Things to think about when evaluating best high schools
Culture – What sort of student is a natural at this school? Best high schools may be sporty or intellectual, artsy or outdoorsy. There are schools who say they welcome all sorts of students, introspective as well as extraverted. But in reality, only the sporty, over-achiever is noticed. Make sure you find out. Then you can decide. It is not “wrong” to select a top high school where the culture may not be a perfect fit. Rather, you have to recognize that that there will be a certain amount of discomfort because you are not deeply connected with the prevailing ethos. But it may be that you decide your student can manage it and overall there is more to be gained by the school experience than is lost in managing the cultural disconnect.
Academics – Of course you want to look at the results. For good high schools, they should be stellar. Review university placements, AP scores, SAT scores, National Merit Scholars nominated and average GPA. Look also at how the learning is delivered. Are classes organized for discussion around a table, by hands-on “experiences,” by structure and memorization? These methods may be found in all top ranked schools. Decide in which environment your student will thrive. Look at the curriculum. First know what it is: “American,” IB, AP, Cambridge? Then think about the implications. For example, AP style classes deliver a huge learning “spike” in an individual discipline. IB classes emphasize integration among several subjects. The key idea is not only to look at the numbers or the program but also at what this implies. A good example is average GPA. It may be relatively low. That can mean that the material is quite challenging and few sail through classes with ease. On the other hand, this may mean that most students are underachievers. Find out!
Location – Do you favor an urban or suburban or even rural campus? There are top high schools found among all of these settings. The environment for each offers different benefits and detractors. Consider transport via school bus, public transportation? Will your student drive, will you drive, rideshare? Are there many after school commitments? Again it is all about the implications and compromises. Just be sure to do a good fact check. Make sure the bus stop you assumed was near your newly purchased home has not moved. Or conversely, what seemed like an impossible distance to school may actually be closer or more accessible than you thought.
Special programs – Consider if the school is equipped to support your student’s specialized work in fine arts, performing arts, sports, world languages or STEM.
Value – Among top ranked high schools are private schools which are expensive. Public schools are also always named among best high schools. You may be fortunate and have both public and private options. Both offer good pathways to top universities. So it may be hard to evaluate if the extra expense of a private high school is a good investment. Ask if your student will truly benefit from and take advantage of the scholastic experience offered at the more pricey private program.
College counseling – Since the goal of high school is preparation for university, good high schools will have a serious college counseling program. Ask how counselors are assigned students and how many counselees are assigned to each counselor. The fewer, the better. Top ranked public high schools may have one counselor for 400 students, for example. Do not let this dissuade you. Rather, you may still select this school but hire a private college counselor.
What best high schools all have in common
- Are safe and organized
- Set high expectations for students
- Have a relatable leader
- State a clear mission
- Monitor student progress
- Provide the opportunity to learn
- Build a true partnership between home and school