Making the Grade

Presenting <em>Minnesota Monthly</em>’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?

Public Schools

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.


H.S. Confidential

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.



Consider Minnetonka’s experience. Historically, people moved to the western suburb expressly for the schools, which were safe, consistently posted high test scores, and offered a menu of extracurricular activities. That was before school choice trained parents to comparison shop—a task made dramatically simpler by the Internet.

Even with its strong track record, however, Minnetonka found itself scrambling to adjust to heightened parental expectations. Seven years ago, with the availability of open enrollment, a drop in the birth rate, and lure of private schools, the district was losing 200 kids a year.

That’s small potatoes compared to the exoduses from Minnesota’s three biggest districts, Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul, and Minneapolis, but the decline wasn’t expected to stop until the district had lost 1,000 students—one-seventh of its total enrollment. “It would have required us to close one or two schools,” says Janet Swiecichowski, Minnetonka’s communications director.

The district needed to demonstrate that it understood parents’ expectations. In an affluent community, that means being prepared to lay out a student’s expected trajectory from cradle to career, a process that starts long before a child is old enough to recite the alphabet. “We get families in all the time that say, ‘We’re going to look for a school before we look for a house,’” says Swiecichowski. “Research on the Internet, looking at test scores—they’ve already done that by the time they get to us.”

When parents step inside a school, principals and teachers are equipped to talk about the district as a whole. “If families are coming to look at kindergarten, we’re going to be talking to them about the whole system,” explains Swiecichowski. “We talk to them about ACT scores; we have that data available, and principals hand it out.”

The district even went so far as to hire secret shoppers who call and act as if they were interested in enrolling their child. Add to that some tightly focused advertising, and over the last five years, the declining enrollment began to reverse and the district gained 700 students from open enrollment to boost their student body to 7,900. Today, about
10 percent of the class attends under open enrollment from other districts.

Not long ago, Minnesota educators might have frowned upon such marketing efforts; trying to poach students from neighboring districts was seen as dirty pool. Not any more. Recently, Swiecichowski was driving her car when she heard a radio spot for a private school touting the fact that it taught the Constitution. It made her laugh: What high school doesn’t teach the basics of American government?

“The reality is that private schools have been doing this the whole time,” Swiecichowski says of Minnetonka’s marketing efforts. “We leave a void that gets filled in when we let our competition define us.”

None of this is news to Colin Sokolowski, public-relations director for Mounds View Public Schools, another district with the kind of enviable reputation that attracts students from neighboring communities. (The district serves Mounds View, New Brighton, Arden Hills, Shoreview, North Oaks, and parts of Vadnais Heights and Roseville.) His annual marketing costs are covered by the state dollars brought in by just two open-enrollment students. “Talk about your break-even points,” he says.

Like Minnetonka, Mounds View’s principal competition is private schools, something the district tackles head-on. “We’re pretty bold in saying we can match the performance of private schools—because we can measure that,” says Sokolowski. “We go through our test scores and say we are one of the top 10 school districts in the state in terms of achievement.”

The message isn’t just aimed at prospective families. With state funding shrinking and enrollment contingent on quality programming, Minnesota school districts are more dependent than ever on local residents’ willingness to pay extra taxes. Voters, however, are increasingly likely to reject referendum requests.

Here again, the declining birth rate comes into play. In most metro districts, only about 20 percent of residents have kids. So schools need to market to non-parents. Mounds View mails a newsletter to every household in the district, and periodically sends more detailed, two-page letters on specific issues to a list of 150 “community opinion leaders”—Realtors, youth sports organizers, and others. The result: Mounds View’s last two levies have passed—one in a year when similar levies in neighboring districts failed.

Peter Leatherman is the research director of Decision Resources, a consulting firm that helps school districts and other agencies with strategic planning and public-opinion research. In particular, he says two different grapevines are crucial to selling levies to the broader community. The first is senior citizens, who value education and vote in large numbers on local issues. Their buy-in is  so important, he says, “In some districts, we know the coffee shops where they sit and meet and talk about the district.”

The other network is parents of preschoolers and elementary-age kids. Predisposed to favor spending on schools, they’re also on the alert for problems. “That’s the grapevine where the viral can really eat the school district alive,” says Leatherman. “Rumors can really run amok.”

During the eight years Sokolowski has worked for the district, he’s acquired a national reputation for his creative marketing. His goal is to own the conversation: “If the buzz is going to happen anyhow,” he says, “we would just as soon facilitate the conversation.”

To that end, Mounds View creates online chat rooms and invites discussion when there are changes, issues, or rumors. Comments must be signed and a few other civilities observed, but, for the most part, the critics get their say. The approach is 180 degrees from administrators’ more typical reaction to controversy, which is to quash discussion. “I think you build credibility with the community when you allow someone to say something negative,” he says. “When it’s unfair or untrue, that can be hard. But I’d rather that they come clean about it and get it out there than let it become that negative discourse at the grocery store. If they get it out there, we can address it.”

It’s clear why school leaders need to bone up on marketing, but do parents need to understand the fine print behind the claims? The answer, according to veteran educators, is a reassuring no. Parents need only be experts on their kids.
Return for a moment to St. Louis Park’s experience. Newsweek’s survey didn’t track family satisfaction or high grades, or even the number of kids going on to college. It tallied the number taking exams showing they mastered very specific curriculum.

