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06 July 2008 @ 12:26 am
On Writing (Resources): The American School System  
The classification and organization of school systems are arbitrary, and the American system is no exception. It has different options for how Elementary, Middle/Junior-High and High Schools are grouped, and certain grades have special labels. This resource is intended to help non-Americans become acquainted with some of the terminology for American schools, and to match student ages to the appropriate grades.

It is not meant to be comprehensive for all possibilities in various parts of the U.S., but to provide some general guidelines.

The American School System


American schools usually have a "cutoff deadline," meaning that a child must meet the minimum age by a certain date. That varies from place-to-place; it might be the start of the school year in one city, October 1st, November 1st, November 15th, or some other date. It is rarely earlier than September or later than mid-November. The school ages below are the age children typically are AFTER meeting the cutoff deadline:

Kindergarten (optional in some areas) is for ages 5-6
First grade => ages 6-7
Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth grade progress from there (the math is left to the reader). These are referred to as "XX Grade" and not "Grade XX."

There is some vagueness about how certain grades are grouped in various types of schools, depending on the school district:

* Kindergarten (or First Grade) through Eighth Grade is one form of Elementary School (also called Grade School)
* Kindergarten (or First Grade) through Sixth Grade is another, which is followed by Middle School (7th and 8th grade, sometimes also 9th grade). A grade 7-8 or 7-9 school is sometimes also called Junior High.
* Kindergarten (First Grade) through Fifth Grade is the last type, with Middle School then being 6th, 7th and 8th grade. (if there is a 6th grade in it, this school will never be called a Junior High)

High School is either 10th-12th grade OR 9th-12th grade, depending. These grades have alternate names in high school:
9th Grade => Freshman (except when at Middle School, where it's just 9th grade)

10th Grade => Sophomore

11th Grade => Junior

12th Grade => Senior


These designations repeat for colleges/universities, i.e., first year of college is Freshman year, last year is Senior year.

"Junior" or "Community" College: this is two-year institution that some students go to instead of regular college, typically due to poor grades or lack of money (or both), or not yet being certain what they want to do with their lives (in or out of college). More recently, students frequently choose to go to Junior/Community College to get their General Educational Requirements out of the way at a cheaper price, and then transfer the credits to a four-year institution (thus lowering the total cost of obtaining Bachelor's Degree from an accredited college/university).

Additional notes: Americans graduate from a grade or institution, and receive grades (not 'marks') on their homework. Someone with good grades has a good chance of going to college.

Wikipedia may offer more details on any of the subsections of this listing, and there is a LiveJournal community called little_details where you can ask questions about specific cutoff dates and school groupings for a particular U.S. region or city.


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Gretagretazreta on July 6th, 2008 08:48 am (UTC)
Wow. This is fantastically useful. You don't even know. *mems instantly*...
okay, I have a further question related to something that I'm not even really working on at the moment.

In a US high school...
Imagine a kid had musical interests. Is music taught as part of the curriculum? or is an elective? Or is there just extra-curricular music (ie band)? What would the role of a high school music teacher be?
The Huntresshuntress69 on July 6th, 2008 12:09 pm (UTC)
Is music taught as part of the curriculum? or is an elective? Or is there just extra-curricular music (ie band)? What would the role of a high school music teacher be?

Something like music is usually an elective and in conjunction with band as an extra-curricular activity, unless the school is geared specifically towards music in addition to the core courses of math, english, science and social studies. My son went to what is called a "magnet program" here in Florida, and his subject was law. There are also magnet programs for many other things including medicine, education and yes, music. In addition to the core courses, my son also took law classes and a friend of his took marine bio courses as that was her magnet program.
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Helen W.wneleh on July 6th, 2008 11:14 am (UTC)
It is rarely later than mid-November.

Just a little more data:

In at least parts of NY; the 500,000-resident county I'm from in MD; and the town next to mine, the cutoff is Dec. 31. On the other end, we have friends in Ohio who live in a July 31 cutoff district.

A popular way to get around the cut-off is to find a private school who will admit children younger than the public school cut-off. Once the child has completed first grade, the public system will (usually?) admit them into the next grade no matter how young they are.

It's pretty popular to delay entry into kindergarten for children who seem young-for-age, especially in upper-middle-class families, even when the children test well within, or even high for, age norms.

- - - -

And, the roll of community colleges varies. In some places, they're what everyone does who isn't focused on an elite college; in other places, they are a lot more remedial. They're also a good entre into higher education for recent immigrants (i.e., those without much money, like VHS said - but also, who might not be eligible for financial aid.)

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:17 pm (UTC)
One of the reasons I listed ranges was to give some idea of what they might be-- I'm not sure that Americans will flip over a detail of their personal region, but something like "John graduated seventh form" is a red-flag annoyance.

It's pretty popular to delay entry into kindergarten for children who seem young-for-age, especially in upper-middle-class families, even when the children test well within, or even high for, age norms.
Yes-- not sure whether I should slip that in. This isn't meant to cover all the bases, but to provide some general guidelines for people who really don't know how the system-- countrywide, in a general sense-- works at all.

My son was one of those who was young-for-age (still is), but had to go into Kindergarten with his late-Aug birthday because he was too smart to hold back. We'd just hoped his teacher wouldn't kill him in those first years until he matured a little. Urk.

