An Education Off the Beaten Avenues

A high school doesn't have to cost $43,000 per year to provide a quality education.

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BARTOW, Fla. – Which is better: a public school in a semi-rural town where a cow pasture is next to the football field, or the elite private school in Manhattan where neither cattle nor quarterback is ever likely to set foot? You know where this is headed, don't you?

It's May, and the air is thick with words of reflection and advice from commencement speakers. At high schools across America, these sages will attempt to provide students and parents with some perspective on the past 12 years. While those words are mostly intended for the tender ears of graduates, many high school parents will be listening with the latest national rankings of schools by this publication and others in mind. They will be wondering, with the stomach churning anxiety that is unique to parents, if the preceding years have truly prepared their kids for the next step. And other, younger parents will, with perhaps even higher levels of anxiety, throw common sense to the wind and begin a desperate pursuit to give their child a competitive educational advantage.

I am fascinated by this scenario, especially after seeing the recent New York Times Magazine feature on a new cathedral of modern private education in Manhattan called "Avenues: The World School in Chelsea." This is where parents reportedly worry their kids aren't getting enough "'worldly' snacks like seaweed (and) zucchini bread with quinoa flour..."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The parents who fork over $43,000 per year to send their children to the Avenues would probably cluck their tongues in pity if they ever happened to drive past the International Baccalaureate High School in this Central Florida town. First they would wonder what failure of navigation on the trip from Tampa to Orlando had brought them here. It's a Spanish-moss draped town of fewer than 20,000, named for a Confederate general, where a few years ago, the mayor tripped over an alligator during an early morning jog on the path 20 yards from the high school cafeteria.

Cruising past that high school, my hypothetical New Yorkers would notice that the student parking lot favors pick-up trucks over Priuses. But what they might not realize is that this town, where the median household income is only slightly higher than the tuition charged by the Avenues, is also home to the second-highest rated high school in America, according the latest ranking of high schools by Newsweek and the Daily Beast. And it's a public school at that.

The IB School is a program within the regular Bartow High School. Although the IB School has its own administration and faculty, students from both schools share some elective classes, athletics and the cafeteria, so it didn't get a separate ranking from U.S. News this year. In earlier years, when it was ranked separately, it was consistently among the top five. And its 260-or-so students go off to a wide range of higher learning institutions, including the nation's most selective universities.

[See the U.S. News Best High Schools.]

The idea that a small public high school program in Florida – with as ethnically and economically diverse student body as you are likely to find anywhere in the U.S. – should consistently wallop more exclusive programs in the rest of the country is source of no small amount of civic pride here. It is also proof that you don't need to have the full pocketbooks and powerful social networks of Manhattanites who "refuse to live north of 23rd Street" to provide a world class education for your children.

All excellent schools have strong leadership, competent faculty and somebody at home to encourage and cajole the students.

What the smart and driven kids at Bartow's IB program also get is integration into a normal American high school, which includes a wide assortment of other kids with varying levels of ambition and abilities. Different as they are, they'll all sit in the same cafeteria each day and in the same bleachers for home games. This is a valuable part of their education as well.

[See the Top 10 Public High Schools.]

When we first made the decision to move from Capitol Hill to this little town a dozen years ago, I told people we wanted our kids to finish growing up in a place where everybody went to the football game on Friday night instead of the congressional fundraiser on Tuesday. It worked out well for our kids and it is continuing to work out for many more.

I'd like those parents who are convinced their child will only succeed in this world if they go to a school that serves fennel burgers and has Chuck Close artwork hanging in the hallways to take a deep breath, take a look at those school rankings and consider the possibility that a less exotic education might also be a great one.

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