Many parents whose children are approaching high school have asked me for advice on choosing a high school that's right for them.
I’ve developed this tip sheet in the hopes of helping more parents as they and their children face this crucial, life-altering choice.
1. It’s about the teachers.
Teachers are to schools what engines are to cars. Many aspects of a school are fundamental; others are luxuries. But teachers can make or break a child’s natural curiosity. Their passion for learning provides the spark to ignite young minds. So first and foremost, ask yourself, “How do students interact with faculty, and how engaged are they in class? How many students does a teacher see in a day? Will this teacher ‘see’ my child?" and finally, “Would I want to be in this person’s class?”
Diversity of the teaching staff also has a big impact on learning. Look for a faculty that has a variety of backgrounds and cultures, including study and training at a wide range of universities in the U.S. and abroad.
2. You are the company you keep.
What we know about teenagers is that friendships become paramount. For that reason, if you ask your child where she wants to go to school, the answer will probably be heavily—if not entirely—based on where her friends are going. So you need to ask yourself, “Do I feel good about this group of peers helping my child make key day-to-day decisions? Are these friends going to open doors for my child? Is being with the same group of peers going to prepare my child for a diverse college and work setting?”
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3. In education, smaller is 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-teacher ratios, some schools count every adult and coach as a teacher. If you want to forecast the amount of attention your child will get from classroom teachers, multiply the number of sections a teacher has in a day by the average class size. That will give you a sense of how much individualized contact a teacher is likely to have with each child.
4. Use it or lose it.
Late adolescence is a time when the brain undergoes a second pruning phase (the first happening in early childhood), during which neurons that are not stimulated are lost for a lifetime. However, the competition in college admissions today encourages students to narrow their interests just when they should be broadening them. Look for a place where your child’s brain will be exposed to a wide variety of subjects, cultures, and pursuits, both in and out of class, especially those that won’t affect the student’s GPA.
5. 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. Schools like ours 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. Look for teaching staff who can be inspiring mentors.
6. Getting into college doesn’t have to be painful.
In fact, if done right, both your child and the college to which he is accepted will feel lucky. Although admission to many schools may be the most competitive in history, the key ingredient for student success is finding the right match. Your child needs to know about and investigate the many options available to him to make that critical choice. That is where early course selection, individualized advising and college counseling, family meetings with the school’s college counselor, meetings with admissions representatives from many schools, and trips to colleges can be key to finding the place where your child will not only be accepted but will thrive. Ask about which, if any, of these resources are available.
7. Waiting until college to think and act globally may be too late.
For themselves and for our communities, today’s high school students need to become culturally aware and literate in order to become successful global citizens. Ask about class content (does it include other cultures?) as well as student experiences such as school-sponsored international trips, exchange programs, and digital cultural exchanges (e.g., holding videoconferences involving multiple schools, sharing student work with a sister school abroad, or using international Skype pals to practice language acquisition).
8. The best way to learn leadership is to practice it.
Rather than look at a list of clubs and government positions at a school, look for where your child might have 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 making decisions that affect her peers (as in disciplinary hearings). Look for a school where teachers and administrators believe every student should have the chance to practice leadership.
9. High school is not just a stepping stone to college.
High school is a critically important, formative time. Adolescents make decisions, form habits, absorb values, and learn skills that affect them for a lifetime. Their independence puts teens in situations where they have to make choices on their own. Meanwhile, demands on time can lead to stress, sleep deprivation, and more. Students need adult guidance and a wellness program to help them solidify their identities, form healthy relationships, and find mind/body balance. Ask about the types of formalized, consistent guidance your child can expect to receive.
10. What is important to you?
Each school has its own values and culture, and your best fit will be one that matches yours. Before you even step out your door, spend some time at home with your child determining what values are important to your family, what beliefs you want reinforced, and the type of environment that brings out the best in your child.