People all over the world watch American movies and TV shows. They sit down to enjoy those dramas and comedies, many of which involve young people going to school, getting into entertaining dilemmas that get resolved within an hour. Yet, for non-American audiences who don’t know what a “prom” is or how old a “third grader” is meant to be, these shows can be confusing. Let’s fix that. 

Introduction

America has a system of taxpayer-funded public schools that offer free education to everyone from the ages of 5 to 18. All fifty states have their own regulations about how schools should be run. In addition, each state is divided into counties, which have their own additional regulations. Each county is then divided into “school districts” which generally but not universally correspond with a city or town, and they have their own ideas about how schools should be run as well. A school district could have three schools that they run, or three hundred. 

This means that a school in Las Vegas could be run very differently than a school in New York City. Or that two schools that are right across a river from each other can both have entirely different systems and policies. 

This article will be striving to give a general overview, suitable for getting the gist of whatever American drama or comedy featuring schools you’re watching, but it is in no way comprehensive.

The Basics

American school districts divide students up between three types of schools. 

  • Elementary schools, for students ages 5 to 11.These schools have a single teacher assigned to a class of students who teaches them all of the subjects. Students stay in the same classroom the entire day, with short “recess” breaks to go outside and play. (Also, to give their teacher a break.) 
  • Middle schools or “junior high schools” for students ages 11 to 14. Students now have different teachers handling each subject, and will move from classroom to classroom throughout the day. While students will get short breaks between classes, they aren’t getting time to run around a field and play anymore. 
  • High schools, for students ages 14 to 18, use the same basic idea of students having different teachers handling each subject. Students often get more freedom in choosing certain classes they wish to take, choosing “elective” courses.

A school may have only 100 students, or 2000 students depending on where it is located. The experience a student has in a large urban school will be very different from the experience you have in a smaller, rural school. 

Grades And AGe

People will talk about a student being in “first grade” or “eighth grade” and then say that a student has “good grades.” It can be quite confusing, as the term “grade” is used in two ways.

The first is a scholastic year, starting in the fall and ending in early summer. Pretty much every school district in the US uses this system of dividing students by what age they are.

Elementary schools: 

  • Kindergarten – 5 to 6 years
  • First Grade – 6 to 7 years
  • Second Grade – 7 to 8 years
  • Third Grade – 8 to 9 years
  • Fourth Grade – 9 to 10 years
  • Fifth Grade – 10 to 11 years

Some elementary schools also offer a “Pre-Kindergarten” or “Pre-K” program that covers kids from 4 to 5 years of age. 

Middle schools:

  • Sixth Grade – 11 to 12 years 
  • Seventh Grade – 12 to 13 years
  • Eighth Grade – 13 to 14 years

High schools: 

  • Ninth Grade/Freshman Year – 14 to 15 years
  • Tenth Grade/Sophomore Year – 15 to 16 years
  • Eleventh Grade/Junior Year -16 to 17 years
  • Twelfth Grade/Senior Year -17 to 18 years

The practice of having incredibly smart kids “skip” grades and be enrolled in a class of older students has fallen out of practice, due to fears that while it helps the children in the short term academically, it harms them long term socially. So while Doogie Howser MD did this back in the titular 80s TV show, it’s not a common phenomenon anymore.

Grades and Performances

The second use of the term “grade” or “letter grades” is for the evaluations teachers give students. Many, but not all American schools use the following system when grading reports, exams, or the student’s final results in a class as a whole. 

  • A – 90% to 100%
  • B – 80 % to 89%
  • C – 70% to 79%
  • D – 60% to 69%
  • F – 0% to 59%

Many schools go into more detail with letter grades, such as having an A+ for a student who got 97% to 100%, or an A- for a student who got 90%-92%. 

A “GPA”, which stands for grade point average, is a way to give a summary of your overall academic success. Each letter grade given at the end of a term or semester is worth an amount of points, with an A being 4 points, a B being 3 points, a C being 2 points, and a D being 1 point. You add up the grades you’ve received from your final semester grades, then average them out with how many classes you’ve taken, and the end result is your Grade Point Average. A 4.0 is an A average, 3.0 is a B average and so on. It is technically possible to get higher than a 4.0 in this system by taking advanced courses beyond the norm, but that’s rare.

A common trope in TV shows has a student who normally gets all A grades due to being an incredibly good student become distressed when they get a B, which would still be considered a decent result by many, but it isn’t the one they were expecting.

Private Schools

Private schools are not funded by the government and don’t have to follow many of the regulations or practices public schools do. These schools require parents to pay tuition for their children to attend. Many of them are religious based institutions, with a curriculum that is based on a particular faith (generally Christianity). Other private schools are aimed at wealthier families and provide a more in-depth and fancier educational experience

Films or shows will often have the rich kid who attends a private school being the antagonist, often having them be in a uniform to make it clear that they’re not attending the regular public school.

