Top High Schools
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College administrators prefer to admit a mix of students. "We don't want a school full of students from the best high schools. We want to fill a class with the best students," says Martha Merrill, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College in New London.
Rather than ranking high schools in her mind, Merrill evaluates applications alongside the particular high school profile, which reveals AP statistics, mean SAT scores, college admissions and more. "It's all about the student. If a school provides numerous honors and AP courses, we assume students will have challenged themselves appropriately," she says, defining "appropriately" as pursuing an AP course in a particular area of strength, not just signing up for every possible one. Context is important, she says, because some schools limit AP courses and some offer very few. "Some of our best students have come out of schools that don't have many AP courses," she notes.
Yale's dean of admission, Jeffrey Brenzel, echoes her sentiments. "We evaluate and admit individual students, not schools. Schools certainly differ in their resources, and they also differ in the kinds of students they serve," says Brenzel.
Yale looks for the individuals "who are extraordinary within the context of their schools, whatever that context happens to be," he says. "In the end, we take high-achieving, high-aspiring students from an amazing variety of schools and backgrounds."
To take some of the stress out of the college application process, Dodig encourages students to branch out. "If your goal as a family is to apply to and be accepted at one of the top 10 schools in the United States, accept the fact you're competing against kids who are all doing the same thing-taking AP courses, vying to be team captain, and taking on the leads in school plays." But he reminds families that there are 3,700 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, "many of which will provide a more than adequate or stellar education for young students."
Despite his attempts to reduce the often overwhelming pressure on kids, expectations continue to run high. "I have no answer to it, because it doesn't originate at the high school," says Dodig. "We've had some go off the deep end and have a breakdown."
He attempts to recognize all of his students, not just the stars. For instance, a "15 Minutes of Fame" feature in the local newspaper singles out "the kid who's not captain of a team, or the school president, but ordinary kids who do extraordinary things in anonymity." The message he wants to send them: "You're doing something worthwhile." One nominee was a cabinet maker, another a race car driver.
A lot of schools don't have the time for this, but "we make the time," says Dodig, a former school head at Fairfield High School, Daniel Hand High School in Madison and Cheshire High School.
The entire student body knew it was Lauren and Sara Casey's birthday on Sept. 24 because it flashed on an electronic billboard in the lobby. The digital poster was one of the innovations Dodig requested during the school's renovation.
His attention to the affective side of a student's life, not just the cognitive, is his trademark. "It's as important to me that a person graduating understands who she is and feels good about the person she is as well as having mastered material of the 21st century," the principal says.
Anne Hardy, the school's PTA co-president and daughter of a longtime Staples teacher, says, "There's something for everyone here and everything is valued. The kids get a sense that what we're doing is meaningful and they want to come to school."
In any school, those values will be reflected in grades and test scores, says Sklarow.
Not everyone has the luxury of choosing their child's school. But those who do should consider a school's profile but not limit their decision to that alone. When Sklarow and his wife were moving with two students in tow, they asked their real estate agent to show them schools first, not houses. The school that felt right, he says, had ribbons with hundreds of badges belonging to parent volunteers, even though most of the parents worked.
Connecticut College often gets calls from alumni asking where the best schools are in their state. Martha Merrill's answer: "It's what is the best school for your child. What does your child need to do his or her best?" Some teens excel among all the options of a large school; others will do their best in a smaller, more personal setting.
She advises parents to visit different high schools and examine the pertinent data. "The profile will tell you a lot," she says, "but whether that's a good or bad school for your child is a personal decision."