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How to Choose the Best High School for Your Child

Parents should consider diversity, community, and programs when choosing high schools for their kids.

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Erik Clemons of New Haven, Conn., has a slew of daughters. The oldest, Kiara, graduated from Smith College and is considering law school; Nyle is a freshman biology major at Tuskegee University in Alabama; Nia is a high school sophomore; and Kai is finishing up 6th grade.

The education of their daughters is incredibly important to Erik and his wife, Sharon, and when the family moved from Norwalk, Conn., to New Haven, they looked closely at its public high school system. They met with principals and teachers and visited the schools while they were in session. The quality of New Haven Public Schools was one of the deciding factors in moving to the new city, Erik says.

"We looked at curriculum; we looked at rigor; [and] we looked at creativity and innovation as it relates to teaching instruction," Erik says. Diversity also played a key role in choosing New Haven schools, he notes.

"It was important to my wife and I—being African-American—that there were teachers and school leaders who were sensitive to cultural issues," Erik says, "and that there were people in the school, teachers and school leaders, who look like our children."

Lewis Chappelear, a James Monroe High School teacher in Los Angeles, suggests that all parents consider diversity when choosing high schools for their kids. Diversity is important, Chappelear says, "Because we want our children to be tomorrow's leaders, and the best leaders in the world think about everybody."

[Check out the national rankings of U.S. News Best High Schools.]

Visiting a school while it's in session not only gives parents an idea of its diversity, but also a chance to talk with teachers and see students switch classes, says Betsy Landers, president of the National Parent Teacher Association and mother of three high school graduates.

Getting a feel for the school in person makes it easier to tell if that school is a good fit for your child, Landers says. Her two sons loved attending Germantown High School, a large public school in Tennessee. But she sent her more introverted daughter to a smaller school that, Landers says, "afforded her to be a part of sports, clubs, and things that in a larger school, she probably would not have risked."

Landers suggests parents explore the website of their state's department of education, where, among other things, they can check out the different kinds of schools in a region. Chappelear, the Los Angeles teacher, thinks parents should be open to all school models.

"There is no one perfect model. In some cases the charter school is the best choice, in some cases, the private school is the best choice, and in many cases, it's the public school that's the best choice," he says.

Many times, that choice comes down to the different programs schools offer—such as dual enrollment, Advanced Placement courses, and International Baccalaureate programs. Landers says parents from across the county sent their kids to Germantown High School, for example, because of its strong broadcast and theater programs.

[Learn about the hidden costs of a "free" public school education.]

In the Clemons family, Kiara attended Cooperative High School, where she was able to take many dance classes. The second daughter, Nyle, who was more interested in science, attended Hill Regional Career High School, whose partnership with Yale School of Medicine gave her the opportunity to study the human body with cadavers.

Kristen Fouss, a math teacher at Anderson High School in Cincinnati, doesn't have to think about choosing a high school for her 5- and 8-year-old kids anytime soon. But when she starts her search, Fouss says she'll focus much of her decision on the school's technology.

"In my kids' high schools, I want to see what they are doing with technology, what resources do they have, and what will they be able to offer my kids," Fouss says.

Parents should also consider the importance of community among local businesses and parents when choosing their kids' high schools, Fouss recommends. At Anderson High School, for example, a local bank annually grants a scholarship to a senior, and parents are heavily involved in school activities.