Australian moving to the US – what don’t I know
September 11, 2016 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Work will be moving me from Canberra, Australia, to Washington DC for two years. There are some fairly well established procedures for this move but I am sure that there are a number of things that have not occurred to me.

What issues / tips / comments do you have for a family of four (one daughter will be moving into Elementary school and one into high school) moving from Canberra to Washington. What are the things (especially regarding schooling) that we should look out for when choosing a place to live? What are the things that we should do before we leave that will make life better / easier? What are the things that we need to know to maximise this experience?
posted by dangerousdan to Travel & Transportation around United States (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The DC area real estate market is very tight (expensive) and very focused on good public schools. There are some really great public school systems in the area, and some that aren't good.

Where to live is also very affected by where you work -- traffic is absolutely brutal in the area, so you really want to live somewhere that's favorable for your commute. If you feel comfortable saying broadly where your job(s) will be, people may be able to give tips on where to look. (And if you feel comfortable saying what your budget is, ditto.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:15 PM on September 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

As DC resident with high school kid, I agree with everything that LobsterMitten said. Also depends on whether perhaps you are in an embassy/IMF/World Bank type job, as they sometimes pay for dependents' private schools.
posted by sheldman at 2:04 PM on September 11, 2016

Also, you should tell us if you will be looking at public or private schools.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:05 PM on September 11, 2016

You should be thinking now about what country your high school age daughter will go to university in, how she will qualify for entrance in that country based on her high school results, and how your return to Australia will interrupt her schooling if she isn't already graduated then. Will you, for instance, be moving back to Australia at the beginning of/ halfway through her 12th grade? How will that work for e.g taking VCE 3/4 subjects when she needs the 1/2 units from year 11? If you can find a school that does IB then I think that will get her an ENTER for Australian universities, but I don't know how hard it would be to move between schools while doing that.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:26 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agreed that where you live will probably have the biggest impact on your experience. It's a massive metro area and you will have a very different experience in outer Fairfax County than you would in an urban-core neighborhood or a close-in suburb like Arlington or Bethesda.

Where will you be working? Are you looking to live in the city or the suburbs? Will you have a car?
posted by lunasol at 3:03 PM on September 11, 2016

Oh, for the high-schooler: from what I have heard, the whole college-admissions process is a lot more complicated and fraught here than in Australia, especially in achievement-oriented places like the DC suburbs. If your kid will be too young to go through that whole process, you can ignore it, but if not, you'll have to hear a lot about it even if the idea is for her to go to university back home (and of course, she may decide she wants to go to college here in which case you'd have a whole other set of mostly financial issues to deal with).
posted by lunasol at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also keep in mind that working in DC doesn't mean you have to live there. When my dad worked in DC we lived in Virginia, and lot of people he worked with lived in Maryland as well.
posted by theichibun at 4:37 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

My daughter and spouse live in Silver Spring, MD and work in DC. They commute via the Metro. Of course, housing prices reflect proximity to Metro stops, bus lines, and probably highway exits.

I read that due to meddling by Congress to be sure the Metro was maximally helpful to Congressional staffers, there are lots of downtown areas that are, shall we say, under-served.

There are apparently kangaroos in the National Zoo.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:25 PM on September 11, 2016

There are apparently kangaroos in the National Zoo. I don't think so, right now.

Anyway, if you want to (and can afford to) live in the District itself, and if academically more successful public schools are of high importance to you, then you will probably want to live in the quadrant called NW, the portion that is north of downtown and west of Rock Creek Park, zoned for Wilson High School and various elementary schools depending on particular neighborhood. Wilson is a big school, and is the best public high school in the city except for certain "magnet" high schools which require admission tests and interviews and such, and perhaps some "charter" high schools which require lottery-luck to get into. As this is big city USA, it is the standard story: areas where more prosperous white people tend to live tend to have better public schools ("better" being defined in various ways). Unfair and true.

