Voices From Top High Schools: Why They're Great

NEWSWEEK asked educators and students at several schools on the top high-schools list to tell us what makes a great school. Here are some of their answers:

In today's educational geography, everyone knows there can some rough terrain. Within this landscape is found the occasional educational gem. One of those gems happens to be on my turf--Buffalo's City Honors School.

Why are we at CHS prospering? If you were to walk the halls you would see students reading in the hallways, studying for an exam and playing a game of chess--all creating an aura of a comforting community. This atmosphere is crucial because of our rigorous college-prep program: students are minimally required to take three Advanced Placement classes and one International Baccalaureate course. Those who believe they can meet the full challenge of the IB's world-renowned curriculum enroll as IB Diploma Candidates. The students' minds are stimulated, their curiosity aroused, philosophy developed, and creative energy and scientific knowledge lead to an understanding of self. From this it is gleaned that learning is lifelong--and that therefore, the community at large is the benefactor of their endeavors. Our mantra seems to be "what I give is better than what I get."

The school's diverse student population fosters an enlarged worldview with empathy and compassion. Students are learning to be a part of a global community where they can see holistic relationships that will serve them well after their graduation.

A facet of this gem that is essential to the students' potential and ultimate quest in academia is made real by each parent. Our parent community offers support that cushions the intellectual pursuits and social development of their children, our students.

For the students, teachers, administrators and support staff there is a sense of belonging, a sense of family, a spirit, all essential ingredients for this milieu … our school …our gem.                                              

Maddie Dressner, senior
Great Neck South High School, Great Neck, N.Y.
Great Neck South is more than just the impressive AP assessments and Regents scores. South is knowing that your principal truly cares by asking how you are when he sees you in the library, and showing his appreciation with a personal note on your report card. It's having a staff that stays past the last bell to help. It consists of teachers who love what they do and have the ability to inspire others. South is an experience that leaves a lasting impression. It's every club and activity you could ever want. It's wearing orange and blue while you watch the Rebels play a rival team. It's going to Rebel Olympics and trying to beat out the other grades--even though the seniors always win. It's waiting for the track team to run down the halls, faces painted and chanting, during Spirit week. It's the newspaper spoof that comes out on April Fool's Day. South is the assembly about Martin Luther King Jr., celebrating diversity. It's the operas and plays. It's the charity auction where you buy time with your teachers. South is a sense of community. It's loving to get up and come to school. It's about being yourself, but knowing you're part of something greater.

Jonathan Chong-Yen Yeh, senior
Troy High School, Fullerton, Calif.
A great high school is one that brings out the best in its students. It is a place where passion and character are cultivated in addition to mathematics and science, and where peers and teachers care more about you than about your class rank.

When I arrive at Troy High School every morning, I find myself in that sort of place: each of our faculty members has an unparalleled dedication to us and our futures, and the programs they've created here attract equally dedicated scholars, athletes and artists from throughout Southern California. For a student here, each day is intense but fulfilling, each classmate is competitive but supportive and each faculty member is devoted to our education and excited to be a part of it.

Troy's students are vibrant and diverse, and the broad range of cultures, interests and goals we bring to the school makes the entire experience incredible. Though Troy's courses are extremely rigorous, its community is supportive, such as with our Peer Tutoring Club, through which hundreds of students offer academic help to their peers in every class.

Through all of our differences and difficulties, every member of the Troy community shares a passion--to give our best in all we do, for ourselves and for everyone around us. It is this passion that is passed down to us by our celebrated teachers. It is this passion that propels students of the Troy Tech Program toward success in every field of professional work as part of their crowning, senior-year internship. It is this passion that drives our renowned Science Olympiad Team, which has built nothing less than a national dynasty, and our other extracurricular teams, which are well on their way to accomplishing similar feats.

It is this passion at Troy which inspires me every day--which brings out the best in me as a student and as a person. It is this passion that makes Troy a truly great high school.

Vicki Snyder, principal, and Julia Gregg, teacher
Signature School, Evansville, Ind.
When a dozen teachers came together to create our public charter school, we argued honestly and intelligently until our charter reflected common goals: commitment to students, to global understanding, to service, and to academic excellence measured by external assessment. We were clear about purpose.

