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Private/public choice revisited: high school

One of my correspondents let me know that my private/public school piece a few days ago, though it was written with families with younger children in mind, was very helpful to her in thinking about the high school choice for her son.

In many ways, the issues are the same. But then again, you’re talking about a teenager, so it’s complicated in a whole different way.

Here are many of the issues that have come up in talks with parents and teachers of high school students:

The social fit

High school is a time of great social growth for most kids. How they grow, though, is completely different. Some kids are really going to thrive in that big high school scene: football games, lots of different cliques, numerous choices for both academics and electives. These kids feel constricted, socially and/or academically, in small private schools.

Other kids, however, find these teen years to be sensitive and introspective ones. The last thing they care about is being in a big school with lots of excitement. They’re happy being in a class of 15 kids in a small school where everyone knows them. They’re willing to trade variety for stability. Or perhaps they have one keen interest that a smaller school serves well.

In either case, though, our local schools provide a variety of public and private options. For big schools, you have all our major public high schools plus a few larger private ones that have similar social scenes. For small schools, not only can you find private schools, but there are also small public programs in Live Oak and Santa Cruz City Schools that you should look into.

The intellectual fit

By high school, it should be pretty clear which direction your child is headed in academically. Of course, we all have the ability to change midstream, so your non-academic artist could suddenly be turned on by biology. But in general, it’s probably pretty clear what your child’s academic abilities and interests are at the moment. It’s really important to communicate with your teen about this. You might think that your straight-A student belongs at an academically intense school like Pacific Collegiate, but she might reveal to you that she prefers a more laid-back atmosphere. You might think that it’s healthier for your child who has grown barefoot and happy to continue on a less academic path, but he might have his sights fixed on a more competitive, college-prep education.

Most of our big public schools offer a wide range of classes. They also have specialties. I’m writing right now about innovative public school programs and found out that the Santa Cruz High Schools have a really cool program where each high school hosts a different “academy” that focuses on a different discipline. This might be enough to entice your child away from your local school, or even from the private school she’s attending.

Our private schools tend to be smaller and thus will not offer such a wide range of classes and activities. If the school is doing its job right, it will make it clear whether it’s the right place for your techie-minded math kid, or whether a different high school would be a better fit. Some schools have very strong programs in one discipline but don’t have the staff or funds to offer much in another.

How much time is there in a day?

I know someone whose two children go to a very competitive local high school. I asked her whether they were going to accompany her to some event and her answer should have been predictable: “Are you kidding? They’ll be doing homework!”

A great question to ask your teen is, “How important is it that you have extra time to pursue non school-related activities?”

A great question to ask a potential school is, “How much homework do kids in your high school get nightly?” Also, “How flexible are your teachers when working with a student who has an important non-school focus such as performance or competition that may interfere with homework?”

If your child is satisfied with school as his main outlet, then perhaps a homework-heavy routine isn’t a problem. But a fair number of students who have passions that their schools don’t fulfill find themselves better suited by a school program that offers more flexibility.

Don’t forget “home”schooling!

Homeschoolers generally laugh when people say that they shouldn’t be homeschooling their teens because they can’t teach them higher level math or science. These days, very few homeschooling teens spend much time being taught by their parents at home. A lot of them find that they’re more successful studying independently or through online courses. Others attend community college for their core courses, which offers them access to great, cheap instruction and lots of time to pursue other interests. I know plenty of families who weren’t homeschooling families before but have realized that their teens are happier and better educated now that they can put together their own schedule and get out into their community rather than being stuck on a school campus all day. (The Yahoo Group Homeschool2College can help you learn more about this if you’re concerned about whether or not your teen will be able to get into a good university: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/homeschool2college/. Also, local educator Wes Beach just wrote a concise and well-reasoned letter to the Sentinel on this issue.)

My oldest is twelve, so we’re just on the horizon of this part of schooling. If you have any other suggestions, please leave comments below!

Posted in Parenting.


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