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A pleasantly surprising Minneapolis choice for nation’s top high schools — here’s why

When a Minneapolis high school makes it onto one of those top-school lists put out by a glossy national magazine, it’s got to be Southwest, right?

When a Minneapolis high school makes it onto one of those top-school lists put out by a glossy national magazine, it’s got to be Southwest, right? The popular, competitive program has made so many appearances on Newsweek’s list they could practically tile the principal’s office with plaques. 

Yet when Minneapolis Public Schools sent out a news release Tuesday trumpeting the appearance of one of its high schools on U.S. News and World Report’s 2009 list of top high schools, the program in the spotlight was Patrick Henry High School.  The silver medal the magazine awarded the school, located in the Camden neighborhood on the city’s North Side, places it in the top 3 percent of high schools nationwide.

All told, 13 Minnesota schools made the cut. Several are perennial winners, including Edina, St. Louis Park, Wayzata and Mounds View.

The back story behind Patrick Henry’s appearance on the list offers a revealing glimpse inside the way magazine editors decide which schools make the lists, which typically prompt that issue to fly off the newsstands.

Is there an objective criterion that makes a school “the best”? How does a magazine’s staff — or, more likely, its long-suffering interns — cull a list of a few hundred all-stars from the nation’s 21,000 high schools?

Magazines’ scoring methods differ widely
Educators at all levels enjoy a love-hate relationship with magazine “best” lists. Law schools grouse about the relevance of such a criterion as the number of books in their libraries when they fall out of U.S. News’ top 20, as the University of Minnesota’s did last year.  MBA programs and liberal arts colleges that find themselves atop a given list are equally quick to tout their rankings to prospective students.

Southwest is a perennial Newsweek winner because the magazine compiles its list by tallying the number of students who participate in two academically rigorous programs, International Baccalaureate, better known as “IB” in parental patois, and Advanced Placement. Using a mathematical formula that’s so complex only an IB graduate can decipher it, the magazine computes the number of kids who take the college-prep classes and the number who pass enough subsequent tests to earn special diplomas.

Up until recently, Southwest was the only Minneapolis high school offering IB. Ergo, it was the only school with any realistic chance of making the list. Never mind that even within its overachieving student body, relatively few students do more than dip a toe into the super-challenging coursework. Of the 387 kids who graduated from Southwest last year, 170 took IB classes, but only 43 received IB diplomas.

Deciding whether to offer IB and AP is a tricky balancing act for schools. On the one hand, parents often equate the classes’ availability with a school’s quality. On the other, the privately administered certification to administer the programs costs money — something that’s in short supply in most districts.

Under Newsweek’s methodology, a school like Patrick Henry could produce class after class of stellar performers but never win a single accolade. Recognizing this, U.S. News and World Report used a formula devised by School Evaluation Services, a K-12 education data research business run by Standard & Poor’s.

“The 2009 U.S.News & World Report America’s Best High Schools methodology,” the magazine explained, “… is based on the key principles that a great high school must serve all its students well, not just those who are bound for college and that it must be able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show that the school is successfully educating its student body across a range of performance indicators.”

Schools were first ranked according to how students’ reading and math scores compared to the rest of their state. The standouts were then examined to determine how poor and minority students, who often fare poorly on standardized tests, performed. Finally, measures of college-readiness — including IB and AP participation — were tallied. 

Thanks in part to the Minneapolis district’s recent commitment to offer IB and AP classes in all but one of the city’s high schools, Patrick Henry sailed to the head of the class despite demographics that usually predict academic struggles: 86 percent of its 1,200 students are minorities and 74 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Along with more traditional subjects, Patrick Henry students can study commercial and fine arts, engineering and four world languages, including Chinese and Japanese. In 2007, the school boasted an 89 percent graduation rate, and more than half of students passed the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments’ reading exam.

“What makes this significant and a much more authentic evaluation of schools than that of other news magazines is that it takes poverty and ethnic makeup into consideration,” said Principal Gary Kociemba. “I just think this notice speaks highly to all the staff and students who work so hard at Patrick Henry High School. The bottom line is it’s about us all working together and making this a better place to learn.”