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Factors to Consider When Selecting a High School for Your Highly Able Student

Gifted Education and Support

This article provides parents numerous suggestions on finding the best high school for their gifted student.

Author: Strop, J.
Publications: Understanding Our Gifted
Publisher: Open Space Communications
Year: Winter 2004

What are some criteria to consider so that a high school will be a “best fit” for an individual student?

For many bright students, school is a painful experience. Consequently, many parents simply decide to shop around for the high schools which will be the “best fit” to enable their students to experience happiness, to thrive, and to achieve their postgraduate dreams. For many other families in today’s society, the need for new jobs and relocation initiates the search for the best high schools in new communities. To complicate this decision, colleges are receiving record numbers of qualified applications each year, so college entrance requirements continue to be ramped up. Therefore, the success of a student’s high school experience has become essential to keep postgraduate doors open. To assure a successful high school experience, many factors need to be considered to determine the “best fit” for a particular student.

Philosophy of Excellence
A school’s philosophy is often stated in a vision or mission statement and is articulated in many ways through print materials distributed by the school (i.e., pamphlets, brochures, web pages, etc.). However, the true litmus test is in the outcome of that philosophy. Therefore, it is essential to examine a school’s performance in the following: (1) college admissions trends for that school; (2) test scores as compared to other schools in the district, state, and nation; (3) awards for excellence won by students; and finally, (4) awards for excellence won by faculty. These are indicators that “excellence” has moved from philosophy into practice. If a student is an achiever, this philosophy of excellence is often welcomed. For an underachieving student, a decision needs to be made about whether or not this philosophy of excellence will be seen by the student as encouraging or discouraging. That is, the question needs to be addressed directly, “Is the student one who will respond to the challenge or one who will see the philosophy of achievement as ‘one more pressure to fit into a non-valued system’?”

Practice of Excellence
Awards received by faculty and students, as well as historical student performance on tests, are facts usually included in the high school profiles. These profiles are usually published as supplemental information about the high schools to be sent to colleges with student applications. One needs to look deeper for practices of excellence, as well. For instance, if your student has a special talent and passion in one academic area in particular it is best to inquire from principals, department coordinators, counselors, and/or gifted and talented resource teachers about the practices, the classes offered, and the records of excellence for that specific department. If your son or daughter excels in science, it is reasonable to ask about the opportunities for the following: pursuing independent research, working with mentors, taking part in internships, participating in science fairs, winning special awards such as the Westinghouse, and taking college classes (independently or through post-secondary options) if all high school classes in that area are completed before graduation. If your student has specific areas of interest, it is best to check out the reputations and track records of those departments at the high school in question.

“For high ability students it is important for a school to provide a broad array of opportunities to take honors classes and AP courses…”

Systematic Postgraduate Planning
Another indicator of individualization for students is the process in place to assist all students and their parents in making postgraduate plans. At most high schools this process occurs in partnership with the student’s counselor or an academic advisor, if advisement sessions are scheduled. There should be activities that take place for students each year, multiple means for both students and parents to know what activities need to be accomplished at each grade level, and ample support for students to explore options before settling on their postgraduate plans. When asked, all people at the school should be able- to articulate these processes and who orchestrates them. However, the “who” may differ at different high schools.

Options for In-depth Study
Once students know their passions and their postgraduate plans, it is important for them to find options for in-depth study during their high school experiences. This in-depth study can take place in several ways:

  • Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) Classes – For high ability students it is important for a school to provide a broad array of opportunities to take honors classes and AP courses, especially in students’ skill and interest areas. Honors classes move at a faster pace, cover more advanced material, and often provide a weighted grade. AP classes include college-level curriculum. Completion of classes with high scores on standardized AP tests can earn students college credit and/or advanced placement in college classes.
  • High-level Electives – If a student has a high interest and skill in elective areas such as art, music, theater, or technology, it is important for the school to have advanced options, as well as AP options in those areas of study. For instance, if art is a key passion, it is necessary to ask if there are ample classes for the student to not only explore a variety of art media but also to reach a high level of performance in one or more means of artistic expression.
  • Independent Study Options – It is not unusual for a student who loves a given area of study to exhaust options, even within a large, comprehensive high school. Sometimes the student’s interests will develop in an area outside of the courses offered within the high school. Then it becomes essential to explore whether the school has both a system and a track record of offering independent study offerings and other opportunities for self-directed study at high levels for these students.
  • Formal Internships – Some students, no matter how bright they are, need opportunities for hands-on learning. The best way for this to happen is through the offering of formal internship opportunities for credit. Many schools have these “for credit internships” listed in their registration guides. Others will have processes whereby students set up volunteer internships during the summer.
  • Informal and Formal Mentorship Opportunities – Relationships with adults in a student’s fields of interest are especially important for adolescents, since a main task of adolescence is to formulate identity. The opportunities for students to experience informal and formal mentorships are essential for students to develop a positive sense of who they are and who they want to be-all within the context of their academic and elective interests.

