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Pitfalls of picking a high school

Want to find the right school for your teen? Avoid the three top mistakes parents make when searching for the best educational experience.

By GreatSchools Staff

When it comes to your child’s education, the more choices you have, the better, right?

Sure, except that having more choices can make the school-choosing process more difficult as you struggle to answer questions like: Where will my teen be happiest for the next few years? Is the popular public high school near our house or the private one with the stellar scores a better bet? Is this school really as great as it seems?

To help parents avoid common pitfalls when choosing a school, we checked in with Liz Perelstein, president of School Choice International. Perelstein, who has worked as an admissions officer, now advises parents on that sometimes crazy-making, but all-important question: which school will be best for my child?

1. Choosing a school as a means to an end.

Many parents are so obsessed with high school as a vehicle for getting into college, that they forget to think about the experience their child will have in those four important years. High school is the time when kids learn to think critically, analyze pros and cons, explore, identify their passions, learn to work independently, learn how to advocate for themselves, and develop relationships with their teachers.

Does the school offer an atmosphere and opportunity for that level of engagement? Check the class size and pay attention to the number of class offerings. Are there lots of extra-curricular activities to make sure your teen will be able to try new things? Check here for more key questions to ask when choosing a school.

2. Choosing a school solely based on its college acceptances.

Just because a school can boast about college acceptances, doesn’t mean that your child will get into a “top-rated” college. Parents should try to find out why children from that school are admitted to those colleges.

Is it because the guidance counselors have great relationships with several top college admissions' offices – an insider connection your child could take advantage of? Is it because of the school's outstanding curriculum and how well students are exceptionally well-prepared prepared for college? Or is it because many parents are alumni from “top-rated” colleges and have a history of making major donations to these universities?

In the latter case, if most of the students are getting into top colleges because of family connections, it may be harder for someone who doesn’t have those connections to get in.

3. Choosing a school without considering the school's culture and tone.

Friendship and socialization is a significant part of the high school experience. Pay attention to how the kids act together. Do they look comfortable with one other? Do kids seem to be mixing well, or do you notice definite cliques that exclude?

Another important indicator of a school is how it's run. A strong, inspiring leader can set the tone for a positive experience, where teachers and students work well and effectively together. So try to check out the school at a time when you can watch the principal in action – take note of how the students act around her. Do they greet her, or shy away? See how the principal greets students. Does the faculty seem comfortable with the principal – and does the staff seem engaged and happy to be there? Find out more tips on how to best assess a high school and the top five reasons to avoid a high school.


Comments from readers

"Ignore 'American Parent living overseas'. He/she was obviously a trustfund child who was handed a degree by showing up to class. The rest of us who went to college, no matter how we got there, worked our behinds off to get the degree and I found this person's comments way off base. You can make a success of yourself at many of the colleges out there, even if they aren't the 'top.' You better believe that after 20+ years working as an engineer, putting 60+ hour weeks months on end, I will use my money to put my daughter in the best school I can, and I'm not going to feel guilty about it. In the end, she will have to work hard to earn whatever degree she gets, and that's what is important."
"This was an excellent article and I wish that I had this prior to my children entering high school. It makes a huge difference in how the school has achieved their reputation and how it continues to maintain it. I have a sophomore that I am in the process of changing schools just because of it not being the right fit even though they have good programs."
"I refer to the below comment made by the author: 'Or is it because many parents are alumni from “top-rated� colleges and have a history of making major donations to these universities? In the latter case, if most of the students are getting into top colleges because of family connections, it may be harder for someone who doesn’t have those connections to get in.' I did not realize that corruption is so pervasive in American society such that bribing and money can even affect fair opportunities of education. What's more, the author's second sentence implies that Americans have accepted this 'bribery' as a normality. This is sad. This type of attitude will only engender permanent class divides, and those talented children from a less affluent family will always have to work harder to simply have the same opportunities as the kids with wealthier parents. Why do you, Americans, accept this situation as status quo? Sincerely, American parent living overseas "
"When you live in a town that you pay taxes in for the schools in that town, you have no choice! You can move or pay extra money for other schools, which most of us can't afford to pay twice and moving is very costly!!!!!"
"All those factors go out of the window now as all states are broke and that will eventually translate into charter schools as well and into parents who can no longer pay for private school. With teacher hiring and pay freezes and with MASSIVE budget cuts, plus increased ratios and no new books or technology, the climate in all schools will be awful. Don't forget that extracurricular activities will be cut too."