Obtaining an Education

Obtaining an Education

All children in Pennsylvania have the right to a free public school education. Immigrant and refugee children do not need a green card, visa, passport, alien registration number, social security number, or proof of citizenship or immigration status to register for school.

See our guide on how to register your child in school. Also available in Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, Tigrinya and Haitian Creole.

Pennsylvania has 501 school districts operating public elementary, middle and high schools. To enroll, the child will need proof that his or her parent lives in a given district. If the child lives with an adult other than a parent, the adult will have to prove that he or she lives in the district and is caring for the child for free.

Pennsylvania also has public charter schools, which are not operated by school districts. Although charter schools receive taxpayer dollars, they operate with greater independence and flexibility than public schools. However, charter schools also assume greater responsibility for student achievement. To attend a charter school, the child will need to prove where his or her parent lives. However, the parent need not live in the district in which the charter school is located. Unlike schools operated by school districts, charter schools can refuse to accept new students once they are full.  Charter schools cannot require students to provide any immigration papers or information about their immigration status.

For more information on these rules, and on additional rules for children who have disabilities, are homeless, or who live in foster homes and institutions, contact the Education Law Center at (215) 238-6970 (Philadelphia) or (412) 391-5225 (Pittsburgh). It is a good idea to call before starting the enrollment process.

Private schools offer another option. Private schools provide a good educational experience but can be expensive. In Philadelphia, basic tuition for kindergarten starts at around $12,000 per year.

Faith-based schools are another option. There are, for instance, many Catholic schools in the Philadelphia area that offer a quality education. Your religious organization will be able to provide additional information about these schools.

Many of these schools offer financial assistance or scholarships based on need and merit. Be sure to ask about the availability of these funds.


Public education in the United States is divided into three categories:

  • Elementary schools work with 5 year olds to 10 or 12 year olds, typically from kindergarten through 5th or 6th grade. Some elementary schools continue through 8th grade (ages 13-14).
  • Middle schools work with 6th to 8th graders
  • High schools work with 9th through 12th graders.

Children typically graduate from high school at age 18.  However, students who have not yet finished the requirements have the right to attend school until the end of the school year in which they turn 21, or until they graduate.

In public schools, books are provided free of charge. A school year typically begins in August or September and ends in May or June. A school day lasts 5-1/2 to 7 hours. Please know that most schools welcome parental participation. When you enroll your child, ask about becoming a volunteer. It's a great way to be involved with your child's education.


The School District of Philadelphia's elementary, middle and high schools are open during the summer to register students for the school year. In addition to new Philadelphians, parents who should register their children at this time include:

  • Philadelphia public school students who move from one city neighborhood to another during the summer
  • Students transferring from private, parochial or charter schools;
  • Kindergarten students who were not already pre-registered. Kindergarten students must be 5 years old by September 1 of that school year.

Documents You Need for Registration

  • Proof of child's age (examples: birth or baptismal certificate or other religious document, or a signed affidavit by the parent stating when the child was born).
  • Proof of current address (examples: parent's driver's license, non-driver's ID, apartment lease, voter registration card or recent utility bill. The document must contain the parent's name and address).

For children entering the School District of Philadelphia for the first time, parents also should bring:

  • Proof that childhood immunizations are current (examples: a health passport or immunization summary sheet issued by a licensed health care provider or facility).
  • Your child's most recent report card, and/or any other document that will help in placing your child in the appropriate grade.
  • Copies of the child's Individualized Education Plan (if applicable).

Registration takes place at the neighborhood public school.

Parents may also call the District's Ombudsman Call Center at 215-400-4000.


English Language Learners (that is, children whose native language is not English) have special rights in Pennsylvania public schools.

These rules apply even if the student is the only English Language Learner in the charter or public school.

Under federal and state law, the school must:

  • Enroll the child using the same procedure that it uses for other students. Schools cannot require immigration information or a Social Security number as part of the enrollment process.
  • Complete a "home language survey" to determine the child's native language, other language(s) that s/he may use, and the language(s) spoken at home.
  • Test the child to determine his or her ability level in the native language and English.
  • Inform parents if the child has been found to need a program for English language learners, provide a description of the teaching methods used in the program, and offer parents the opportunity to remove their child from the program if they wish.
  • Provide English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, if the child needs it and the parents do not object. The Pennsylvania Department of Education recommends 2 to 3 hours of ESL per day for a child who speaks no English; 2 hours for a beginner; 1 to 1 1/2 hours for a student at the intermediate level; and 1 hour for an advanced student. ESL must be provided by a person with appropriate training.
  • Adjust the student's other classes to make sure that s/he can understand what is being taught. The school may provide bilingual instruction, or instruction in English with modifications and/or extra help to meet the child's needs.
  • Evaluate the child's progress on an ongoing basis, and adjust the program as needed.
  • Make accommodations, as needed, when administering standardized tests to the child. An example of an accommodation is providing directions in the child's native language.
  • Communicate with parents in their native language. Schools must provide free translation and interpreter services to parents who need them.
  • Evaluate students, when appropriate, for special education - but only if it has been determined that a student's difficulties in school are not due to English-language problems.
  • Allow students to participate in special programs such as vocational education and gifted education, as well as extra-curricular activities. If the student needs extra support because of a language barrier, this support must be provided.
  • Be informed about, and respectful of, the child's background and culture, and make sure that the child and family do not face discrimination.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has issued a Basic Education Circular that gives more information about many of these requirements. You can get a copy from the Department's website, or from the nonprofit Education Law Center.


Contact the child's school and speak with the English as a Second Language teacher, the regular classroom teachers, the counselor, and/or the principal.

If you are not satisfied with the result, talk with the person in charge of your district's English Language Learners. In Philadelphia, call 215-400-4240.

If you are still not satisfied, you can contact the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Bureau of Curriculum and Academic Services at 717-787-8913.

Make a note of when you called and the name of the person with whom you spoke. Follow up with a letter to Director, Bureau of Curriculum and Academic Services, Pennsylvania Department of Education

333 Market Street

Harrisburg, PA 17126-0333

Be sure to keep a copy for yourself.

For more information, contact the Education Law Center at 215-238-6970.


The Free Library of Philadelphia has 54 branches throughout the city. Find the closest one to you. To obtain a free library card, you must be 18 years or older, and live, work or go to school in the City. All you need to do is fill out a form or register online. With a library card, you can borrow books, video tapes, CDs, and magazines.


A GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, is the equivalent of a high school diploma. Any resident of Pennsylvania, including immigrants who are over 18 years old who have not graduated from high school or the same level in their home country can take their GED.

It is helpful, if you do not have documentation that shows your level of education, to study for and take your GED because it can help you get a better paying job. With a GED, colleges and universities will consider admitting you as a student.

To get a GED diploma, you would need to be tested in five areas:

  • Language arts and writing
  • Language arts and reading
  • Social studies, where you will be tested on geography, economics, civic government, United States and world history
  • Science
  • Math

Each section is between one and two hours long, and is made up of multiple choice questions and essay writing.

GED tests are available in Pennsylvania in English, French and Spanish. The cost of obtaining your GED varies depending on where you choose to be tested. Contact us if you are considering obtaining your GED.