Kimberly Lynch, a redhead with freckles, had a keen interest in sunblock. So much so that she spent the past year developing a new method to test the effectiveness of sunscreens and recently submitted the results to a medical journal.
The 17-year-old senior at Bergen Academies in Hackensack, N.J., is quite a bit younger than most scientists submitting papers to accredited medical journals. Then again, Lynch doesn't go to a typical public high school.
Bergen Academies, a four-year high school, offers students seven concentrations including science, medicine, culinary arts, business and finance, and engineering. It even has its own stem-cell laboratory, where Lynch completed her experiments under the guidance of biology teacher Robert Pergolizzi, a former assistant professor of genetic medicine at Cornell University.
The stem-cell lab, where students work with adult stem cells and mouse stem cells, and the nanotechnology lab down the hall, which has a high-powered scanning electron microscope, have hundreds of thousands of dollars of cutting-edge equipment.
"I've done internships at different labs in the area, and none of them had the equipment we have here," Lynch said.
Bergen Academies, which has a rigorous admissions process for each of its academies, is New Jersey's top public high school for overall academics (measured by state math, reading, and science test scores), according to a new state-by-state ranking of U.S. high schools compiled for BusinessWeek by San Francisco-based GreatSchools. For each state, we also identified the most improved high school, and the best high school serving a low-income population, as well as the public and private schools that were rated highest by visitors to GreatSchools.
Bergen Academies is in good company. The list includes America's elite public schools, including Stuyvesant High School in New York, Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos, Calif., and Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., which is considered by many to be the best public high school in America.
It's not surprising that many of the schools on the list are charter schools and magnet schools, which often have admissions requirements and a committed community of parents, said Bill Jackson, president and founder of GreatSchools, a nonprofit organization that rates schools and provides an online forum for parents. Click here to read more about Bill Jackson and GreatSchools' mission.) But the ranking also includes plenty of traditional schools.
Jackson said the ranking is a good starting point for parents. They might consider moving to a neighborhood where one of the schools is located or to find out whether their child could commute to a school that made the list, he said.
Of course, plenty of great schools aren't on the list—and because the main criteria was test scores it did not factor in other offerings such as great arts or sports programs. But if your child's school has low test scores, it's important to know that and to ask school officials what they are doing to improve standards, Jackson said.
"This can help parents figure out how to send their kid to the right school," Jackson said. "Sometimes it does mean moving…In urban areas, there are a growing number of charter schools and district programs that allow parents to choose." Charter schools are typically open to anyone living within a certain geographical area. Magnet schools have additional admissions requirements.
Bergen County Academies draws its 1,100 students from across a suburban county, and the admissions requirements include an entrance exam and interview.
"The offerings in the seven academies create a personality of this school that's unique," principal Daniel Jaye said. "Our theater program creates a side of softness to the engineering academy. The confluence of communities is beautiful."
Schools such as Bergen County Academies have the advantage of pulling the best students from a relatively wealthy area. But not all top schools fit that mould.
In Oklahoma, the school with the best overall performance also happens to be the best low-income school. Despite the demographic challenges, 100% of students at the Dove Science Academy, a publicly funded charter school for grades 6 to 12 in Oklahoma City, were accepted to college last year. Its test scores were the highest in the state.
About 90% of the 481 students at Dove Science Academy qualify for free or reduced school lunch, and 60% come from families where English is not the first language, said assistant principal/dean of students Marc Julian.
The school, founded by a group of educators in the 2001-02 season in an old office building on a busy Oklahoma City street, has strict policies for both students and teachers. Students wear uniforms, and the focus is decidedly on academics. Students have two or three hours of homework each day. And the school has neither an ROTC nor a football team (It began offering varsity soccer and basketball only in the past few years).
The kids are required to stay an extra hour and—if necessary—come in on Saturdays if they fail practice tests given monthly in preparation for the statewide exams. Admission is decided by lottery and, unlike a number of top schools on the list, does not require an admission test. The best students are rewarded with an annual trip to Europe and Turkey for which they pay just a few hundred dollars.
Teacher salaries are based on merit not pay scales (There is no union).
This year's valedictorian, Jason Lugo, 17, said his success had a lot to do with the dedication of the teachers who have come to his home—even on weekends—for free one-on-one tutoring at the kitchen table. Lugo, the son of Mexican immigrants, will be the first in his family to go to college. His father works at a dry cleaner, and his mother works on an air-conditioner assembly line.
In college, he plans to major in finance and international business with a minor in political science, and then launch a financial consulting business. He hopes to later move into politics.
"Maybe, the first Hispanic President of the U.S.," Lugo said. "Hey, Barack Obama did it, now anybody else can."
Click here to see the best high schools in America by state.
Gopal writes about real estate for BusinessWeek.com in New York.