Best Public High Schools

Our public high schools are some of the best in the state—even the country.
Here’s why.

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Academic Windfall

Why our public high schools rule.

The Main Line and western suburbs are home to a bevy of natiionally ranked private, parochial and boarding schools offering every academic and extracurricular option under the sun. With such a wealth of choices, it would be easy for a newcomer to assume that the area’s high schools aren’t up to snuff. Nothing could be further from the truth. At a time when public education has suffered countless crippling blows across the country, our area—and much of the state—has proven to be a glowing exception.

“About 10 years ago, we realized the need to be increasingly clear with educators about what we expect students to know before graduation,” says Thomas Gluck, acting secretary of education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “High school isn’t just about time spent in the classroom; it has to be about what students know and do before they get their diplomas. If you know what’s expected, you can set about the process of getting there.”

During that time, local public high schools underwent a rigorous transformation, with the help of enhanced technology, standardized testing and a consolidation of state benchmarks for academic achievement. The fruits of the PDE’s efforts can be witnessed in all their glory in this area, which boasts some of the most successful students in the state.

So what makes our public high schools so great? Well …

Statistics Don’t Lie

Apparently, it’s not just locals who think our high schools rule. U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 “Best High Schools” report seems to indicate that also. As a whole, Pennsylvania is ranked a seemingly ho-hum 25th in the nation for overall school performance for its charter, vocational/technical and public high schools. But 69 schools were awarded a bronze medal or better—meaning that, at a bare minimum, all 11th-graders outperformed state standards for math and reading.

Four local high schools—Conestoga, Unionville, Radnor and Lower Merion—earned silver medals. In addition to outperforming state standards across the board, the schools scored at least a 20 on the “college readiness index,” a statistic generated by U.S. News based upon the school’s International Baccalaureate or, in this case, Advanced Placement participation rate and the students’ performance on those tests. Participation in these programs is typically based on student option rather than direction or requirement from teachers or the school, indicating a self-appointed measure of success and emphasis on in-depth learning at the collegiate level.

And when it comes to SAT and ACT scores, local public high school students are at or near the top, most finishing well above state averages. Last year’s ACT numbers far exceeded the minimum scores needed on subject-area tests, indicating a 50-percent chance of obtaining a B or higher—or about a 75-percent chance of obtaining a C or higher—in corresponding credit-bearing college courses. (Results of 2009’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and the SAT can be found here.)

You might think that rigid, systematic preparation for standardized testing is to thank for the impressive results. But Radnor High School principal Mark Schellenger contends that the focus is on building a well-rounded foundation for academic success. “We place no special emphasis on PSSAs, SATs or ACTs,” says Schellenger. “We do create and run programs for those who may need some remedial work, but our academic program explores each discipline in depth—and we certainly don’t teach to the standardized tests.”

Still, he admits, “It’s a given in this community that most students will take the SATs or the ACTs. And it’s a high priority for most of our students to do well on them.”

Economics 101

In the case of our local public high schools, money seems to be the root of much success. State funding for K-12 education has increased $250 million for 2010, totaling almost $5.8 billion—the largest expenditure of general fund revenues. “There’s a very clear correlation between funding resources and academic success,” says Leah Harris, deputy communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Harris cites early-childhood education as a crucial factor contributing to academic accomplishments later on. “Every dollar we invest into early education reaps a savings reward of $17 in potential intervention costs. We know the correlation between students who have had a quality education versus those who are dependent on social welfare over a lifetime. At an early age, you catch problems much earlier and you’re able to remedy those problems rather than paying intervention costs. Giving them a better chance at academic success leads to better success later in life.”

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