Picking A High School: What Matters?

The process of choosing a school for a child can be challenging. There are so many considerations to take into account, and many of these go well beyond academics. Choosing a school for a child within the international community is even more challenging. In addition to everything else, many international parents do not have the luxury of assuming that their child will graduate from the school selected. Job changes may take them and their students to far away countries with very different school systems. Many students face not only a change in curriculum, but also changes in school environment that may affect not only how he or she performs academically, but also how they develop as young adults and feel about themselves overall.

Often, a parent’s primary worry is about the academic quality of the available schools. How rigorous are the math classes? Is theInternational Baccalaureate (IB – Globally) better than Advanced Placement (AP – USA)? What about A levels (UK)? How many students get into Ivy League (USA) or Russell Group (UK) universities from this school? Answers to such questions are certainly very relevant, especially since what happens in high school can have a significant impact on where the student will attend university. But there are many other equally important considerations that parents should give thought to when choosing a school for their children, especially within the international context. After all, it takes much more than the academic qualifications of a high school to get each child launched to the next phase successfully. That next phase may be college or university and it certainly takes more than just grades to get in. But within the expatriate context, it is more likely that the student will move from one middle or high school to another than it would be if they lived in their home country. Given the difficulties of adjusting to a new school and performing well academically, good school fit is central to a student’s ability to hit the ground running and minimize transition pain and its residual affects on the whole family. Smooth transitions are especially important for high school students as their academic and extracurricular performance will be evaluated by colleges and moving is not a good enough excuse to falter. The purpose of this article is to provide parents with a concrete set of considerations to evaluate against when thinking about schools for their children at every age and stage.

The overarching goal in choosing any school for a child should be to find a great FIT. Fit, however, is a very individualist pursuit. So while the idea of following your friends to the new highly competitive school they are moving their child to might sound like a great idea, it may be the wrong school for your child. Consider what you already know. Your child is unique and his or her set of characteristics, which include academic ability, learning style, interests, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, personality and social needs all combine to create a unique being that will thrive in certain schools and fail to thrive in others. The consideration of all of these is vital to finding the environment in which your child will learn best, grow the most and have the best chance to become their best self. It is worth noting that your child doing his or her personal best is really the goal here. Regardless of the name or reputation of the school a student comes from, boarding schools, colleges and universities do not admit schools – they admit students. Thus, the best school for your child is the one in which they can best excel in, however they do that.

So what should parents consider to improve the likelihood of finding a best fit school? I suggest that families begin the school search process by first thinking about who their child is academically. Think about the following: What classes does my child seem to enjoy the most? Does my child enjoy studying? Would he or she enjoy an academically competitive school or a more relaxed one? Will my child thrive in an IB program or would she do better changing courses next year in the AP program? Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to better evaluate schools and select among those that provide an academic climate that feels right to your child.

Secondly parents should consider what kind of learner their child is and what type of support system their child needs for success. Is my child self-motivated or does he need a lot of teacher support? Does she do better in small classes or larger ones? What does my child need to perform at her academic best? It is important to be honest and realistic about your child’s needs. A historically strong student can become weaker in a new environment that does not provide the support that his previous one did. Specific factors include class size, the availability of teachers outside of class to answer questions and a culture that is supportive of students asking questions in the classroom.

Third, parents should look at the types of extracurricular activities that the school supports. Many students find their passions, practice leadership and develop confidence outside of the formal classroom setting. Look to see that the schools you are considering offer a sufficiently broad array of programs to stimulate your child to try new things. If your child is interested in a specific activity, check to make sure that the school offers it or that it can be easily accessed in the neighboring community. Extracurricular activities also provide an important means for students to demonstrate excellence outside of the classroom. After all, being a brilliant guitarist or soccer player is just as valid as being academically talented.

Finally, reading school brochures, understanding the mission and vision of the school and checking out SAT scores and college matriculation are all reasonable and important means of better understanding any school. However, none of these actions can substitute for really understanding a school’s culture. Spend a day or a few days at the school talking with students, teachers and administrators. Also, observe student behavior and student-teacher interactions. What do the social groups look like? Also make note of how you were treated in the halls. Did the students look you in the eye? Did anyone say hello or ask you if you needed help? This type of personal observation at prospective schools is an excellent way for your student to determine if a school will be a good fit and serve as a launching pad for whatever comes next.

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Tess Robinson