Finding the Right High School, Part II: A Parent’s Guide

January 19, 2016

By Bonnie Raskin
Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship Manager

Finding the right high school can set the stage for the rest of a child’s academic and professional future.  The key to choosing the best high school for your child lies first in understanding your child’s specific needs, but it also requires both child and parents to learn about the various options available.  While at the outset, this can seem like a daunting task, here are some tips we use to assist the Caroline D. Bradley Scholars and parents as they choose the best high school for their family:

DEFINE YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS: Some children learn and work better in a structured learning environment, while others thrive in classrooms that allow students to guide the process.  Look at a school’s curriculum and disciplinary policies.  Does the school stress group projects over individual assignments? What are the homework policies and discipline practices? What services are available to help students learn or provide additional tutoring support?

DETERMINE YOUR CHILD’S LEARNING STYLE:  Is your child a visual or auditory learner, and does he work better in groups or individually? Does your child have any learning disabilities that the school will need to address, and if so does the school offer specific programs for those types of learning issues? If possible, talk to parents of children with similar learning styles to find out how they think the school is performing.

WEIGH YOUR OPTIONS:  Today, most parents needn’t limit their high school choices to the neighborhood high school. Research your options across charter, magnet and signatory public schools, independent day and boarding options, homeschooling networks and online educational opportunities, as well as early college and community college programs for accelerated learners.

CONSIDER DIVERSITY: While diversity may be a significant factor for minority students in particular, a diverse student community benefits all high school students, providing a range of life experiences, points of view and the opportunity to hear, learn from, and work with people different from oneself.

EXAMINE TEST SCORES AND ALUMNI SUCCESS:  Test scores are a factor to consider when choosing a high school, although it should never be the only factor. Look at the trend of test scores in recent years: have scores moved up or down? This may indicate whether a school is actively pursuing improvement or declining in terms of academic rigor and quality.  Is there an indication of how students with disabilities are performing, as well as the rest of the student body.  This may indicate how well the school addresses a diverse range of available test-taking options within its student body.

Beyond test scores, look at college enrollment/matriculation data: Are alumni attending the caliber of university that you hope for your child?  Are their students immersed in rewarding occupations or career options? Do alumni have an ongoing relationship with the school after graduation?

LOOK AT ACADEMIC PROGRAMS: Look for a school where your child’s brain will be exposed to a wide variety of subjects, cultures and pursuits, both in and out of class. Are you looking for Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs that challenge academic achievers with more rigorous curricula? Are there dual-enrollment programs that allow students to earn college credits while still in high school? Are there strong programs in STEM and/or arts/Humanities programs that offer depth in course offerings as well as the potential for acceleration and placement tests?

FACILITIES:  An excellent private school should offer many kinds of enrichment from study abroad programs to a diversity of foreign languages and in-depth subject area curricula.  Libraries, computer labs and facilities for art, music and drama should be well-equipped and staffed with specialist teachers.

ITS ABOUT THE TEACHERS: Many aspects of a school are fundamental, others are luxuries, but teachers can make or break a child’s natural curiosity. Their passion for the subject they teach can—and should—ignite a young mind. If your child attends a shadow visit to a school, find out from him what he experienced during his class time:  how did the students engage with the teacher? What was the class size? Ask your child if she would want to be in this class with this teacher? Look for teaching staff who can be inspiring mentors.

IN EDUCATION, SMALLER TENDS TO BE BETTER:  Educational research has shown that working in small groups fosters closer relationships between students and teachers, and also that a smaller student-to-teacher ratio leads to greater success in college. But numbers can be misleading. In their published student-to-teacher ratios, some schools count every adult and coach as a teacher. If you want to forecast the amount of attention your child will potentially get from classroom teachers, multiply the number of sections a teacher has in a day by the average class size. This will give you a sense of how much individualized contact a teacher is likely to have with each child. Also inquire about extra “support” hours a teacher makes available and if the teacher maintains an online presence via an e-mail where students can reach him/her off hours if necessary.

WORK WITH THE TEENAGE BRAIN, NOT AGAINST IT:  The teenage brain is wired for risk taking, and when it comes to harmful or unhealthy behaviors, this can be a negative. High schools that understand this inherent issue try to channel this drive by challenging students to travel, try out for a play or team or something they’ve never done before, take initiative on a school project, perform in front of the student body, participate in a class retreat, or tutor other students. Risk taking is a necessary part of identity formation, so investigate the opportunities your child will have to test himself and grow in positive ways.

LIST EXTRACURRICULAR OPPORTUNITIES: These run the gamut from sports and specific subject teams to drama and technology clubs, music offerings such as band or orchestra, robotics, debate, Model UN, and regional/national competitive options such as science fairs, Olympiads, etc. Larger schools tend to have a wider selection of extracurricular options, but if the smaller private school offers specific programs your child is looking for, this could end up as a better fit. Find out what programs the school offers, which programs get the most attention and funding, and whether participation in extracurricular activities is required at the high school.

THE BEST WAY TO LEARN LEADERSHIP IS TO PRACTICE IT:  Rather than only looking at a list of clubs and government positions at school, find out if a particular school provides opportunities to practice leadership by creating a club, teaching a noncredit course, initiating a fundraising effort, starting a new chapter of a national organization or assembling a team for competitive participation in an area of interest—robotics, science fair, Math Olympiad for example.

CONSIDER PRACTICAL FACTORS: In addition to the various options offered to students, practical factors must come into play for parents as well.  What is the commute like?  Does the school provide transportation? Are there buses or metro services the student will have to rely upon on a twice-daily basis?  If the school is far from home, how will this impact the time for the student’s commute and wake-up time?  How feasible will it be for the student to attend afterschool and weekend activities at the school? Do most of the student community live far from your child’s home, and if so, how will this affect get-together opportunities like group projects and socializing?

OBSERVE THE SCHOOL IN ACTION: Plan visits to see the school environment in action—not just at specified Open House dates which are usually held during non-school hours.  If possible, schedule a shadow day or half day for your child where she can actually attend classes, meet other enrolled students and be an active participant in a typical school day to see firsthand how classes are taught and the makeup of the student body and faculty. If your child wants to participate in sports, attend a sporting event at the school, or a play or musical performance.  How do the participants perform individually and as a team or group? What is the audience behavior like? Are there parents and other students in attendance to support the program?

TALK TO YOUR CHILD: Maintain an ongoing dialogue with your child concerning pros and cons of each school he is considering. While parents have significant say and sway in the final decision, by the time a child is considering high school, she should be able to define and identify that school best suited for her optimal high school experience academically, extracurricularly and socially.

AFTER SELECTION AND ENROLLMENT: The following are signs that I use with the CDB Scholar community to review and assess fit:

  • Your child is eager to go to school.
  • Your child acts energized and engaged at the end of the school day.
  • The pace of learning in core subjects is, overall, about right for your child: challenging but achievable.
  • You see progress in your child’s overall development- academic, physical, social and emotional–  throughout each school year.
  • Your child feels that her abilities and interests are appreciated and addressed at school.
  • Your child is achieving and performing academically at the level of which he is capable.
  • Your child has friends and acquaintances who like and accept him at school.
  • School work and friends are important but not all-consuming aspects of your child’s life.

When your child’s and family’s needs fit well with what a school offers, I call that a GREAT FIT.

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