There and Back Again: Successfully Repatriating to U.S. Schools

When families repatriate to the U.S. after an assignment abroad, it’s generally assumed that the children will re-enter the U.S. education system without too much difficulty. However, there are many challenges that can significantly impact school reintegration.

For middle and secondary school–age children—typically grades six through 12—the pre-college years are a pivotal time. Anticipating and addressing these students’ academic and cultural challenges well before repatriation not only increases their chances for a smooth transition, but can also make a big difference in academic achievement, and social and emotional adjustment to a new school environment. 

Following are some excerpts of education challenges related to repatriation, and tips for families: 

The Outgoing Move

Considerable thought regarding schooling usually goes into the departure side of an expatriate assignment. Educational choices in the destination country may or may not be limited, but they will be new and different. The local government (public) schools frequently are not acceptable options due to differences in curriculum, substandard facilities, or language barriers. The number of international schools may also be limited, and the subset of those that teach in English or have a curriculum that appeals further restricts choices. But the choices made regarding schooling abroad can pose complications upon repatriation. 

Case Study: Moving From the International Baccalaureate to the U.S. Curriculum

Michael was a rising 12th-grader moving back to Colorado after three years in France, where he was enrolled in an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. While the family wanted to remain in France so he could complete high school, his mother’s employer chose to end her assignment, requiring the family to repatriate. Unfortunately, there was no IB diploma program that had his level of courses near their suburban Denver home, so Michael could not continue the IB. However, the family had been very pleased with their public school district before their relocation and felt that with his excellent education overseas, he could take full advantage of the advanced high school courses offered.

Being proactive and having relocated back before the end of the school year, the family met with a guidance counselor in June before Michael’s senior year. To their surprise, even with Michael’s excellent grades overseas in academically rigorous courses, he was going to have to take several ninth-grade classes, as well as other required district courses, to graduate on time.  As a result, Michael was going to be able to sign up for only one Advanced Placement (AP) course instead of the hoped-for three, not take a French class, and ultimately have a less impressive transcript than he expected to have when applying to college.


In Michael’s situation, although the family had not planned for him to graduate from a U.S. high school, there were ways in which to immediately address the issues, even though the family did not have a preplanned strategy. Many states and districts now have public online academies that automatically transfer students’ grades to their transcripts. If the online option and courses didn’t work, Michael could have attended summer school. In similar situations, families have opted to place their children in private schools that are not restricted by state graduation requirements, but this option can be cost-prohibitive. The family decided to enroll Michael in summer school at their local high school and have him take the ninth-grade courses, freeing up his 12th-grade schedule.

For families who know about their relocation earlier and whose children might not be doing their final year of high school, there are other ways to ensure that these kinds of curriculum gaps do not occur:

  • Stay informed about schooling in their state and district. It is the responsibility of a family to stay current on issues in their local schools. Whether or not a family is returning to their same residence, if they are going to be returning to the same city or state, they can sign up for district alerts.
  • Online learning. K–12 distance learning programs should not be overlooked. Not only do many states offer virtual academies that can be used effectively for picking up a state compulsory course or two—though residency requirements vary from state to state—there are also many reputable private online K–12 schools. These schools can be an effective, flexible way to earn credits and open schedules.
  • One-on-one tutoring. Tutoring, whether overseas or in the U.S., can be the most efficient means of bridging curriculum gaps due to school differences. A tutor is personal, yet still outside the family, and can therefore take on the role of an authority figure in leading supplementary learning. Tutors can also help students with organizational management—a key skill for reacclimating academically to the U.S. 

For more information and case study examples and solutions -- including a list of 7 Differences to Anticipate, read the full article.

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