Whether the goal is to attend college or go another route, much of the groundwork for a student’s future is laid in high school.
But for the experience to be fruitful, experts say it’s important that students are in the right environment.
“Choosing a high school isn’t just about the brand name,” Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. “Parents want to make sure their child will be happy on a campus that meets their academic, extracurricular, and personal needs.”
Some families will have more choices than others when they enter high school, depending on their financial situation and where they live. For those who can choose and are considering a private or boarding school, looking at public schools outside their district, or thinking about a charter or magnet school, here are 10 things experts say families should consider.
Academic Program Offerings
One of the first determining factors for many families, experts say, is the type of academic programs a school offers. Parents should research whether a school offers dual enrollment, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs, “or other ways that courses can be accredited or partner with another external institution 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 look for more rigorous coursework,” he says.
If the student is interested in pursuing a particular subject area, such as theater or journalism, parents might also want to consider whether the school provides related opportunities.
Determining how much money to spend – if any – on a child’s high school education can be a challenging but important decision for parents.
“Take a hard look at the public schools in your area … before you start applying to top private schools, because you just might have a gem in your neck of the woods,” says Brian Taylor, managing partner at college admissions consulting firm Ivy Coach “That public school might be more highly regarded than the top private school.”
Admissions officers at competitive colleges tend to have higher expectations for students who attend private schools, Huguet says, “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 the cost of tuition.
Aside from academic success, colleges want to see that students have “a consistent, authentic passion,” says Mary Banks, a consultant at Quad Education Group and a former admissions counselor at Columbia University in New York. “You have to be unique in high school somehow. That covers a multitude of things and it even makes up for a high school that’s not ranked No. 1.”
One way to demonstrate that is through extracurriculars like clubs, sports teams or school organizations. If a student plays a particular sport or has a specific hobby, experts say families should research whether a school offers that activity as part of its extracurricular opportunities.
If an activity isn’t offered at a school, students should ask if the school would allow them to create their own club. This demonstrates leadership, Banks says, which can be a differentiating factor for students in college admissions.
Aside from being an attractive piece of a college application, extracurriculars can also play a vital 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 further cultivate interests and relationships that help forge a path for their future, experts say.
Getting a feel for a school’s diversity should be a high priority for families, experts say.
It doesn’t matter what type of school a student attends, there are often tradeoffs when it comes to racial, economic and other forms of diversity, Chada says, so families should consider what’s most important to them. In addition to demographics, parents might 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’s a body of research showing that students benefit from being in diverse classroom settings.
“If the reams of social science evidence is correct in arguing that diversity makes us smarter, and if higher education researchers are correct about their findings related to college students,” the report says, “our elementary and secondary education students have much to learn and gain from public schools that are diverse and in which 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 provide students with more personal attention or a larger high school with more opportunities to build relationships, parents should choose the environment that’s best suited for their child.
Families may also want to consider the school’s student-teacher ratio. Even though he favors smaller class sizes, Chada says large schools with bigger class sizes can still provide quality learning opportunities and support for students.
School counselors are a vital part of the college admissions process, Banks says, and the size of the school may impact a counselor’s availability to students. If a small student-teacher ratio is important to families, they may want to also consider a school’s counselor-student ratio.
Supports 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 for students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible. (Private schools are not subject to this requirement. Though some private schools cater specifically to students with disabilities.) Families for whom this is a priority should determine if their child’s needs can be met at a particular school.
“If your child has special needs, look for schools that have experience and expertise in providing support and accommodations,” Huguet says. “Visit learning centers and schedule times to speak with representatives who can explain the services available for students with special needs. If your child has special needs, this step should take precedence over all of 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 a good fit is by visiting the school and seeing how students interact with each other and how school staff interact with students.
“Ask yourself if these people are aligned with you ideologically, if you like the way they treat each other and speak to each other,” Chada says.
Families should visit a school in person “as soon as possible,” Huguet says, and he advises students to “trust your gut feeling when you’re on campus. You may realize you have some rather quirky criteria for a high school.”
Graduation and College Attendance Rates
While families may not want to base their decisions on numbers alone, certain statistics can suggest how successful a school has been at preparing students for the next stage of their lives.
Two stats to consider, experts say, are graduation rates and college attendance rates. Many schools also list the colleges to which their students matriculate. This information is typically found on the school’s profile page, which is generally linked on the school’s website.
“Look at average SAT and ACT scores from the school, and then match that to the target test scores of the schools that you’re applying to,” Chada says. “Also look for the number of universities that students matriculated at from your school and ask yourself if these are the kind of universities that you’d want to go to. It’s easy to figure out if you’re going to be a good fit.”
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, by and large 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 nearly 16% during the 2019–20 academic year. Furthermore, a 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of US teens experienced some form of online harassment that included receiving physical threats or being the victim of false rumors.
When it comes to choosing a school, issues of student safety and security “have become differentiating factors for families with growing concerns about violence in schools,” Huguet says.
“Parents should look into the school’s safety policies, procedures, and request records of incidents,” he says.
Post-pandemic, many schools are making more frequent use of technology. It’s important to understand what technology is available at a school and determine whether it fits the needs or interests of a student.
“With technology being an essential tool for learning and communication, some schools may be better prepared than others for the possibility of remote learning,” Huguet says. “When visiting a school or talking with representatives, families should not only consider the availability of devices and infrastructure, but also how technology is integrated into the classroom curriculum and teaching methods.”
He also recommends asking if schools restrict access to certain new digital tools, such as ChatGPT.
“Parents should feel free to ask about how technology is used in the classroom and whether the school adapts its curriculum accordingly to help students develop critical thinking skills and learn about new systems,” he says.