Charter Schools

A relatively recent development in some states, charter schools are privately run schools that receive taxpayer funding. The idea is that a private organization, not subject to the standard regulations and rules that public schools are bound to, could do a better job in some cases. Some people feel that charter schools are a way to promote academic innovation, while others feel it’s just a way to channel taxpayer money to for-profit companies running experimental schools. 

A charter school will be used as a “wacky” or “odd” school in TV shows, often in contrast with a more conventional one. 

Homeschools

A parent may decide to withdraw their child from public school, and instead personally teach them.  Each state has their own regulations about homeschooling, generally requiring occasional examinations to ensure that the child is in fact learning. Homeschooling parents generally use curriculums purchased from private companies to teach their children, many of which are religious in nature. 

The results of homeschooling vary widely. Some students find the reduced socialization with their peers to be an issue, while others are able to get that socialization through other activities. Homeschooled students are generally able to take a test that gives a certificate that is officially on par with a high school diploma, and can take tests to prove their capability of attending a college or university.

The stereotype is that a homeschooled kid is very socially awkward, and that’s the context you’re likely to see them in TV shows or movies. 

The School Year

In general, American schools begin a new academic year in late August/early September, meeting Monday through Friday for about 180 days. They usually have a two-week break that begins before Christmas in December and ends after New Years in January, another week-long break that begins the weekend of Easter, before the school year ends in late May/early June. 

Summer school is optional, generally just for students who didn’t do well over the academic year and need more specialized education. The majority of students don’t attend summer classes.

Schools begin usually around 8 am and end around 3 pm, but specific times vary widely. Bells are commonly rung to start class, and to dismiss class. Elementary schools tend to have two recess breaks in the morning and afternoon, and a lunch break as well. Most middle schools and high schools have the day divided into six class periods, with two short breaks and a lunch break as well. Students have a short time between classes to get to their next classroom, as well as use the restroom as needed.

Uniforms

School uniforms are very rare in the US. They are primarily found at private schools, but there are a few public schools that use them as well. However, the overwhelming majority of American students are completely unfamiliar with school uniforms. 

Dress codes are another story. Schools that don’t have uniforms still generally have rules for what sort of clothing is acceptable to wear, and what sort of clothing is not. Often young women find that the school dress codes are more restrictive towards them rather than towards young men. A school may hold that exposing shoulders may be inappropriate for female students, but perfectly fine for male ones.

Transportation

Yes, many American students take those big yellow buses you see in movies and TV to school. However, other students are dropped off at school by their parents in cars. In some neighborhoods, students may walk to school, but due to fear of child abduction, kids walking to school alone is very rare in the US. (Even if that fear is greatly exaggerated by sensationalist news media.)

While movies make it seem that school buses stop in front of every kid’s house, in reality they tend to pick specific locations in neighborhoods to stop, and all the nearby kids line up there to get on board. Just, it’s easier for a film to have the bus stop right in front of the house rather than have a scene of the kid walking to the specific bus stop and waiting with other kids. 

The legal driving age in most of the US is 16, which means that teenagers in high school who are lucky enough to have a car they can use may drive themselves to and from school if they have a driver’s license. Many rural and suburban areas in the US are so spread out that public transit like buses or trains aren’t very effective, and owning a car is necessary to get around. 

Lunches

Students generally have the option of bringing lunch from home, sandwiches being one of the most common, or buying lunch from the school cafeteria. The lunches at public school cafeterias traditionally are of low quality. 

The poorest students generally qualify for free lunches from their school cafeteria. Students from poorer homes, but who aren’t poor enough to qualify for free lunches, may often get discounted lunches. Those students in particular, the ones who don’t qualify for free lunches but whose parents are still struggling financially, can in some cases have trouble paying for lunches. Schools don’t let those kids starve, but some are better at dealing with this than others. Some put the kid in debt, others just give the kid a really low quality sandwich rather than the meal everyone else gets. 

Trading lunches used to be more common between students in lower grades, but increased awareness of allergies has made many schools ban the practice, afraid that a child may accidentally give something to a kid who might get sick from eating it. 

Hall Passes

If a student needs to use the bathroom or otherwise leave the classroom outside of a break or meal, it’s common for the teacher to give some sort of paper or object to the student to ensure that any school officials seeing them outside of class know that they have permission to do so. These are often known as hall passes, as many schools are built as single buildings with hallways leading to classrooms. Schools in places that don’t get much rain or snow, like California or Texas are usually built as many smaller buildings with open air walkways between them, but the term “hall pass” is still used. 

Some teachers have a large bulky object that they make the students carry as the “pass”, something hard to lose and easy to spot, like a large baton. 

Lockers

Unlike what many older TV comedies would suggest, you can’t actually shove a human being into a school locker.