In some places, they're what everyone does who isn't focused on an elite college; in other places, they are a lot more remedial.
I tried to make that clear the first time, but I've edited a little bit. They used to serve very clear functions and had negative academic connotations, but people are much more clever these days about their reasons for choosing a community college (often only in the short-term). They can be very useful for a lot of different reasons.
(no subject) - wneleh on July 6th, 2008 05:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Clair de Lune: ecriture2clair_de_lune on July 6th, 2008 11:33 am (UTC)
Oh, thank you for that! You have no idea of the time I spent trying to get this kind of info. I've got the main lines, but the vocabulary and little technicalities may be tricky ^^
*adds to mems*
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:18 pm (UTC)
I'd hoped this would be really valuable to non-American writers, because the terminology and the variables involved are in no way obvious!

And it's the kind of thing that can be hard to research, so putting it all in one place seemed like it might make things much easier for writers. :)
The Huntresshuntress69 on July 6th, 2008 12:04 pm (UTC)
In New York, it used to be, Elem=K-6, Junior HIgh=7-9 and HS=10-12, and the cut-off I believe was 9/15. Here in Florida, Elem=K-5, Middle School (Not called junior high here)=6-8 and HS=9-12. I think there should be a national grade/cut-off so all will be at the same grades at the same ages. Also, the curriculum books are different. Yes, I can see certain things, like state history, but I don't know why McGraw-Hill (I think It's McGraw Hill) makes one science book for 7th graders in Florida and a different version for those in NY. I went to the website to get some sampler tests for my daughter, and it asked me where I lived. That struck me as stupid.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
That's why I have the varieties of school groupings listed, because it really does vary by geography. Portland was a 1-8 and then 9-12 city (I can't remember if there was Kindergarten-- Salem had no public-school Kindergarten when I lived there), and then Eugene was a 1-6, 7-9, 10-12 area. Same state, two hours apart, but different systems.

I can't cover the geographic areas specifically, so this is meant to show that the rules for cutoff dates and school-type groups are NOT universal across the states. However, if a writer tries to put 8th grade in High School, well-- people are going to notice that!
(no subject) - tsuki_no_bara on July 6th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - huntress69 on July 6th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - tsuki_no_bara on July 6th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - huntress69 on July 7th, 2008 12:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
Serena64serena64 on July 6th, 2008 02:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks. This is just what I need.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
I was hoping it would be useful, so that's wonderful feedback. :)
Queen of Music: adrienorganized by unknowndove95 on July 6th, 2008 02:18 pm (UTC)
I would even throw in that some people go to a community college because they're not quite sure what they want to do with the rest of their lives or because they don't want to venture too far from home. Coming from the Midwest, most universities that people want to go to were NOT in their hometowns.

I just want to make it clear that, especially from my experience, going to a community college IS NOT A BAD THING. They seem to get a bad rep, but from what other friends have told me (and my own experience)... if they could've gotten their four-year degree (bachelor's degrees) from a community college, they would have. Not so much because of money or proximity to home, but just because the professors were more available (and nicer!) and taught more to the students.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:28 pm (UTC)
I thought I'd written the community college section in such a way that it was obvious that it doesn't have the negative connotations that it used to, but I revised it after reading your comments. Hope it's better now.

In my day, they were usually for the feckless or those without enough money to afford the four-year thing-- BUT I lived in cities where there WAS a local university, so issues like leaving home didn't come up. And nowadays, people use them very cleverly, especially in California where the credits are transferable to 4-year institutions and the COST of 4-year places borders on painful.

Interesting note about the professors, because the CC pay is much less and there isn't usually the big tenure thing, so I'd think that the proportion of those who like teaching their subject (and like students instead of just research) would be higher. :)

Does the section look better now?
(no subject) - wneleh on July 6th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dove95 on July 6th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on July 6th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC)
It IS confusing, which is why I thought it would be nice to tackle it as a whole. You could spend forever digging around on the Internet for loose details, but the big picture might never become clear-- or even the fact that the school groupings are NOT consistent from one area to the next, even within the same state!

I.e., some of it doesn't make sense, and it's likely a relief to know that. :)
girlguidejonesgirlguidejones on July 6th, 2008 06:13 pm (UTC)
Good on you for making another helpful resource!

The only contibution I have is WRT rural vs. urban school structures. The more rural an area is (which is where the vast majority of canon and fanfic settings place the Winchesters), the more likely it is to see a K-8/9-12 system.

Rural areas have smaller populations AND less money for buildings and bussing. It is rare to see a separate 6-8 or a 7-9 middle school/junior high sandwiched between the others, especially when the graduating class size of such an area is frequently well below a hundred students.
girlguidejones: Dean snickers by dreamlittleyogirlguidejones on July 6th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)
Hah. And that second paragraph is more for non-Americans reading. I know you already know that. Hee.
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 8th, 2008 05:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - girlguidejones on July 9th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on July 9th, 2008 07:55 am (UTC) (Expand)
I blame fandomnostariel on December 4th, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
When I was in school (NY), it was:

K-4 = Elementary
5-6 = Middle School
7-8 = Junior High
9-12 = High School
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 4th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
Really? I have never heard of that system.

In all the places I've lived or had friends lived (all over the country), there is generally the choice of "middle school" or "junior high," but not both (because they overlap some of the same years).

It seems to depend somewhat on population/funding (i.e., the more students with less funding, the more the grades are broken up).

I think my layout is generally true for the bulk of the U.S., which is what I'm aiming for (so that foreign writers are in the "ballpark" of correct, no matter what). But in what area did you go to school? New York City?
(no subject) - nostariel on December 5th, 2009 04:18 am (UTC) (Expand)