As this is a relatively short-term move for you and your family, I would recommend living in the District itself if you can, rather than in the suburbs. It will be a more vibrant metropolitan experience for you and kids, and will also cut down on awful commute time if your job is in the District.
posted by sheldman at 5:55 PM on September 11, 2016

And aside from that, what do you need to know? Only that most museums are free, that it is awfully humid and sweaty during the summer, that the power-oriented people are quite uptight even when grocery shopping, that people from Maryland are horrible drivers, that there is good Vietnamese and Ethiopian food because of immigration patterns, and that there is a good local music scene of many sorts of music if you seek it. It's a really good city if you like cities.
posted by sheldman at 6:01 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

From my Australian friend who moved to the US recently: do not underestimate the required documentation that they will want from Australia regarding schooling. Get everything you can. All of it. There are enough differences to make administrators balk. (He was mostly trying to prove his US citizenship, which required massive amounts of records of his existence) if you can get documentation of what of your kid has been learning like syllabus, core standards it will help in placing her in the right levels for schooling.

American History both your kids going to be way way way way behind in, and my friend here states he is so surprised how differently similar historical subjects are taught. This will be major catch up and frustration as American History is full of bias and subtle wording may come as a complete culture shock.

The health insurance system is so so remarkably different. Make sure to bring full documentation of vaccines, schools will require them, but insurances won't pay for titers so you will pay out of pocket unless you have the records. Any documentation of medical conditions will be very important.

Any medical tests, odd preventive health stiff like that get done before you leave. In the US there will be a huge variation of what's expected from you based on insurance and it will be very very very confusing and costly.

If your children have any special needs in school such as needing medication [all medication is banned in American schools, even basic things like ibprophen without doctors orders, and your child can be charged with crimes and are disiplined for having, taking and especially giving medication to another students. This includes EpiPens and asthma medication] ADHD, and any accommodations such as longer testing time. Get all the documentation you can.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:22 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

all medication is banned in American schools, even basic things like ibprophen without doctors orders, and your child can be charged with crimes and are disiplined for having, taking and especially giving medication to another students. This includes EpiPens and asthma medication

This isn't true. These policies are set locally and very few of them are this draconian. You can see the DC schools policy here, and of course private schools make their own decisions.
posted by praemunire at 6:44 PM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, regarding schools: make sure to get any information about dress codes. A lot of schools have weird rules with heavy punishments about young women wearing clothing that is normal and modest by current cultural standards (shorts above the knee, bra strap showing, that kind of thing.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:17 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

[One deleted. Just a quick reminder: please don't bring in info from profile pages, since some of that is visible only to members. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 11:43 PM on September 11, 2016

Thanks for all the responses – some great information. In reply some questions:
- Our eldest daughter will return to Australia to start year 11 (given the length of the posting and her age) so university entry may not be a problem unless we are unexpectedly extended in a few years.
- Private schools are not an option
- At the moment houses may be available (from people departing) in Bethesda and Falls Church. Both of these areas are, apparently, OK for travel distance to the office. Any information on what to judge good schools by would be appreciated (the school rankings are a number but may take into account things that are not important to us such as preparation for US universities).
- Happy to take advice on car(s). We have every expectation on needing at least one
posted by dangerousdan at 12:35 AM on September 12, 2016

As far as I can tell, there are no bad schools in Northern Virginia. (As others have said, schools in DC are much more variable. I don’t know much about Maryland.) There is a lot of angst here about being in the very best schools. Personally, I think it’s much better to be in a school that is excellent by national standards and is socioeconomically and ethnically diverse than one that has the best test scores in the nation and where the student body is almost exclusively wealthy and white.

You will also find that there is a severe culture of competitiveness in schools here. Children of school age tend to live very scheduled, stressed out lives and seem to struggle with anxiety disorders at shocking rates. Parents often exacerbate this with high-strung and self-centered behavior. Your influence and the behavior and priorities you model will be critical in helping your daughters keep a sense of perspective in their lives. Make sure they have time and space to be themselves.