Generally starting in middle school, when students now move from classroom to classroom throughout the day, some schools assign a locker to students. The idea is that the students would go to their locker between classes and get the books and supplies for their next class, and not have to carry everything with them in their backpacks. Many schools are no longer supporting lockers, generally for safety concerns. A locker could hold textbooks, but it could also hold guns or drugs. 

But even if they are becoming less popular in reality, most TV dramas are still using them out of tradition, and because the people writing TV shows these days are older and still remember lockers as a part of their education.

Available Classes

Students learn English writing and literature, History (both of America and the world as a whole), Science, Mathematics, Physical Education (sports and athletics) and a foreign language, usually Spanish or French. Starting at middle school, they often have optional classes available, generally called “electives” such as music, art, theatre, journalism or computers.

American schools will have students of different academic levels in the same campus.

Starting in middle school, this will lead to students taking different classes taught by different teachers based on their skill at a specific subject. One student who is taking basic courses for English and History, might be taking advanced mathematics courses taught by a different teacher than the basic mathematics course their best friend is in. This means that individual classes will tend to have students of the same academic level, but the school as a whole will have students of very different academic skill. 

TV shows tend to have the main characters all attending the exact same classes, even if one of them is far more advanced academically than the others, or if one of them does incredibly poorly at school. This is great dramatically, as it keeps characters together, but doesn’t generally reflect common policy in American schools. 

Bullying

It is the one, the big trope in stories set in schools. Bullies who verbally or physically abuse other students, slamming them into walls, demanding lunch money, with no one doing anything to stop them. While bullying and harassment are real problems, they are rarely as dramatic as what gets shown on TV, where bullies are often shown as unstoppable physical forces that no one is able to stop. 

Take any portrayal of bullying in an American TV show with a grain of salt. A story where the main character goes to an authority figure and has their concerns taken seriously isn’t very exciting, so shows and movies rarely make that an option.

High School Sports

High school football is often something taken very seriously, especially in rural areas. This is of course American football, not the sport everyone else calls football which Americans call soccer.  Rivalries between local school football teams can be treated as really important things. In general though, the smaller the town, the more important the high school rivalries are, and the more the football team (and other sports teams, but primarily football). Competitions over who gets to be in the school team can be fierce.

Cheerleading is likewise a big deal in some schools. Cheerleaders are generally competitive acrobats and dancers doing impressive routines, either at the school football games or on their own competitions.

American football, basketball and baseball are the major sports found in most high schools (and some middle schools). But depending on the school, they may also have other sports like water polo, track and field, field hockey, or others.

Students tend to compete on the district level, going against other local school’s teams. If they are the best at the district level, they may compete at the county level against other similarly ranked school teams. Then, they may compete against other schools over who is the best in the state. These sorts of competitions are rare, but prestigious and make for entertaining drama on TV and Film, even if the overwhelming majority of competitive sports teams don’t make it that far.

After School Activities

While TV shows make it seem that every single person in high school is in some form of club or sport, that isn’t really accurate. Still, many schools have clubs or other groups that students join, often meeting during lunch hours at school, or after school with the assistance of a teacher serving as advisor. Drama clubs or choirs or marching bands are the most common, and often have official performances sanctioned by the school. However, other sorts of clubs are also around, based on whatever students are interested in and can convince another teacher to support. 

Homeroom

Some high schools have a concept called “Homeroom” which can mean the first classroom of a student’s day where they listen to morning announcements before class begins, the period of time after school begins but before your first actual class where those announcements and other administrative issues are dealt with, or a teacher whose classroom you are assigned to be in at the start of the school day even if you aren’t actually in their class normally. The term is very loose and not universally used. If you’re seeing it in a movie or show, it’s generally being used in the “a short period of time before the actual school day begins where there are announcements from the school staff” sense. 

School Shootings

They’re dramatic, they make the news, but they are still really rare. The overwhelming majority of American students will never be in a school shooting. Yet the fear of being in one is something nearly all of them struggle with. 

Some schools that feel they are at greater risk for one take more steps to try and prevent them, such as having metal detectors at the entrances, or having police on campus during school hours. Other schools will do emergency drills about what to do in case of a shooter, with students practicing survival skills in those situations. 

School Dances

“Prom” and “Homecoming” get used a lot in high school dramas, as big romantic events where a teenager goes to a dance with their beloved. 

“Homecoming” is the first big event of the school year, held in the early fall. The main event is a big high school football game where alumni and family are encouraged to attend. The returning alumni “homecoming” back to their old school. In general, the homecoming game is meant to be one that the local high school is guaranteed to win, facing a team that they’re sure they can beat, to create a nice exciting event for the people watching. 

