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Choosing a high school? Two important things to know are that not all high schools are the same, and not every school will be a good fit for your child. By doing some research, visiting some schools, and possibly applying for high schools outside your assigned area, you can help ensure your child gets the best possible high school education.

First, make a list of schools.

This will probably include your neighborhood school and any other schools in your area, but don’t just limit your search to your immediate neighborhood. Where are the other kids in your child’s class going? Where do your neighbors’ kids go? Ask community leaders for their perspective on how they view the schools in your immediate and surrounding communities. Ask around for the names of schools people have been happy with, where kids graduate and go on to college or viable career-training programs.

Next, check out the schools’ ratings on GreatSchools.org.

Once you have a preliminary list, learn more about each school. Each school has a profile page on GreatSchools.org, which you can read in English or Spanish (click the EN ESPAÑOL button in the upper right corner). At the top of each public school’s profile page, you’ll see a Summary Rating, which is a number from 1 (low) to 10 (high). This rating is a summary of several different measures of school quality. Hover over the rating and you can quickly see the different components that go into the rating. Scroll down to see in more detail specific subratings for important aspects of the school, like College Readiness, Test Scores, Advanced Courses, and Equity.

The College Readiness module will tell you how well the school prepares kids for college. You’ll see the graduation rate, how many kids graduate with the classes they need to be accepted into college, how many kids take advanced classes, and how well they do on college entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT. The Test Scores module will show you how well kids are performing on state standardized tests at this school compared to the state overall. The Advanced Courses module will show you how many kids take honors or AP classes. This is important because colleges look for challenging courses on student transcripts. Taking these courses can show kids are motivated and ready for the advanced work in college. In addition, many AP courses have exams at the end, and if students score high enough on these exams, they earn college credit.

The Equity module will show you how well the school is educating all kids. Scroll down to where it says Race/Ethnicity and you can see test scores, measures of college readiness, and even discipline and attendance broken down by race and ethnicity. How well are students like yours doing at this school? Click the compare link and you’ll be able to see how this school compares to other high schools near you. If other schools are serving kids like yours better, consider adding them to your list of high schools. Then visit your local and neighboring school district’s website to find out how to apply for your child to go to a school outside your neighborhood or district.

Then, take some tours

It’s critically important that you visit every school you’re considering. An in-person visit can tell you things the numbers can’t. You can ask questions about things that are important to you and your child. And you can learn a lot about the culture of the school and how kids are treated by seeing students and teachers during the school day. Tours typically take place in the fall, and you may need to sign up ahead of time. Check each school’s website for tour dates.

Once you’re there, be sure to ask questions. Many parents are shy to ask questions, but everyone on the tour will be glad you did. Here are some important questions to ask about any high school you’re considering:

  1. Do students at this school graduate and go to college?

    Ask how many of the school’s high school freshman will graduate, what the yearly drop-out rate is, and how many graduates continue on to college. Most schools will provide a list of the colleges recent graduates are attending. This will tell you how serious the school is about sending their students to college. Ask about the graduates who aren’t going to college to find out what are they doing next.

  2. Will you fully prepare my child for college?

    Make sure your child will have a college-preparatory curriculum that meets state college and university requirements for core subjects, like math, science, history, and English. Many parents are unaware that some public and private schools do not offer the required P.E., arts, or community service time colleges require, so your child would need to obtain the missing credit(s) outside of school.

  3. Do you offer AP and honors courses?

    Advanced Placement (AP) classes offer college-level coursework to high school students. Students in AP classes take national exams at the end of the year to gain college credit in classes ranging from art history to calculus, Spanish to Japanese. AP and honors classes can help your child’s college application stand out from the rest, and they can even save tuition by getting some required coursework out of the way. Ask how students get into AP classes. The availability of AP courses is another indication of how serious the school is about preparing graduates for college.

  4. Does the school meet my family’s basic needs?

    Look at practical considerations, such as commute time and transportation to the school. Note the school’s start and end times, average and maximum class sizes, and the overall school size. Unlike when you were choosing an elementary or middle school, ask your teenager for his or her input. Does she feel comfortable with the school and its location? Your teen is more likely to succeed at a school he or she helped choose.

  5. What support will you offer my child?

    Are teachers available for individual help before and after school, or during breaks? Find out if there is a peer tutoring system that provides students with academic help from other students. Ask what the school does when a student is struggling or failing a class. Advisory groups are a common way schools regularly check in with students to assure they are thriving academically, socially, and emotionally. Finally, find out if there are therapists or social workers available for emotional and social support.

  6. Is there help with the college application process?

    Another important area of support is during the college admission process. Most high schools offer some college counseling, but find out what that means at each school. Inquire whether the school offers instruction on filling out college applications and taking the SAT, in addition to directing kids towards suitable colleges. Ask how many college representatives visit the school every year.

  7. How many hours of homework do students have each night?

    High school students should have homework, but the quantity and quality can vary widely. Decide whether your child will thrive or at least manage the expected workload. If your child is an athlete, find out if it is possible to play on a sports team and still complete the expected homework. Ask if there is any after-school homework support.

  8. What electives, sports, and service opportunities are available?

    Be sure that the school offers your child’s favorite sport or activity, such as art, music, or drama. What are the requirements for playing on a team? Colleges and universities often ask applicants how much community service students have done in high school, so ask what service opportunities the school offers.

  9. Will my child be safe here?

    Find out what the school’s disciplinary policy is and how many suspensions and expulsions they have had over the past two years. Observe the halls during the school day to see how calm and safe they appear. Inquire whether the school has an open-campus policy, meaning students can leave the school grounds during school hours for lunch, and possibly at other times. Does the school have a written bullying policy and staff training for dealing with both on-campus and online bullying? Finally, don’t hesitate to ask if there is an alcohol or drug problem on campus. While this can be an uncomfortable question to ask, it’s vital to get a sense of how the school responds to this reality on high school campuses, and whether or not they are aware and proactive.

Choosing a high school isn’t easy, but the more information you have, the more informed your decision will be. And by starting these conversations with the high schools you are interested in, you are setting the stage for supporting your child through this important part of their education.

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