Flexibility in the System
Even the most traditional high school can have a component of flexibility built into its programming. For instance, very few students have a passion for all subjects. Therefore, it is important to know if there is an option to pursue some subject areas to the most advanced levels, while tapering off in others. It is not unusual for a student who is multitalented and well rounded to decide not to take all of the advanced options in one area of study in order to pursue yet another option to an advanced level (e.g., AP Music Theory, Jazz Band, Jazz Choir, AP Studio Art, etc.). This type of flexibility of programming is essential for most able students, even those who are aiming to attend highly selective colleges.

Likewise, if a student is ready to radically accelerate in one or more subject areas, it is important for her to be able to do so. Therefore, it is important to ask if freshmen who have the requisite skills are able to take pre-calculus, or higher levels of foreign language, for instance. It is also important to see if there is a process in place whereby outside experiences such as private art lessons will be taken into account to determine placement in classes, if prerequisites for higher-level classes are demonstrated. If there is a philosophy of not allowing students to take Advanced Placement classes as freshmen, it is important to check whether other honors class options are available for the students at that level. If not, is there a process in place to assure placement of students with teachers who will assure challenge to the students who are able to master the coursework with ease?

At the high school level, extracurricular activities are a high priority for most students. Therefore, it is important to check if there is a wide array of clubs and activities available and how well students historically perform in those activities that are competitive in nature. Likewise, it is key to check how a student is accommodated if he has a high interest in a sport but is at risk of being cut from that sport. Another issue to explore is the process in place and the ease with which students can initiate their own activities and clubs, if their particular interests are not offered. If such a process is both widely known and celebrated, that attests to the flexibility of the system in responding to the individual needs and interests of its students.

“…it is important to know if there is an option to pursue some subject areas to the most advanced levels, while tapering off in others.”

Educational Support Available
Often the brightest students will find an area in the curriculum in which they experience difficulty during their high school careers. It is important to determine if there is a culture of “seeking help” and “working one-on-one with teachers,” even in a large comprehensive high school. If a student has a bad experience in a class, suffers a personal trauma resulting in a bad performance year, or lacks the maturity to achieve, it is important to have the opportunities in place for that student to retake a class, to take a class during summer school, or to change levels of study during the school year.

For bright students who have learning issues, it is important to see how well the school responds to students who have the need for legal accommodations in classes. For instance, does a bright student who struggles with dyslexia find it possible to have extra time on tests, even in honors and advanced level classes? It is also important to find out who in the special education department (in the case of a special education diagnosis) has knowledge about learning disabled, gifted students.

It is important to understand if there is support for those students who tend to underachieve. For instance, special seminars, specialty classes, study skills classes, and support options (i.e., counseling, support groups, etc.) should be available for students who do not achieve consistently in all areas of the curriculum.

Emotional Support Available
Another issue to consider is the availability of services for bright students who may be in need of emotional support. It is important to see group counseling, individual counseling, and sound referral systems in place to assure support for your highly able student. Also, it is important to consider the awareness of the mental health staff about potential issues faced by highly able students such as perfectionism, over-extension, and stress.

Prepare Students for College
Since most highly-able students are heading for college or other training experiences beyond high school, it is important to examine how the high school consciously addresses preparing students to utilize and to demonstrate the independence and persistence needed later, when facing challenges without the support of family. Thus, it is important to ask if the academic program stretches students enough to make them move beyond their comfort zone. A key question to consider is, “Does the high school program require and support students to seek help in the environment, to make choices about schedules and classes, and to make independent choices about how to handle free time wisely?” All of these activities prove to prepare students for functioning on their own at college, in trade schools, and in other endeavors after high school.

All of these factors are important to consider when choosing a high school for highly able students. Just as in choosing a college, the final decision about a high school cannot be made only by reading the print materials, talking to people on the phone, or visiting the school website. Some students make the decision by visiting the high school and intuitively knowing it is the place for them. Researching the answers to questi0!1s about philosophy and academic, postgraduate, and social emotional programming, and the actual results of these practices, is key, however, to assure the “best fit.” After all, it is this fit that can make the student’s journey through high school not only enjoyable, but highly productive.

Jean Strop is Counseling Coordinator and Gifted/Talented Resource Teacher at Cherry Creek High School. Colorado. She is a consultant and presenter on affective and academic programming for gifted and talented students.

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