Choosing a High School in the Bay Area

Julia de Raadt
Julia de Raadt

Julia has dedicated much of her career to education. Since commencing with Empowerly, Julia has looked after the research team which handles student questions on different topics about college admission.

Are you about to embark on final years of your school journey? As you know, your high school years can encourage academic and personal growth. In fact, these years are crucial and will play a major role in determining where and what you might study in college. The courses you take, the friends you make and activities you get involved in at your high school can each influence your path. When choosing a high school to attend, it’s important to select one where you can thrive.

As you search, consider the options carefully. What factors weigh heavily when making your choice? Private or public? Large or small? Each criteria will weigh differently, depending on a student’s own personal preferences. Ultimately, choosing a high school should make both you and your family feel good.

High School Factors to Consider

  • Academic programs
    • Does the school offer AP/honors courses that will challenge you?
    • Are there alternative, atypical courses on offer? For example, entrepreneurial skills, media technology, quantitative literacy…
    • Will the course offerings satisfy my curiosity? Will I need to seek alternatives outside the high school? 
  • Cost – if considering a private school, weigh up the cost of attending as well.
    • How much should I pay to attend a private school? Also, does the quality of education outweigh the cost?
    • Can I receive financial aid?
  • Diversity – high school representation goes hand-in-hand with academic accomplishment.
    • What is the makeup of the student body? 
    • Will I meet students and teachers from different ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds who can offer a different perspective from my own? 
  • Size – private schools tend to be smaller in number, and student-teacher ratio lower.
    • Will I receive the academic and personal attention in a large school?
    • Will my academic options be limited if the school is too small?

Other Personal Preferences

  • Student-teacher ratio
    • Will my interactions with my teachers be confined and personal attention limited if the ratio is high?
  • Graduation and college attendance
    • What is the graduation rate? 
    • How many students go onto college?
  • School culture – it’s a known fact that Bay Area high schools can be very competitive, and for many the pressure to achieve can place undue stress. Look for a school that nurtures a healthy learning environment rather than a competitive one.
    • Does the school culture provide a positive learning environment?
    • Will I feel at home in this environment? 
  • Technology
    • Does the school embrace technology in the school and use it effectively to improve learning outcomes?
  • Extracurricular activities
    • What activities and clubs are on offer? Sports? Academics? 
    • How does the school encourage student engagement in these activities?
  • Parent engagement
    • How well does the school involve and communicate with parents? 
    • Is there a strong parent presence? 
    • How often do teachers hold parent teacher conferences? 

With this criteria in mind, you can begin your search. Choosing a high school might come down to a combination of factors. For students living in the Bay Area, there are several worthwhile options to explore. Each has its own strengths and caters to different student interests and needs. 

Top Public or Charter High Schools in the Bay Area

Dr. T.J. Owens Gilroy Early College Academy – Gilroy, CA

This Bay Area school offers a rigorous curriculum where students are required to complete some college classes in order to graduate. The school ranks #3 in California according to US News. The student teacher ratio is high (32:1), however the school is small in number with 230 students. Applicants whose parents have not attended college or are from low income families are encouraged to apply.

Lowell High School – San Francisco, CA

Admission to Lowell is merit-based and the application process is competitive. In fact, the school is large, with 2,880 students. The high school allows students freedom in course choice, unlike the rest of the high schools in the SFUSD. Notably, Lowell has been ranked consistently in the top 100 high schools and has an AP participation rate of 93%. 

Monta Vista High School – Cupertino, CA

Monta Vista offers a rigorous academic program with over 25 AP and Honors courses. It has a reputation for being very competitive and its students college-driven. Additionally, the school offers a STEM-oriented curriculum and has ranked consistently in the top 100 STEM high schools. 

Lynbrook High School – San Jose, CA

This is another Bay Area high school offering a strong STEM program, including the opportunity to participate in its STEM research program. Lynbrook is a feeder school into the UCs, with the largest  percentage of its graduates accepted than at any other school in the Fremont Union High School District. The school is known for consistently being one of the top academic high schools in California for several years. 

Summit Preparatory – Redwood City, CA

Students follow a project-based learning curriculum. In fact, students learn through hands-on projects and group learning. With an AP participation rate of 100%, students take 6 or more AP courses and at least on AP exam. 

Top Private High Schools in the Bay Area

College Preparatory – Oakland, CA

This Bay Area high school is small, with just 360 students; accordingly, it has a low student teacher ratio of 7 to 1. The school places a strong emphasis on English; all students take an extra year of English and are encouraged to develop their interest and proficiency in the subject. The school boasts high standard test scores: of the 348 APS exams taken in 2019,  88% of its students got a 4 or 5. School tuition is higher than tuition at UCLA and UC Berkeley.  

The Harker School  – San Jose, CA

A large Bay private school, Harker has both a lower and upper school with 800 students attending the upper school. The school integrates research and study skills from an early age and encourages all students to participate in science and humanities research opportunities both through its own internship program and external programs.  Many of its students have placed in competitions including Regeneron Science Talent Search and International Physics Olympiad

Castilleja School – Palo Alto, CA

An all-girls private school that is recognized for being one of the Bay Area’s best. It has a school body of 430 and a student teacher ratio of 8 to 1. The school offers an interdisciplinary curriculum and replacing AP courses with Advanced Topic courses which explore topics in greater depth and emphasize experiential learning.


The step beyond choosing a high school is gaining acceptance! For most, the admission season begins in the middle of the fall with applications due early spring. Many schools offer open days. These open days are a great way to get familiar with the school, meet some of the staff, and hear what it has to offer.

If you are still undecided on choosing a high school, Empowerly can help! We can assist you with researching  and weighing up your options. Click below to schedule a consult by phone to learn more.


Questions? Let us know!