We all have jeans that rarely come out of the drawer. Then there’s that one pair, the pair we choose again and again, because they fit like a glove. The importance of a good fit isn’t reserved for jeans. Experts who work closely with teens say fit should be a priority when making the high school decision. The goal is a school that fits your child so they feel comfortable in that environment and in themselves. When it comes time to choose a high school for your student, fit should be at the top of the list.
Sherman Oaks-based licensed marriage and family therapist Melissa Brohner-Schneider, who works with many teens and families with teens, talks about “goodness of fit, meaning really analyzing what kind of child you have and what kind of environment they need to learn and grow. Paying close attention to how your child manages stress and what kind of an environment they need in order to feel supported is also very important.
“It’s really important as a parent to be clear about what kind of high school your child needs versus what kind of high school you would want for them, or for yourself if you could do high school over again,” added Brohner-Schneider. “Sometimes this gets murky as a parent and it’s hard to see our kids clearly.”
Especially in Los Angeles, where there are so many options, the process of finding the right high school for your child can feel overwhelming. It’s easy to get stuck on the school your neighbor’s kid attends or where the daughter of your second cousin who is now at Stanford went to school. No one is suggesting you discount these things altogether. But those schools might not be the best for your kid. Similarly, as many parents of two or more have discovered, just because your oldest went to such and such high school, it doesn’t mean that’s the ideal place for their younger sibling to spend their pivotal high school years.
Michelle November, Director of Admissions at de Toledo High School, encourages parents to take the long view when they think about fit. “Sometimes we become very focused on the right now, who the child is in this moment,” she said. “But a lot happens between 14 and 18.”
Her advice? “Choose a school that will fit for all four years. Think about who you want your child to be at graduation. What kinds of growth and experiences do you want them to have, even in terms of building confidence and trying new things. We get very caught up in whether a school has an engineering class, or a dance team, or how many APs they offer. Those are important too, especially at dTHS. But they are only one piece of the puzzle."
So how can you narrow down the choices? How can you determine if a particular high school is a good fit for your teen, or soon-to-be teen? In addition to attending open houses and visiting the school, either virtually or in person (when possible), talk to parents of current students or recent graduates to get the inside scoop, and make sure your child takes advantage of opportunities to connect with current students. Most schools host events to facilitate these conversations. But de Toledo’s Michelle November also welcomes individual requests from parents who want to be connected to current community members. She added that there’s no such thing as asking too many questions. It’s a big decision after all.
For parents looking for more guidance on determining fit, here are some considerations.
How does your child feel about attending a very large school? Does this excite them or would they feel more at ease in an environment where all the teachers and administrators know who they are? Some benefits of a smaller student body are often overlooked, such as the potential to get more playing time on athletic teams or land bigger parts in theater productions.
Picture your child in a classroom with 35 kids. Would they do significantly better in classes of 15? “Because high school is a time when children separate from parents, finding the right learning environment where the child can navigate more independently of their parents is key to a successful experience,” said Brohner-Schneider.
According to the National Council of Teachers of English, “research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments when compared to their peers in larger classes… In the area of student engagement, findings consistently show the value of small classes. Students talk and participate more in smaller classes. They are much more likely to interact with the teacher rather than listen passively during class.”
It’s also worth reviewing the class options. Any school you’re seriously considering should have plenty of offerings to satisfy your child’s curiosity, or pique it. After all, being a high school student is a lot like being ‘undeclared’ in college. In addition to exploring existing interests, your student should be encouraged to try new things. At de Toledo, that might mean taking a class in entrepreneurship or anatomy, finite math or songwriting, aerial dance or American Sign Language. These are just a few of the approximately 70 electives the school offers.
Does the school share your values? For that matter, do they talk openly and often about values? Sure, just about every high school has a community service requirement. But is this just a box to check or is it part of the culture? At de Toledo, in addition to rigorous academics, the school emphasizes tikkun olam (world repair), ethical action and thought-provoking conversations about values. Head of School Mark Shpall often talks about “raising A+ human beings.” Students speak about a culture of lifting one another up.
Even if your child gets straight As and has not experienced any social or emotional challenges, it’s comforting to know the high school you’re considering has plenty of supports in place, both academic and social-emotional, just in case. In addition to dedicated deans for each grade, de Toledo employs a full time school counselor, a learning specialist, and a team of veteran college counselors. Students can make appointments to get help in the Writing and Math Center which is open during and after school. Or they can just walk in. Also, Rabbi Tsafi Lev is very approachable and always available to meet with students.
“The school is like an extended family where learning and growing go hand in hand,” said Jeff Schenck, the parent of a recent graduate and a current sophomore. “The teachers and staff are incredibly nurturing, enthusiastic and passionate.”
Most people might not think of a Jewish school as being diverse. But Lesley Lasker, the parent of two recent graduates, called it “incredibly diverse.”
“At de Toledo, there’s a wide range of diversity in human beings,” she explained. “The kids have a variety of different learning styles and come from different socio-economic backgrounds, different variations of religious observance within their homes, and come from many different cultures.” Students also have a range of interests and strengths, and the school goes out of its way to foster these differences. In other words, there is no de Toledo type. “We define success in a myriad of ways,” said November.
“We all do better when we feel comfortable in our skin, not when our heart is racing and we wish we were somewhere or somebody else,” added November.
For this reason, she advises prospective students to “take your pulse when you’re visiting a school. How are you feeling? In the right environment, kids will feel more comfortable and confident to raise their hands, try new things, and flourish. There’s a difference between something that looks really shiny, and something that looks shiny and fits and looks good on you when you try it on. It’s almost like, it looks great on the hanger. But does it look good on you?”