High School Education in the United States for International Students

Although high school education in the United States is not as popular among international students as undergraduate and postgraduate education, it is still preferred by thousands of families from different countries. For undergraduate and postgraduate education, this country offers education of a quality that cannot be found in most other countries. Accordingly, 1.1 million international students choose to study in the US because of this unrivaled quality. However, it is not easy to talk about the same quality for high school education in the United States. In this article, I would like to give some information in order to answer the questions of students and parents who want to continue their high school education in this country. I have found it useful to add some important technical information to this article, as well as some recommendations I have gained from my own experience. Although the education system in the US varies between states, the fundamentals of the applied system are the same. In this respect, I do not want to explain how the system works in specific states. I will, however, share some examples from the state of Florida to make things more understandable.

First of all, let’s examine how the existing system for high school education works. In this country, high school covers grades 9, 10, 11 and 12, as it does in many countries around the world. Schools start very early, and this time is usually set at 7:30 am. School dismissal time is usually around 3:00 pm. Students usually attend 7 classes a day. At the end of four years, students have to have completed at least 24 credits. This number may vary by a credit or two from state to state. The last year (12th grade) can be completed with 3-4 credits (courses). Part-time seniors usually work at part-time jobs after school. The semester system is applied. Schools usually open in the second week of August and close just before the Christmas holidays in the third week of December, although some states deviate from this schedule by a week or two. The second period starts with the first week of January and ends in the last week of May. Students follow their own unique schedules.

There are 3-4 minutes breaks between classes for students’ transitions. In other words, they go to a different room for each class and the teachers have fixed rooms. Let’s continue with the curriculum. Like any other country, there are compulsory courses and elective courses in high schools. Compulsory courses include courses such as mathematics, history, English, physical education, and art. For example, a student in the state of Florida must complete Algebra 1, Geometry, and two elective courses in mathematics before finishing high school. Four English classes must be completed during high school. World and American history are also required courses in all states. Of course, successful completion of classes is not the only requirement. There are also specific tests that students need to complete before graduation. For example, “Reading” or Algebra End of Class Exam are required in the State of Florida. No matter how good your course grades are, you cannot graduate without passing those exams. Those exams can also vary from state to state. I can say that the graduation rates are very high. If students can rise above a certain grade point average, they can take courses at partnering universities during their high school years. This process usually takes place in the 11th or 12th grades. Students who take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school can have their course credits transferred to almost any university in the US, provided they can pass the final exams of these courses. The grade point average (GPA) requirement for high school graduation is usually set at 2.0 out of 4.0. About 90% of schools are public schools and completely free. Those famous yellow school buses also carry students free of charge. The issue of student safety and security is being taken very seriously. Dozens of children have lost their lives in the armed attacks on schools in recent years. Even joking with words such as gun, death, or assassination can lead to a student’s arrest. It is worth remembering that almost every school has at least one police officer. This number is increased in some schools.

After all this technical information, let’s talk about the indoor environments of high schools. As in every country and city, there are good and bad high schools in this country. By bad we mean poor quality education, low level academic profile, and high crime rate. On the other hand, good schools are defined by the rate of university placement and the scores obtained in state exams. Each school has a score. When renting or buying a house, Americans choose neighborhoods based on their school scores because it is important for them to send their children to a good school. So, can an international student study high school in this country? It is actually very easy to enroll in most US high schools. Little paperwork is required for a student under the age of 18. The health report and the transcript containing the courses taken from the previous school are enough. Of course, it is important to identify who will be the parent/guardian of the student (the mother and father do not have to be in the state). In other words, it should be clarified who has the responsibility for the student in this country. International students are also allowed to take regular classes according to their English level. If the students don’t know anything about English, they take English as a Second Language classes. The point that should not be forgotten here is the fact that a student aged 15-16 will learn the language very quickly. Most students start taking regular classes within 2-3 months. They already have privileges while taking normal lessons. In short, teachers don’t overburden international students. Since this country is an immigrant country, it is natural for a student who does not speak English to enroll in the school. The system is prepared for this situation. Before the end of first year, most students start speaking English like their native language. In some cases, they can enroll students with the students of the previous year. In other words, even if the student finished the 9th grade in his own country, it would be helpful for him to start with the 9th grade again. My advice is also in this direction. In other words, repeating the same grade should not be seen as a waste of time. Routine operations like parent meetings, exams, attendance, absenteeism rules, etc. are almost the same as in other countries. There is no class failing due to absenteeism, but students have to go to school as absenteeism may affect their grades. A student who does not take school seriously and whose grades are bad leaves school (the legal dropout age in most US states is 16) and immediately enters the real world. As a high school dropout, it is not difficult to find a job in this country. However, it is also difficult for someone who dropped out of high school to find a job with a good salary.

