Six Novel things in NJ Public schools for an Aussie Expat



Fresh fruit bar in American school cafeteria. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Author: U.S. Department of Agriculture

RELOCATION: Now we’ve talked about the more difficult things in New Jersey public schools for expats, let’s talk about the fun and interesting stuff that happens, that doesn’t happen back home.

Some of these are just sort of interesting and others are ‘Woohoo!’ things that I’d love to export back home. So without further ado, here they are:


1. Science Fairs

School science fairs are something that most Australians back home would not be too familiar with, unless they have seen them on TV or in a movie. They might only think of them as something that ‘American’ schools participate in.


A potato battery demonstration at the local school science fair. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

 Just two weeks ago, we were lucky enough to have the science fair experience for real. Walking into the school’s largest hall, there was a huge crowd of parents and students milling around rows and rows of tables, full of science projects. What a surreal experience it was. Hundreds of poster boards on display, with hand-made models, experimental setups and all sorts of paraphernalia.


Student science fair exhibitions and supporting parents. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



School science fair displays. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Each student’s work was individually assessed by a class teacher who questioned them about what they had made and the scientific principles they were trying to demonstrate. The children had clearly put a lot of effort into their displays and stood proudly by, explaining it to any passersby who showed interest.


A hands on demonstration of energy through friction at the local school science fair. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

While there was deliberately no overall first prize chosen, it was obvious that every kid was a winner, with enhanced self-esteem, added knowledge and the reward of participation. Let’s hope we get the chance to do this again.


2. School Cafeteria

Where in Australia we look to the school canteen to sell lunches and snacks to our children when not bringing food from home, in the USA it’s the school cafeteria that does that job. While my children aren’t always enamored by the cafeteria’s offerings, they provide a wonderful service for kids whose parents, for whatever reason, choose to, or cannot provide breakfast or lunches to their children on school days.


Students with their lunches in an American school cafeteria. Times have changed but this tradition remains part of the school establishment. Author: Library of Virginia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For families that have financial obstacles, food is provided at a very low subsidized cost. But even at full price, students can get a full nutritionally balanced meal (often a hot meal too) for what is a very low cost. It is certainly a convenient option for working parents. Kids are also encouraged to eat the full array of vegetables, as well as the main portions. Well at least in elementary school – it’s a bit of a hard ask when they get older and more self-opinionated.

While Jamie Oliver might find US school cafeteria options less attractive than his own cooking, the meals are still very good value and many children like them.


3. Yellow School Buses

Ahh, yes. Those iconic yellow school buses. These are the standard means of transport for all US school children until high school. Yellow buses are actually customized for use by school kids versus the normal buses that commuters use.

What is wonderful about this concept is that these buses stop to pick up and drop off school kids in a much safer way than Australian school buses. They are specially equipped with a swing-out stop sign and barrier arm that tells other drivers that they are off-loading or picking up school passengers.


An expat Aussie hurrying off the yellow school bus to go home. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

By law here, drivers are required to stop on both sides of the road, allowing the children to move around the bus and cross the road in safety. This is just one of the great systems used here, that I would love to see adopted back home.


4. The PTA

The ‘PTA’ is the Australian equivalent of the ‘P & C’. Unlike my experiences back home, the PTAs appear to get exceptional levels of commitment and participation from their school communities. They are very well-organized and have very extensive activities for fundraising, school promotion, in-school projects and after-school programs.

Overall, this commitment delivers a wide range of enriching activities for children and school alike. Some of the things they organize includes school fairs (like a school fete or carnival), book fairs, green-projects for classrooms, school grounds gardening care, after-school enrichment programs, school tours, social events, training programs for class representatives, school staff appreciation events and many more.

Sure, some of these things get done in Australia too. But not nearly as many, and rarely with the same gusto.


In Australia, a movie and chart topping song called the Harper Valley PTA helped give us early cultural images about what the American equivalent to the school P&C was like. Photo by Plantation Records/Paul Perry Management, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So many families give up their time here, including working and non-working parents. The schools we have been involved with also seem to have great community atmosphere. It’s something you can only admire and of course feel motivated by, to offer help yourself.


5. After School programs

There is one PTA program that requires special mention. That’s the after-school enrichment program. This is a diverse program that offers after-school classes and activities for children, across a range of areas such as sport, music, visual arts, languages, science plus others. The programs run twice a year, through Spring and Autumn (Fall).

 Classes are fee-based but at a very reasonable cost. They give the kids easy, convenient and quality options for doing after-school activities at the school they attend. The after-school programs my daughter has attended have been extremely well run and a lot of fun, with some actual learning involved as well.

It’s still astounding to me, that this can be organized and delivered by school parents in such an efficient and beneficial way. Another great idea that we could export home.


6. Formality from school staff

One of the stranger things for an alien Australian, is the way you are so formally addressed by the staff in New Jersey public schools. It’s always “Yes, Mrs. Watson,” or “No, Mrs. Watson”, or even “Ma’am.” Even when you know the staff well, they still will not call you by your first name, not even when you greet them informally eg. “Hi Susan! …. Hello Mrs. Watson!…(sigh).”

I guess it is the school protocol to greet parents so respectfully at all times. It’s kinda nice certainly but does make me feel like my own mum sometimes.


All-in-all, you can see there are lots of great things about US schools (and New Jersey schools in particular). While things can be different, that is not always a bad thing at all. Added together with the fact that New Jersey public schools are considered amongst the best in the country, you could certainly be a lot worse off.

This has been the fourth article in a series on New Jersey Public schools.


Four striking differences in NJ schools compared to home

Six fundamental FAQs on New Jersey Public Schools: for new Aussie expats

What is the New Jersey School system like?

Three Relocation lessons learnt early on



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2 thoughts on “Six Novel things in NJ Public schools for an Aussie Expat

  1. American formality seems to be pretty far away from a warm “G’day mate!” 🙂

    • Hello:) I have been away in Cape May for the last four days so apologies for being tardy in my response! At some schools, I would definitely say this is true. But at the school where I knew the staff, they were very warm people, even when they called me “Mrs. Watson.” They were the kindest, most caring school staff I’ve ever come across in any school (including Australia). But it did just seem that little bit different that they couldn’t call me by my first name. By the looks of it, this like many other things, appears to be one of their strict protocols. I imagine the staff are not allowed to call me by my first name as they do in Australia. A cultural difference but not really a problem, just different:)

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