At the moment, parents equate International Baccalaureate classes with a school’s overall quality. IB, for example, is the reason Minneapolis’s Southwest is perennially atop the Newsweek rankings—and a significant reason why it’s the lone Minneapolis high school that attracts a surplus of applicants. Yet most kids who go to Southwest only dip a toe in IB. Of the 387 students who graduated from the school last year, 170 took IB coursework, but only 43 received IB diplomas (though another 30 received an IB medallion, or commendation of merit from the school).

More crucial is whether a school is a good fit for a particular kid, says Laura Bloomberg, associate director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for School Change. Parents, she says, need to ask themselves, “Is my 360-degree kid, all of my kid, going to be served here?”

To that end, there are some basics to keep in mind. It is reasonable for parents to want to know how a school prepares kids for the next level, whatever that level is, Bloomberg says. It’s too late to wait until high school to think about the very first steps toward equipping a student for college, even if that first step is making sure a kindergartner is excited to be in school.

Research shows students at small schools often perform better, which is particularly true in the case of high schools. Some kids thrive given the menu of choices a big school can offer, but it’s easy for teens, often hard to reach under the best of circumstances, to get lost in a large student body. It’s also easier for safety issues to go unnoticed.

If a small school seems right for your teen but isn’t available, education policymakers suggest helping the student brainstorm ways to find—or create—a niche. High schools are full of subcultures; many will help as few as three
students to form an official club or organize their own extracurricular activity. In any case, encourage your child to form a relationship with a teacher who really seems to understand them.

College recruiters are attracted to well-rounded applicants. Beyond sports and clubs, parents should ask what opportunities a high school offers for service-learning and community involvement.

Finally, keep in mind that external reputation matters to a high school’s toughest customers: the students and staff who must apply themselves every day. Making the Newsweek list may mean enrollment and money for St. Louis Park, but no school reaches great academic heights without motivated teachers and kids. “It creates positive energy to try to accomplish more next year,” says Metz. “At our school, the smartest, most successful students are recognized. They’re popular, they’re admired.” And they’re likely to find their alma mater atop the list for some time to come.

Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.  



The Four Questions Every Parent Should Ask—and Every High-School Principal Should Be Able to Answer

Q: What is the school’s overall vision?
Principals should be able to describe the school’s culture and how its values are communicated. “I loved it when parents asked me, ‘How do you make sure everyone shares that vision?’” says Laura Bloomberg, associate director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for School Change and the former principal of Minneapolis’s Interdistrict Downtown School.

Q: What curriculum is used—and why?
A principal should know what’s happening instructionally in their schools, says Bloomberg, though for very specific information about assessments and other technical matters, he or she may need to find an expert.

Q: Where do your graduates end up?
No school can guarantee admission to Harvard, but a principal ought to be willing to talk about students’ overall trajectory. “High-school principals ought to be able to talk about where their kids are coming from,” says Bloomberg. “Are you preparing my kid for the next step?”

Q: How are kids’ physical and emotional safety effectively safeguarded?
Administrators should be able to do more than assure parents their schools are safe. They should be able to describe specific policies and give concrete examples. What ground does anti-bullying
curriculum cover?

The New Prep Schools

More than ever, students have real opportunities to cultivate their talents, be it for math or musical theater. Here, a look at eight standout programs preparing kids for life after high school.


Mounds View High School
At Mounds View, hundreds of students participate in the largest annual physics fair in the country. In another event, the Science Olympiad, Mounds View’s team has won four of the last six state championships. At this year’s national Olympiad, the team placed second in ecology and sixth in a competition to design and build a functional robot.


Mahtomedi High School
Thanks to Medtronic, 3M, and H.B. Fuller, the communities served by Mahtomedi Public Schools boast a tremendous concentration of engineers, a profession in short supply throughout much of the rest of the country. Thus was born the Mahtomedi Engineering Leadership Program, an effort aimed at recruiting underrepresented groups into engineering by exposing every student at the school to the field. Students study digital, biotechnical, aerospace engineering; many graduate with college credits.


Park High School
A thriving business- and professional-preparation program at Park is offered in conjunction with Intermediate District 916. Along with students from 10 other northeast metro districts, Park students can learn graphic design, cosmetology, law enforcement, and various medical fields. Last year, students in the construction trades program built a house in Cottage Grove—and sold it.


Minnetonka High School
Given the number of Minnetonka students who’ve graced the stages of the Guthrie Theater, Children’s Theatre, and Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, it would be tempting to accuse the school of packing its drama program with ringers. Actually, it’s the other way around: The school’s reputation draws budding thespians from throughout the metro area. Last year, Minnetonka students brought home 12 awards from the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s SpotLight Musical Theatre Awards—more than any other school.


Eagan High School
One year ago, Eagan staged 21 performances of The Wizard of Oz—and every one sold out. The school puts on five elaborate stage productions a year, but what really sets its performing arts programs apart is Eagan’s philosophy of intertwining theater with debate and speech, emphasizing a mix of skills that will serve students well in any field.


South High
At Minneapolis’s South High, students can take six different foreign languages, including Latin, Chinese, and Ojibwe, the latter two taught by native speakers. Six levels of Spanish are offered, including Advanced Placement, and college credit can be earned for Chinese, German, and French. The school also organizes trips to France, Germany, China, and numerous Latin American countries where students can test their skills.


Blaine High School
At Blaine’s Center for Engineering, Mathematics, and Science, math whizzes have a chance to apply their skills in several high-tech arenas, including civil, environmental, and biological engineering, as well as computer science. All seniors complete a capstone project, and many students graduate with college credits.


Rosemount High School
Rosemount boasts five concert bands, three jazz bands, a percussion ensemble, and a marching band with a reputation so strong it attracts students not just from other Twin Cities districts, but from other states.