All of our teachers value autonomy and accountability, for themselves and for the students who choose to come here. Most of us have experienced educational systems that are too heavy-handed and unwise from the top down. Ours seeks to be wise from the ground up.

Our principal was a founding teacher, and her passion and knowledge are visionary. She's not afraid to say no, but more importantly, she's not afraid to say yes ... yes, try it; it might work. Our board, intelligent and insightful local businessmen, said, "We'll give you support, and you show us results."

In our sixth year as a charter school we are soaring. The teacher in the room next to me, a Fulbright Scholar, works from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every school day. The teacher across the hall is the best math teacher I've ever encountered--in her relationships with students, as well as in external test scores. Similar descriptions characterize teachers throughout our building. They work hard because their work is their life's passion and because they have a stake in how the school develops.

A school must be small enough for buy-in, so that every teacher and student matters. Divided into units, all schools with dedicated teachers and with stated and enforced goals can excel.

Passion and purpose make a high school great. Add choice, buy-in and hard work, and the results are life-changing.

William Donohue, principal,
Byram Hills High School, Armonk, N.Y.

It may seem too obvious to admit, but nothing makes a good high school like good elementary and middle schools.

The high school that I have the pleasure to lead is by most measures a great one. There are opportunities for students to excel in challenging academic programs, the arts and athletics. Independent thinkers thrive in our nationally recognized Science Research program. All of our seniors participate in full-time internships, experiencing the responsibility of the real world at prominent organizations of all types, from the United Nations to Merrill Lynch. We are particularly proud that our students with disabilities participate in AP and science research, and that virtually all achieve state standards in all subjects. Our seniors' success in college admissions is outstanding.

In truth, any school with resources can create programs. However, excellence at the high-school level becomes possible when students are able to integrate knowledge and practice their learning. Integration and practice mean that students have the opportunity to prove their learning through meaningful reading, research, analysis, discussion and writing. The foundation for such work is necessarily laid in the earlier grades.

Our success is a K-through-12 story based on the school district's dedication to a "systems approach," originally created for business, that focuses on the goal of instructional excellence. Such a system demands constant review and improvements. An effective high-school curriculum and instruction is built upon equally effective elementary and middle-school curricula and instruction; recognition of proven practices and their implementation; hiring and retaining teachers who are caring, bright, articulate, and dedicated; coherent leadership practices, and commitment to professional development to realize all of the above.

Measuring the merits of a high school simply by equating AP classes with excellence misses so much of what constitutes a great school.

Robert W. Snee, principal
George Mason High School, Falls Church, Va.

DON'T CROSS THE LINE, the posters remind us all. They hang in classrooms and offices throughout George Mason High School and they are the creation of students in the Be the Change Club. Inspired by our Challenge Day experience, the club takes its name from Gandhi's exhortation, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." The posters offer this simple yet effective verbal intervention that anyone can use when we hear someone using language that could lead to hurt feelings, or worse. It's this third party's admonition that redirects the conversation and prevents the wound and all else that otherwise might have ensued. So what kind of a high school needs reminders like this? All schools, including a great one like George Mason.

Be the Change is one of several student groups with a mission to keep GMHS a safe, collaborative and welcoming place and their motto and mantra speaks for the whole school: We care about individuals. We respect each other. We do not judge.

Because our students and parent community have long prized positive school culture and a climate of trust above all else, and because our faculty and staff work so tirelessly to provide the right combination of support and challenge in all things, the rest falls into place naturally.

When students graduate from GMHS they are the sum of their experiences here. They are risk-takers who see the value in consistent effort, hard work, community service and collaboration. They are budding writers, researchers, thinkers, inventors, problem solvers, thespians, musicians and athletes. They are good citizens with a global perspective. Most are heading off to college and some to the workplace, but all are well prepared for their next challenge and will, no doubt, carry something of this school with them.

Gregory Hampton II, senior
Rickards High School, Tallahassee, Fla.

To observers, Rickards High School is a traditional school. However, Rickards stands out among its contemporaries as one of the best schools in America. While all schools share certain values, there is one difference that separates Rickards from every high school in the nation. That difference is an emphasis on providing opportunities to students.