Let’s examine the prospect of sending your children to this country for high school education. I would like to start by saying that this situation varies from person to person. However, as a common approach, it is useful to be careful, especially if the student will come alone. What kind of psychology will a child living at the peak of his adolescence at the age of 15-16 be in this experience? The student will experience a very serious culture shock, as every person would. A very different environment, coupled with a language barrier, can create a lot of stress. Further, it will not be easy to make friends. This situation can seriously affect the student’s class performance. In a new system, adapting to teachers’ expectations will not be so easy. Human relationships can be very different to the student. Different styles of assignments will also cause confusion. In short, we can say that a difficult environment awaits the student. On the other hand, what advantages will the student have after finishing high school in this country? High school students can enroll in school even with a tourist visa. Paperwork is relatively easy since they are under 18. First of all, I can say that they are improving their language skills very seriously. Since language is a part of culture, high schools are perhaps the best place to learn a language. Since the age of the student is more suitable for language learning, they improve these skills more masterfully, achieving fluency with less accent while becoming more intimately familiar with the details of English. As schools have good financial sources, students get to know technology faster and earlier. They have the opportunity to use the latest technologies every day. Science laboratories are also above the standards. In this respect, it can be said that a good education is given in high schools. However, when we make an international comparison, K-12 education is way behind in the US. Countries such as Finland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany, England, Denmark, and Belgium provide better K-12 education in general. American students are not very good at international standardized tests in mathematics and science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). In other words, the quality of the education your child receives in a US high school will not be exceptional. However, when it comes to higher education, quality peaks. How this can happen may be the subject of a very long article. While high schools provide an ordinary education, how universities start with such an advanced education may be attributed to financial capacity. Universities’ budgets are millions of dollars. On the other hand, even K-12 teachers’ salaries are not satisfactory. Interestingly, no serious improvements on salaries are made. In fact, it would be sufficient to give a simple statistic that describes the situation of the teachers to understand this issue: 47% of individuals who start teaching in the United States move to another profession within the first 5 years. We can say that it is a problem of livelihood, and that a stressful working environment causes it.

So, would I recommend studying high school in such an environment? Actually, as I always say, everything really depends on the expectations of the student and his/her parents, as well as their educational background, goals, financial capacity, etc. It would be much more correct to answer with confidence after understanding the unique details of an individual student. However, a high school education can be undertaken in the US if the family is accompanying the student or if there is an environment available that can provide psychological support to the student. Courses such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc. will be taught well above the world average. If the student receives his/her high school education in this country, he/she naturally will be more familiar with the higher education system. Adaptation to economic, social, and cultural systems will be easier for this student. The student will think and act like Americans do. In a sense, this point of view is mandatory for a student who wants to pursue higher education in this country. On the other hand, things get a little complicated in the transition to university for international students. The student’s visa must be converted into a student visa. The paperwork will become complicated for the student who is now 18 years old. Having a high school diploma from this country does not provide an advantage for studying at university. Universities in the US have established many criteria for use when selecting students. The most important of these is the grade point average (GPA) from high school. The second important criterion is SAT or ACT scores. These two pieces of criteria provide serious information about the student. They don’t just ask for IELTS or TOEFL (language proficiency) from a student who finishes high school here.

So what can happen if things don’t go as planned? In fact, the problems that every high school student can face in every country also exist in this country. Drugs and violence can be found anywhere. Further, a student’s psychological state is the most influential factor on learning. In other words, a student with sufficient motivation can learn mathematics, physics, chemistry, geometry, etc. and he can easily grasp the lessons and pass with good grades. After all, these topics have a universal language.

Let’s close our discussion with a short example. I often come across students who want to study in the US for the last year of high school. I say that this is counterproductive when we consider the time that will be lost due to adaptation issues. In a sense, it is like changing a horse while crossing the stream. If there is a student starting the 9th grade, it might be a logical start. Or, I cannot object much to a student who comes to this country with his/her family. My advice to students who want to complete their senior year in the US is to finish the 12th grade in their home countries and start their preparations for college applications. I also do not want these students to deal with the stress of a new environment, since the application procedures to universities will be long and complicated. It would be more logical for them to be patient for another year and start their undergraduate education in this country directly. As a last word, let me say what I always repeat. International education consultancy should be done individually so that the highest success can be achieved.

Erkan Acar, PhD

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