Whether the goal is to attend college or pursue some other path, a large part of the foundation for a student’s future is laid in high school.
But for the experience to be rewarding, experts say it’s important that students are in the right environment.
“Choosing a high school isn’t just about a brand name,” wrote Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, in an email. “Parents want to make sure their child is happy to be on a campus that meets their academic, extracurricular, and personal needs.”
Some families will have more options than others when it comes to high school, depending on their financial situation and where they live. For those who can choose and are considering private or boarding schools, looking at public schools outside of their district, or thinking about charter or magnet schools, here are 10 things family experts say should consider.
Academic Program Offers
One of the first determining factors for many families, experts say, is the type of academic program the school offers. Parents should research whether schools offer dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate programs, “or other ways that courses can be accredited or partner with other external institutions to provide that level of academic rigor,” says Sasha Chada, founder and CEO of admissions consulting firm Ivy Scholars.
“Parents who want their children to go on to higher education should seek more rigorous courses,” he said.
If students are interested in pursuing a particular field of study, such as theater or journalism, parents may also want to consider whether the school provides related opportunities.
Determining how much money to spend – if any – on a child’s secondary school education can be a challenging but important decision for parents.
“Take a good look at the public schools in your area … before you start applying to top private schools, because you may have a gem around your neck,” says Brian Taylor, managing partner at a college admissions consulting firm. Coach Ivy, “Those public schools are probably worth more than the best private schools.”
Admissions officers at competitive colleges tend to have higher expectations for students attending private schools, says Huguet, “in the sense that they expect them to receive more support and access to a better, more personalized education.”
He notes that many private schools offer financial aid or scholarships to help offset school fees.
In addition to academic success, colleges want to see that students have “authentic and consistent passion,” says Mary Banks, consultant at Quad Education Group and former admissions counselor at Columbia University in New York. “You have to be unique in high school somehow. It covers a lot of things and even replaces high school that isn’t ranked No. 1.”
One way to show this is through extracurriculars such as clubs, sports teams, or school organizations. If a student plays a particular sport or has certain hobbies, experts say families should research whether the school offers those activities as part of their extracurricular opportunities.
If an activity is not offered at school, students should ask if the school will allow them to create their own club. It demonstrates leadership, says Banks, which can be a differentiating factor for students in college acceptance.
Apart from being an interesting college application, extracurriculars can also play an important role in helping students enjoy their time in high school. For students whose plans don’t include college, extracurriculars can be a way to develop skills and cultivate further interests and relationships that help pave the way for their future, experts say.
Experiencing school diversity should be a high priority for families, experts say.
No matter what type of school students attend, there are often tradeoffs in terms of race, economy and other forms of diversity, says Chada, so families must consider what is most important to them. In addition to demographics, parents may want to examine how schools demonstrate sensitivity to various cultural issues and how they teach about race and racism.
A 2016 report from the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank, says there is a body of research showing that students benefit from being in a diverse classroom environment.
“If much of the social science evidence is correct in suggesting that diversity makes us smarter, and if higher education researchers are correct about their findings regarding college students,” the report said, “our primary and secondary education students have much to learn and gain from school.” diversity and where professional educators know how to build on that diversity to help all students learn deeper, better, and more creatively about themselves and others.”
School Size and Environment
Whether it’s a small school that can give students more personal attention or a larger high school with more opportunities to build relationships, parents must choose the environment that best suits their child.
Families may also want to consider the school’s student-teacher ratio. While he likes smaller class sizes, Chada says large schools with larger class sizes can still provide quality learning opportunities and support for students.
School counselors are an important part of the college admissions process, Banks says, and the size of a school can influence the availability of counselors to students. If a small student-teacher ratio is important to families, they may also want to consider the school’s counselor-student ratio.
Support for Special Needs
Experts say one advantage of larger schools is that they tend to have more resources available for students with special needs. And public schools are required by federal law to provide an appropriate education to students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. (Private schools are not subject to this requirement. Although some private schools cater specifically to students with disabilities.) These priority families must determine whether their child’s needs can be met in a particular school.
“If your child has special needs, look for a school that has experience and expertise in providing support and accommodation,” says Huguet. “Visit a learning center and schedule time to speak with a representative who can explain the services available to students with special needs. If your child has special needs, this step should take precedence over all the other variables already mentioned.”
The culture or vibe of a school can make or break a family’s decision. The best way to determine if a school’s culture is appropriate is to visit the school and see how students interact with each other and how school staff interact with students.
“Ask yourself if these people align with you ideologically, do you like the way they treat each other and talk to each other,” says Chada.
Families should visit the school in person “as soon as possible,” says Huguet, and he advises students to “trust your gut while on campus. You may notice that you have some criteria that are somewhat unique to a high school.”
College Graduation and Attendance Rates
While families may not want to base their decisions on numbers alone, certain statistics can indicate how successful a school is in preparing students for the next stage of their lives.
Two statistics to consider, experts say, are graduation rates and college attendance rates. Many schools also list the colleges where their students are admitted as students. This information is usually found on the school’s profile page, which is usually linked to on the school’s website.
“Look at the school’s SAT and ACT averages, then match those against the target test scores of the school you’re applying to,” says Chada. “Also look up the number of universities your school has accepted students from and ask yourself if this is the type of university you are applying for. you want to go to. It’s easy to tell if you’ll fit in.”
Safety and security
School shootings and incidents of cyberbullying are on the rise, according to a 2022 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of fatal shootings increased from 11 in 2009 to 93 in 2021, according to the report. However, in general these incidents remain rare.
The report also shows that nearly 8% of public schools reported at least one incident of cyberbullying among students per week during the 2009–2010 academic year. That number increased to almost 16% during the 2019-2020 academic year. Additionally, a 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of US teens experienced some form of online harassment, including receiving physical threats or being the victim of false rumours.
In terms of choosing a school, the issue of student safety and security “has become a differentiating factor for families over the growing concern about school violence,” said Huguet.
“Parents should look into the school’s safety policies and procedures and ask for incident records,” he said.
After the pandemic, many schools used technology more frequently. It is important to understand what technology is available in a school and determine if it fits the needs or interests of students.
“With technology as an important tool for learning and communication, some schools may be better prepared than others for the possibilities of remote learning,” said Huguet. “When visiting schools or speaking with representatives, families should consider not only the availability of equipment and infrastructure, but also how technology is integrated into the classroom curriculum and teaching methods.”
He also recommends asking if schools are limiting access to certain new digital tools, such as ChatGPT.
“Parents should feel free to ask questions about how technology is being used in the classroom and whether schools are adapting their curricula to help students develop critical thinking skills and learn about new systems,” he said.