Posted by Resident (also from Britain), a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Jul 22, 2008 at 1:11 pm
Very brave of you to come with two 15 year olds.
They will find US school system very different. The biggest shock is the culture, but academics will be very different too. Their English school may be able to help, but I suggest you do plenty of research before you come as to what will happen and get au fait with phrases like SATs, APs, GPAs, graduation requirements, UC requirements, as everyone here talks about them as if everyone in the world understands the phrase and when you ask for more details, you get more similar phrases as answers.
Basically, there are no equivalents of O and A levels. To graduate high school there is a very easy exit exam known as CAHSEE which most students here pass in 10th grade (with two more years of school still to go). On top of that there are school requirements which I expect a school counsellor will walk you through as you register your students. These requirements will be so many years of this and so many units (a period of study) of others. Some classes are year long and some half year long (semester). There are class exams in January and June (called finals but are not really the final exam) and these carry some of the marks for the year, but what is more important is keeping up to date with homework and handing it in on time and class tests (or sometimes called quizes) which all carry points for the final grade. It is possible to do really well during the year and do badly in the exam and still pass, or the other way round, but obviously you want to try and do well in both. Generally, the teachers here use InClass, a system whereby you and the students can check on the grade progression during the year and also check in to see homework assignments, etc.
Freshman year in the first year in high school and then they all go by names, 2nd year is sophomore, 3rd year junior and 4th year senior. The label senior is only attached to 4th year high school. Freshman year is often a big transition for students, sophomore has the distinction of the year when everyone starts driving, junior year is SATs (college entrance exams which can be taken multiple times) and senior year is college application year, which has to start straight away as deadlines for application are usually due in December. Acceptances start coming out in March and accepting the acceptance has to be done May/June so by the end of the year, everyone knows where they are going.
In Palo Alto we have two high schools, Gunn and Palo Alto High School (known as Paly). These are generally dependent on residential boundaries, but typically Gunn is full for new residents so it is likely that in November, you will be assigned to Paly. Both schools are good, but there is always the discussion of which is better, but since we are talking about very little difference in point value on scores which are excellent, the point is moot. Paly has a reputation for being more sports orientated and possibly liberal arts and journalism, with Gunn being the math/science school, but as I said the differences are really nothing to be worried about.
Realtors for buyers get a commission from the selling realtor, so sometimes you can do very well if you find a home you like and get the selling realtor to work on your behalf. They do the conveyancing and help with getting loans. Some take on renters too, so you need to do some research on which one to use, but most will happily help you with what you need.
There is a very useful system here in that every Sunday afternoon, most of the houses for sale will have "open House" and you can go round on your own looking at all the property. If you are here over a weekend before you move, do this round of open houses and you will see what is available for what amount of money even if you are only planning to rent.
Rentals here vary enormously. Sometimes a rental property is owned by a company doing rentals and sometimes you will find a rental owned by grown children of a deceased parent who may want to return to this area in the future or sometimes the property may be owned by an elderly person moved into a retirement home and needs the rental income for the payment for the retirement home. In any case, my recommendation is to rent in an area where there are many people who own their own home rather than a typical rental neighborhood.
Condos or townhomes, are nice sounding rentals and will probably have neighbors who own. Apartment rentals tend to be not quite as nice and you will probably find your neighbors all rent also. There are many people who rent in Palo Alto and there is no snob value attached to renting or not renting.
Shopping, and the other things you mention are reasonably easy but you will need to drive to get to them. The downtown (highstreet) area of Palo Alto is more restaurants than shopping. Stanford Shopping Centre is mainly high end department stores and chains. Mervyns, Target and Costco are all places you will find are good value (Costco is the same as the UK - you need a membership). We have several supermarkets in Palo Alto, but the bigger selections are available in Mountain View or Menlo Park. There are two British Foods stores, one in Campbell and one in San Mateo, where you can get your fix of HP sauce, Heinz Beans, proper sausages (known as Bangers) and bacon (for some reason usually Irish).
Hope this is enough to give you for now.