American say “I’m in my first year of university” unless he or she were talking to someone more familiar with British English. “… first year of college” sounds normal, no matter which type of institution is being attended. “He’s in college” sounds normal to Americans. “He’s in (or at) university” does not. Compare “in the hospital” (American) and “in hospital” (British). Saying “I’m in my first year at the university” would imply that the person spoken to knows which university. Also, if an adult American says “when I was at (or in) school,” this usually refers to college, unless the conversational context would suggest primary (1st through 6th grades) or secondary (7th through 12th) school. In past years, the difference in the US was that “universities” had Ph.D programs, whereas “colleges” did not. This distinction is rapidly eroding; as many 4-year institutions that were previously called colleges are renaming themselves universities; often to attract foreign students and faculty who consider a “college” to be a second-rate educational institution.   In the US, and depending on which college, going to a college rather than a university can lend considerable cachet. Dartmouth, Smith, Williams, Bowdoin (etc.) colleges are considered elite (private) institutions. They imply an almost clubby environment where students receive more individualized attention, and they presumably provide a more intimate set of connections after graduation. “State schools” are public universities usually established by a particular state: The University of Minnesota. These are distinguished from private colleges and universities such as Harvard or Yale.  


Two year institutions

The United States also has two-year institutions. These are usually called “junior colleges” or “community colleges”. These institutions generally do not offer more advanced degrees; are inexpensive; and don’t provide on-campus housing. They also will admit anybody. They serve the following functions:

  • Provide training and certification in numerous trades where a traditional four-year degree is not usually awarded nor required. (In some cases, such as nursing, the program is quite rigorous).
  • Provide 2-year degrees (called “associates” degrees in the US, “diplomas” in Canada) in fields where a 4-year degree is often awarded
  • Provide transfer credits/preparation for four year institutions. Many students who desire to go to a 4-year college, but have difficulty getting admitted (to the 4-year institution) as a freshman, instead complete the first two years of coursework at a community college. Having thus proven their mettle at college-level coursework (though community colleges have a reputation for being less rigorous than 4-year institutions), students with adequate grades generally find it much easier to transfer into a 4-year college/university to complete their bachelor’s degree. Most credits earned at accredited community colleges are accepted by most 4-year institutions (in particular, state schools)–though the top-tier universities (Harvard, Yale, etc.) generally won’t accept transfer credit from “lesser” institutions (including other 4-year colleges/universities).

Where to start?

Once you Figure out what level you are on. You may contact the local social services before you proceed any further, who will direct you to the right school or agency and what documentation you may need.

The Broome County Government has a complete listing of all the schools districts and educational institute on their website. Please visit the website for more information regarding the locations and procedures of individual institution.