The flip side is that, overall, the DC metro area is home to tremendous cultural diversity and extraordinary access to music, art, and history. The opportunities here for those willing to expand their horizons are wide and deep—take advantage of everything you can!
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:32 AM on September 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

What time of year are you actually moving? Schools are on a different schedule here (I'm sure you know that, just covering the basics). School just started here second week in September, and lets out sometime in June. Depending on exact circumstances, your kids may get moved ahead or behind in school...depending on how much of the year they finished in one jurisdiction and how recently the schools started in another. (My friend got moved ahead this way.) Especially for the younger one where class groups are more about age.

Your kids will get a couple of short holidays (2-3 days) in the fall, a week or two over Christmas/New Years, a week in the spring, and two months in the a couple of 1-2 day holidays/teacher work days. Filling up all that free time in summery is a thing, if you won't have an adult at home you might want to find a summer camp for the younger one for at least a couple of weeks--sign up will be sometime in March-April. (There are museum camps, sports camps, performing arts camps, and traditional bit-of-everything camps. Day camps and overnight camps. Etc.)

Unless you choose private school, then the schedule can be entirely different--full year, longer vacations, shorter vacations, anything.

It is maybe-possibly going to be a colder, wetter winter than normal this year. Schools will close for bad weather when adults still have to go to work. If you don't know how to drive on poor roads--no one else here does either. Make sure you have a plan for how the kids are taken care of (maybe oldest is old enough to watch the younger one for a day?).

Metro SafeTrack is still running for a couple more months, which means the metro schedule is even more chaotic than usual...but at least there are fewer train fires.
posted by anaelith at 6:15 AM on September 12, 2016

I've got a colleague who did just the opposite--lived in the Northern Virginia area, and after completing his PhD, moved to Australia with his family. If you would like to MeMail me, I should be able to get you in contact with him.
posted by apartment dweller at 7:29 AM on September 12, 2016

Just on a cultural note, I will suggest that you may find DC culture a bit stand-off-ish. It might help to think of it as a relatively formal culture rather than interpreting it as rejecting of you and your family. It is the US capital and a lot of people there work for the government in some capacity. From what I gather, it is more formal and conservative than most US cities, so you may not expect that based on friendships with other Americans if they aren't from that area.
posted by Michele in California at 4:44 PM on September 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wait, what? I'll respectfully disagree with the previous poster. The DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) area is ethnically diverse, is home to many foreign nationals who are here on temporary duty, is economically robust, and has one of the highest educated populations of any US metro area. Your local Wegmans supermarket will have a few familiar brands from home. We are quite used to people moving here to work for a few years; the transient nature of our town is a given. It's a bit of an in-joke here that we don't have a strong fashion sense, but we are far less formal in business attire and attitude than we used to be 20 or 30 years ago. We are nuts for an Aussie accent and you will be warmly welcomed. (I've lived in the DC metro area all my life save for undergrad/grad school.) Let me know if I can help you in any way.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:38 PM on September 13, 2016

As someone who's lived in the area recently, I'll say both of the two previous posters are right! DC does have a very buttoned-up, competitive, status-conscious side - but it's ALSO very transient/cosmopolitan and thus easier to make friends than you'd think.

Both Falls Church and Bethesda are quite white and wealthy (I thought Falls Church was more diverse due to more immigrants - it has an amazing Vietnamese strip mall - but wikipedia tells me it's 80% white) but you are guaranteed good schools and safe neighborhoods.
posted by lunasol at 10:39 PM on September 13, 2016

Regarding high schools, in case someone comes to this thread in the future--I've passed this along to the OP already--one source for assessing school quality is to use the Challenge Index established by Jay Matthews, education reporter for The Washington Post. Here is the link to the DC-area schools on his Index:

Note: it includes private schools, which are noted by a (P) following their names on the list.

Additionally, the City of Falls Church, while geographically located within Fairfax County, maintains its own small public school system, including one high school, George Mason. (Falls Church High School, on the other hand, is not run by the City of Falls Church, but is operated by the Fairfax County Public Schools system). It's possible to have a Falls Church address but not actually reside within the City of Falls Church. The takeaway for this is to ask questions about the school district of the specific address you will be living at. And from time to time, school boundaries are moved.
posted by apartment dweller at 6:27 AM on September 15, 2016

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