Deciding whether to send your child to an American international schools can be difficult. Especially if you don’t have any previous experience with international schools.

Firstly, it’s a good idea to understand how the American school system works and what you can expect. Luckily, we’ve already covered everything you’ll need to know right here.

Now you know that there are a plethora of school types to choose from. Apart from the American international schools, there are charter, public and private schools to navigate.

This post is, of course, focusing on the international school side of things, and to get the most up-to-date information, Bright Lights of America spoke to the Australian upper school principal of Alto International School in Palo Alto California, Karen Relf.

Ms Relf has worked in education for over thirty years and hails from Queensland, although she hasn’t taught there for the last 20 years.

Instead she’s been travelling the world, teaching in the UK and South Korea, and working in various administrative roles in Jordan and China. Suffice to say, Ms Relf has loads of experience in teaching internationally. She has been at the Californian school since 2016.


You might be wondering why you should choose an international school over any other type. As always, it’s all about personal preference and your situation. As with all school selection it is about the ‘best fit’ for both the student and the school.

Chalkboard drawing of children learning

You’d be surprised how quickly most children adjust to their new surroundings.

International schools are suited to kids who have moved around a lot with their families but also for students and families who value a diversity and an internationally minded approach.

It’s for these reasons that children are already pretty good at adjusting to the new environment of a school in a new country, Ms Relf said.

“There are good and not so good International Schools, and while there aren’t as many available in the US as there are say, in Europe or Asia, it’s important to choose a good one,” Ms Relf said.

International schools are also more likely to offer studies in languages other than English, which is great if you want your kids to keep practicing that second language they’ve picked up.

For example, Alto School has a high percentage of students hailing from German-speaking countries. So it runs a German immersion program in the elementary school and then offers both an English and German track in the Upper school through the three International Baccalaureate programs – Primary Years Program, Middle Years Program and Diploma Program.

Starting Mid-Year (or whenever)

The great thing about international schools is that they’re used to children beginning mid-year or whenever it is their families arrive in the US.

They’re equipped to help your child settle in and usually accept kids at any time of the year.

Ms Relf said that differing education systems across the world mean that students are usually placed in grades according to their age, as opposed to their grade level.

This also helps with the challenge of beginning a grade in the middle or closer to the end of the school year.

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“We have children starting all the time,” she said.

“But if it’s closer to the end of the year, say two weeks before summer, we’d have a new student shadow another student for those last weeks to enhance the transition before we break up.”


Speaking of the International Baccalaureate (IB), Ms Relf highly recommends enrolling your child in a school that offers it, especially if there’s a chance that your family will be country-hopping again in the future.

The International Baccalaureate

For those who aren’t already familiar with the IB, it’s a curriculum for students aged from three to 19 and focuses on critical thinking and inquiry.

The best thing about it, is that it’s internationally recognised by colleges and universities and is taught in over 150 countries across the world.

The program also promotes intercultural understanding and respect, and what better place to learn that than at an International School?

Just to reassure you, the IB is accepted as a pathway to university/college in both the US and Australia.

A Diverse Curriculum

US schools can be very different to what you might be used to from your own education.

Ms Relf recommends asking to look over the curriculum of a school before committing to it. Depending on your future travel plans and your child’s age, they may benefit from a wider curriculum.

You’re looking for an education across a variety of subjects, and not just a hyper focus on the core Maths, English and Science. It will help them settle into different schooling systems in other countries if necessary.

Competitiveness vs. Education

Especially in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, the pressure of competition can be a little much.

Student at American School studying

Make sure there’s a healthy balance between study and down time.

I’m not just talking about in schools either. It feels like it stretches to all facets of life, from work to your downtime.

So of course kids are going to pick up on that, especially if the school they attend is all about rankings and admission exams.

Ms Relf said that talking to the school about its philosophy on balancing achievement expectations with emotional well being is a good idea.

So how do you properly gauge the school environment though?

Diverse Teaching Experience

Another great advantage is that a lot of international schools boast teachers from all over the world, who bring new and different teaching experiences to their role.

As an example, Alto School has teachers from the UK, Australia, the US, Germany, Canada, Austria, Switzerland, Peru, and Columbia.

With such a wide field to choose from, it’s easy to see how they, and other international schools, are able to employ the best teaching staff on offer.

Visit the school

Do as much research as you can online beforehand, utilise expat and parenting Facebook groups to get opinions from other parents and get a feel for the area.

But don’t make your decision based on that information alone. Ms Relf recommends making appointments to visit any school that you’re thinking of enrolling your child in, even if it’s not an international school.

“We offer shadow days for the students to follow an existing student around before they begin, to get a feel for the school,” she said.

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