The desire to create opportunities is addressed through academics. At Rickards, several educational options are available. These include more than 20 Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the Health Services Academy and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. Geared towards the workforce, the Health Services Academy prepares students for medical careers. The IB Program, which includes the majority of our AP courses, is an intensive academic program leading to a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship. The personalized nature of these programs fosters an environment conducive to success.

Along with academics, the administration supports the arts at a time when other schools are cutting funding. Programs such as our award-winning band, led by director Quincy Griffin, have flourished. The Marching Raiders won a spot in the pre-game show at the 2008 Orange Bowl. In addition, our fine-arts department is preparing a showcase of student work to be displayed at a local gallery. The development of the arts reflects our dedication to open opportunities to all students.

The greatest quality of Rickards is our diversity. Rickards has students from more than 25 ethnic groups and every socioeconomic class in Tallahassee. This diversity is supported through two initiatives. Every spring, Rickards presents "Pangaea," a student-run show celebrating the cultures found in our population. Also, all students are able to obtain college credit through AP and IB exams for free. These initiatives prepare students for the future, making the opportunities found at Rickards High School the crowning achievements of a great institution.

Tafi Mukunyadzi, senior
Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Ark.

Between innocence and adulthood lies a bubble that must be inhabited with great caution. The four-year shelter that is high school is extremely critical in a teenager's life. You begin to see the fragments of who you are and what you want to become.

A good high school is not hard to come by. It's comprised of hardworking teachers, a good curriculum and happy students. America has an abundance of these elements. To find a great high school is a bit more difficult. It is less about idealism and more about realism. That bubble should be about training for the real world. The school that goes beyond expectations is the one that gives you the roadmap to where you want to go, but doesn't drive the car for you. Little Rock Central High has given me an excellent roadmap and the keys, as well.

My school not only has vast array of AP classes taught by fantastic teachers, but also a sense of evolution that contributes to its uniqueness. Central is a microcosm of the real world. In 1957, nine African-Americans integrated Central High. As the nation watched, the Little Rock Nine led the way, fought for equality by facing daunting obstacles within a school guarded by statues of four Greek goddesses that represent Ambition, Personality, Opportunity and Preparation. Today, we are a glorious mix of races, backgrounds and opinions that set us apart from any other high school in America. Students constantly examine the school's history so that the Little Rock Nine's struggle will not have been in vain. The diversity that I see in Central's 2,400 students illustrates the progress that we have made in the last 50 years and the progress to come in the next 50 years. I see 2,400 maps, 2,400 sets of keys and 2,400 vibrant destinations.

Sarah Taylor & James Godoy, staff
Eastern Sierra Academy, Bridgeport, Calif.

"25 students."

"You mean 25 hundred?"

"No, I mean 25. We have three teachers, a secretary ..." and so goes the typical conversation about the school where we teach in the town of Bridgeport, Calif. (population 817), just east of Yosemite National Park.

Usually such an incredibly small school would struggle to meet the basic needs of its students, but with some innovative thinking, an unusual layout, integrated technology, a demanding curriculum, strong leadership and determined students, we've made our limited size into our greatest strength.

Each year, a few students from Bridgeport and the surrounding areas make the choice to attend our school instead of one of the neighboring comprehensive high schools 30 miles to the north or south. They decide to give up sports, lockers, varied electives and the traditional social opportunities that bigger schools offer and to take on the challenge of surviving four rigorous years crammed into a three-room school house with 28 other people.

Why do so many students make this choice each year? Because our school excels. Ninety percent of our graduates attend college, 75 percent earn four-year degrees, and 66 percent are the first in their families to do so. Our school always scores well above the state average on standardized tests despite our rural location and wide range of skill levels. Why? Because our school radiates a climate of achievement, hard work and camaraderie built on a combination of high expectations (students don't receive credit for anything below a B-) and a comfortable family dynamic.

Students from diverse backgrounds enter our school with the same dream: a dream of college and opportunity. Together, we fulfill that dream. And that means our graduates will likely find themselves on college campuses having that very same conversation: "25 students ..."