Making the Grade
Presenting Minnesota Monthly’s guide to metro-area high schools—a comprehensive, statistical look at 77 public and 34 private schools. How does your kid’s school compare?
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With budget cuts and dropout rates dominating the headlines, it’s easy for parents to feel as if their children’s education has become a high-stakes gamble. But in Minnesota, the opposite is true: Our schools have always been above average, and now—under pressure to appeal to prospective students who have myriad options—they’re dynamic, too.
Today’s high schools offer options that weren’t available to most college students just a few decades ago: robotics, biotechnology, architecture, law enforcement, graphic design, hip-hop recording, and just about every kind of engineering one can imagine.
But how do you know which school is right for your child? Well, you start here, with our guide to metro-area high schools. We’ve compiled statistics on 77 public and 34 private schools—demographics, test scores, data on college readiness, and even the number of sports offered—gathered from records maintained by the Minnesota Department of Education, from metro-area districts and schools, and from principals, teachers, and students themselves. (To keep this list manageable, however, we did not catalog charter schools or alternative learning centers. For the same reason, we canvassed only the metro area’s larger private schools.)
But numbers rarely tell the whole story. So in “The New Prep Schools,” we spotlight standout public-school programs in engineering, math, music, foreign languages. And in “H.S. Confidential,” we take a look at what gives a school an outstanding reputation. Not sure if your kid is on the right track? Read on and educate yourself.
* SEE HOW YOUR LOCAL SCHOOLS MATCH UP IN OUR DETAILED PUBLIC SCHOOL CHARTS (PDF).
In an era of school choice, reputation matters. So why do some high schools get all the buzz—while others remain overlooked?
By Beth Hawkins
The morning of May 18, Robert Metz signed onto the Internet and learned that Newsweek magazine had named St. Louis Park Senior High the second-best high school in Minnesota. For Metz, the school’s principal, it was the equivalent of opening the morning newspaper to learn he’d won the Powerball.
Metz wasn’t entirely surprised. It was the fifth time the school had appeared on the magazine’s list of the nation’s best high schools, which are compiled using a mathematical formula based on the number of students taking college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, or IB, exams. Metz knew an unprecedented number of St. Louis Park students had taken IB tests the year before, which was likely to bump the school higher in the standings.
The ranking was hardly a fluke, though. Rather, it was the result of 10 years of deliberate, focused efforts to transform St. Louis Park into a breeding ground for academic success. “We made a long-term commitment to do this,” says Metz. “It’s been a continual climb.”
Year after year, the school increased the number of AP and IB courses offered, and prepared more and more students to take the corresponding graduation exams. To do so, the district had to find money to train teachers in the specialized curriculum and convince students to undertake the rigorous work.
This year, with its rank of 209, St. Louis Park is in a dead heat with two of its neighbors. Edina High School, several miles to the south and a perennial fixture in the magazine’s top 100, scored higher at 93. Southwest, in Minneapolis, came in a smidge lower at 215. The difference among these rankings is trifling: With thousands of high schools in the United States, anyone near the top of the list gets serious bragging rights.
The day Newsweek posted the rankings, Metz’s phone rang steadily. The district superintendent called, as did school-board members, local politicians, and even people who lived outside the district; and wanted to know how to enroll their kids. “That kind of ranking does matter to us,” says Metz. “In an era of open enrollment and school choice, it definitely makes a difference in terms of students choosing to come here.”
A generation ago, such concerns might have seemed unusual for a school official working in a prosperous Minneapolis suburb. Kids went to the school in their neighborhood—period. Principals didn’t have to concern themselves with selling their programs to families. But two decades ago, Minnesota enacted a sweeping change by passing the first open enrollment laws in the nation. If there was a seat available—and if they could provide their own transportation—a student could enroll in any public school in any district in the state.
The change turned students and parents into active consumers of educational opportunities. Today, we shop for kindergarten the way earlier generations chose colleges. If the school down the street doesn’t scream “bright future,” families with resources can find someplace that does. In such an environment, reputation matters—for reasons that go far beyond simple snob appeal. Minnesota’s school-choice system means that tax money follows the kid, tuition-style, so that one community’s gain is another’s loss. A hot program attracts students, each of whom arrives accompanied by state funding. Those tax dollars underwrite the courses and activities that will lure more still. Drawn by motivated pupils and adequate resources, top teachers follow.
The final piece of this cycle of success: Pleased by the overall quality of life in their community—and their property values—voters are more likely to see the value of supplementing those state dollars with extra local taxes. Just ask Metz: The Newsweek rankings were followed by congratulatory calls from several St. Louis Park residents who didn’t even have kids.
Offered a choice, who doesn’t want the best possible education for their child, and the fantasy that it offers a lock on the future? The problem is that when it comes to kids, there is no such thing as “best.” For parents, the trick is sorting out which parts of a school’s reputation signify something meaningful about the quality of the education students can expect to receive—and which parts are slick marketing.
A generation ago, parents tried to give their kids a leg up by moving to a neighborhood or a suburb with good, solid schools. But expectations have changed in recent years: It’s not enough that a school delivers a quality education. Today, families want every possible advantage.