Tips on How to Choose a High School From a Former Principal

Choosing a high school for your student might seem like a daunting choice. Here's what one former school leader recommends when faced with the decision.

By Team XQ

High school is a crucial time that will set the stage for your child’s future. So, how do you know if the high school you’re going to send your middle-schooler to will truly prepare them to succeed in life after graduation? Ask a principal.

No really. That’s what we did. 

But before that, we asked middle school parents what kinds of questions they have about high school and student success. And we turned to former principal and XQ Senior School Success Officer, Sean McClung for insight. Before joining the XQ family, Sean served as the Senior Director of Schools at Summit Public Schools and was the Principal at not one but two forward-thinking high schools—Impact Academy of Arts & Technology and MetWest High School—both focused on creating transformative learning experiences that empower all students to seek out their purpose, direct their own learning, and realize their fullest potential.

Now, let’s get to the most-asked questions from middle school parents: 

I need help on how to choose a high school for my middle-schooler. Where do I start? 

Start by remembering this is about finding the best match for the unique individual you’re raising—and not just who they are now, but the person they are becoming. I encourage families to use the process of choosing a high school as an opportunity to connect with your adolescent. It’s a great time to talk with your child about what they want for their future. Then, you can come up with a plan to navigate this important decision together. 

And while you won’t always agree—and I’m not advocating that you give the choice over entirely to your child—be sure to listen to what they have to say about which high school they want to go to, and the reasons why. Find the balance of what they want and what you believe is best for them as a parent.

Here’s a suggested sequence of steps you can take together:

  1. Research all your options. 
  2. Once you’ve got this list, make an extra push to add even more options. Where there’s a will there’s a way: for public schools, explore neighboring districts that allow transfers; if you’re considering schools that charge tuition, research scholarships or alternative funding. 
  3. Define what qualities you and your student are looking for in a high school. Start narrowing down the schools that feel like a good match using a variety of sources, including the school website and public reviews, what you’re hearing in your community, and what your student knows about these schools from talking with their current teachers and counselors.
  4. Experience the schools you’re most interested in and speak with the students, teachers, and families that are part of the community.

As you’re making sense of all the different options, it might be helpful to know research tells us that effective high schools have six common elements that can serve as helpful guides for seeing and making sense of schools you’re considering:

  • Strong mission and culture
  • Meaningful, engaged learning
  • Caring, trusting relationships
  • Youth voice and choice
  • Smart use of time, space, and tech
  • Community partnerships

We use these commonalities to help guide high schools to rethink their approach to learning; we call them the XQ School Design Principles. (And if you’re wondering what that looks like in action, see how different XQ schools apply them here.)

Two students firing a model rocket into the air

How can I be sure the culture at the high school we choose will be a good fit for my child? 

Research is key. Once you’ve learned what you can from reading the website, online reviews, and info sessions or open houses, go experience the school when it’s in session. Arrange to do a school visit or shadow day so you can see what it’s actually like. Observe how students and teachers are interacting. 

Does what you see match what you read on the website? 

You can also ask the school to connect you with a parent, student, or teacher. And when you do talk, ask for honest feedback about what they like about the school and what they don’t.

Oh, and at XQ, we’re focusing on school culture throughout the month of February, so please send any questions you want to be answered to [email protected]!

What’s the ideal mix of extracurricular activities, social activities, and studying in high school?

Just like there’s no such thing as an “average” child, there is no perfect equation for how much time a student should spend on extracurricular activities, hanging out with friends, or studying. 

This is also an important moment where, as your student matures, you’ll need to step back and allow your child to take increased responsibility for deciding how they spend their time. Again, it’s not an either-or, your child still needs your guidance, but it’s a gradual release so they’re learning how to direct themselves more independently, preparing them for the day when they leave home.

If a school you like doesn’t offer a particular sport or activity that your child wants, consider ways to meet those needs outside school through community leagues or programs.

My child has special needs. How do I choose a high school that will support those needs?

It’s important to remember your student is an individual, and you’re seeking out a community that’s a good match. So talk explicitly about the particular needs and hopes you both have and look into how each school you’re considering would stack up.  

If your student has an IEP or 504 or needs a particular kind of support, make sure you talk to both students and teachers who are involved with the program that provides it. This is where a school visit or shadow day is important. Walk around the school with your child and talk about what they notice. How are they greeted? How are they treated? Talk about how they experience the school and if they could see themselves as a student there. 

And remember to seek out programs and groups outside of school you can go to for support and guidance. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone and there are other families who have likely faced similar challenges.

What’s one piece of advice you want to give parents reading this?

I’d say it’s to always keep these questions in mind: 

  • How can making this decision together help me learn more about my child? 
  • How can this experience help my child learn more about themselves? 
  • How can I help my child learn to navigate the world on their own terms?

Continue helping your child grow with this step-by-step guide that will help them discover and develop new passions, interests, and skills, XQ College Pathfinder.