There’s universally a dance that weekend as well, the first dance of the school year. The dance is held after school, generally at a school gymnasium. Students will dance, socialize and try to get away with as much as possible while adults are monitoring the events. It’s tradition to have a “Homecoming King and Queen”, a couple chosen by the student body to receive some sort of recognition at the dance. It is pretty much just a giant popularity contest.

Many schools will also have a “Spring Fling” in the spring at some point, or may call it by some other name, which is less prestigious than Homecoming.

Near the end of the school year, the graduating Senior class has a “Prom”, a special formal dance, often held off-campus at a hotel ballroom or other such fancy venue. Paying for prom tickets can be a big deal, especially in schools where some students are poorer or richer than the others.

For a teenager who likely has yet to have a formal night out with their current significant other, Prom is made to be a big deal. There’s a lot of pressure to find a date if they aren’t already seeing someone, and to look impressive there. But, students going to Prom with a group of friends rather than a romantic interest is also common. If a student is dating an older classmate, it is possible for them to attend Prom when not a graduating senior, then attend it again when they are a senior, but this is relatively uncommon.

A lot of money gets spent on prom dresses, tuxedos, corsages, bouquets, limos to take the teenagers to the event, a dinner at a restaurant beforehand, and the tickets to the event itself. Some parents will even pay for a hotel room for the couple to stay the night at, with the obvious understanding that the teenagers will be intimate that evening after the dance. (This is rare, but not unheard of as parents who know the kids are going to do it anyways at least want them to do it safely.) Getting photographs taken by a professional photographer at prom is common, but also usually costs extra. Having a nice photo of your teenager in formal attire, presumably with their current romantic interest, is something a lot of parents are willing to pay for.

Like Homecoming, there’s also often an election to choose the Prom King and Queen, which generally are also just popularity contests. 

Some schools will also hold a Junior Prom as well, a smaller dance for the third year students which isn’t anywhere near as formal.

Higher Education

While most Americans use the terms “college” or “university” interchangeably, officially a college is an institution that offers a four-year Bachelor’s Degree, while a university is an institution that additionally offers Graduate Degrees and/or Doctorates. 

The term “community college” or “junior college” refers to a smaller institution which offers a two-year Associate’s Degree, as well as certificates and training for trades and other careers. These community colleges are much cheaper than a traditional college or university, but are seen as less prestigious. They offer classes for people studying part-time, or for people who aren’t sure of what they want to do as a career yet, and thus don’t want to commit to going to a university yet. 

Community colleges have transfer agreements with local universities and colleges, allowing students to complete the first two years of their Bachelor’s Degree work there, before completing their final two years at a larger university or college. This saves money for students, as community colleges can be far cheaper. However, as community colleges are less prestigious, and don’t attract top notch professors and instructors, some students feel that they wouldn’t get the same quality of education at a community college.

General Education

When you apply to a university or college, you have to take courses that cover general education topics such as literature, history, science and mathematics. It is seen as crucial for a college graduate to be able to prove that they are a well-rounded individual in general, as well as having skill in a particular field. So American college or university students need to take classes outside of their major, “general education” or “gen ed” classes. So if you see a show where a college student is talking about a class that doesn’t match their focus of study, it generally may be a general education requirement.

Fraternities and Sororities

The movies set at colleges seem to make these mysterious groups appear mandatory. In practice, they are less interesting than Animal House made them appear to be. 

These are clubs, social organizations that students may apply to join. Some of them require potential candidates to do embarrassing things or otherwise prove that they are very serious about joining. But the majority of them do not. 

Many of them are focused on networking between current students and alumni who are successful, allowing students to find contacts in fields they are looking into after graduation. Some focus on helping each other academically, or with doing community service. A few are just purely social clubs that hold parties. The scale and scope of those parties are highly exaggerated for entertainment purposes. While college students on their own may have big parties and go wild, they usually don’t do so to the extent that movies portray.

Traditionally, fraternities and sororities have names of three Greek letters. Many of them are national organizations with specific chapters at university or college campuses. That being said, only a very small minority end up joining these groups, which aren’t present at all campuses. 

Some fraternities or sororities have a house near campus that the members can live in, but that isn’t universally the case. 

College Pranks

Some universities are known for elaborate pranks played by students, with MIT being one of the most beloved. That being said, this is another case where movies and TV tend to exaggerate things. In most cases, pranks are relatively small scale, harmless things. That being said, the occasional time that a massive prank is pulled will be remembered for years to come.

Conclusion

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

America is a massive country, full of millions of people, and nearly 100,000 public schools scattered across 50 states, 3,143 counties (and county-equivalents) and 16,800 school districts. The general ideas talked about in this article are only scratching the surface of American schools, but may be contradicted by other experiences. Some schools will have very different experiences, formats and systems, and that may be reflected in media made by people who went to those schools. Nevertheless, even if the information in this article isn’t universally applicable to all US schools, it will still improve your comprehension of shows about overly emotional American teenagers going to school and getting into trouble.