What to Know About STEM Public High Schools

Every student has their own strengths and skills — some shine on stage while others prefer conducting lab experiments or coding software.

But students don’t have to wait until college to pursue their academic interests at a deeper level. There are public high schools dedicated to specialized subject areas, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

“If your child is truly interested in science and math, for example, and they have the opportunity to go to a school specializing in those fields, ultimately you’re in a position where you are stimulating their thinking and putting them into a condition that potentially accelerates their growth, development and learning,” says Ronald Chaluisán, executive director of the Newark Trust for Education, a nonprofit focused on improving the quality of public schools.

[Read: Magnet Schools vs. Charter Schools: Differences Explained.]

STEM vs. Traditional Public High Schools

Defining a STEM school is complicated, as these kinds of schools vary from place to place.

Some schools aim to advance STEM education by providing more rigorous course options than most traditional schools. There are often opportunities for project-based and hands-on learning, like participating in robotics or science research labs.

Students at Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics & Engineering Technologies in New Jersey, for example, pick a “major,” and they receive in-depth instruction about that subject area each day. Most of the teachers have experience working in STEM fields they bring to the classroom.

“We have that outside view of what really works and how technology is developed,” says Marc Weinstein, mechanical engineering instructor at Middlesex County Academy, which placed in the top 10 among U.S. News’ 2022 Best STEM High Schools.

A STEM program can also be embedded in a traditional school, so not all students are required to participate in a fully immersive experience.

In any STEM program or standalone STEM high school, students are required to take classes outside of STEM for graduation, including in subjects such as English, social studies and physical education.

“Other subjects are just as valuable because they inform how we use the different fields in STEM,” says Christine Anne Royce, professor at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and 2018-2019 president of the National Science Teaching Association.

Schools that emphasize STEM often offer more Advanced Placement and dual enrollment courses than traditional schools. These courses can lead to college credit, which gives students a chance to test out of introductory or prerequisite college classes.

“They’re able to really dig into what they would like to do for their major, instead of taking those freshman college courses that make you think, ‘What’s the point?,'” says Amanda Austin, director of Iberville STEM Academy in Louisiana.

To enroll in a STEM school, students often have to enter a lottery. Some schools require an application and for students to demonstrate proficiency in STEM subjects. Attending a public STEM high school may also come with additional fees to account for laboratory equipment, technology and competitions, but financial assistance is often available.

“So many of the high-skill & high-wage jobs in our 5-year and 50-year future will require advanced STEM knowledge, skills and competencies,” IV Bray, principal of the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Georgia, which placed in the top 20 of U.S. News’ STEM rankings, wrote in an email.

U.S. News releases Best STEM High Schools rankings every year. AP exam scores in STEM subject areas and student participation in college-level math and science courses, based on 2020 graduates, were key metrics for the 2022 rankings. To be eligible for the STEM rankings, schools must have been in the top 1,000 of the overall national public high school rankings.

[READ: How to Involve Your Child in Choosing a High School.]

Find Your Fit

To find the best high school match, students first need to sit down with family members to discuss their interests. If those include things like building machines, conducting experiments, gaming or solving math equations, a STEM school could be a good fit.

“Picking a STEM school in the hope it is a resumé-builder for college admissions, as opposed to having a love of STEM, would be a misguided first step in exploring fit,” Ann N. Bonitatibus, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, which earned a spot in the top 10 of the STEM rankings, wrote in an email. For a STEM school to be a good choice, “students must display commitment to STEM and have an innovative or entrepreneurial spirit.”

STEM schools may offer fewer options for extracurricular activities, like sports and theater, if they enroll fewer students than other schools. However, some high schools have a STEAM emphasis, with the “A” representing arts.

It can often be difficult to gauge a high school based on its website. Therefore, open houses are usually available for students and families to ask questions and learn about curriculum offerings, extracurricular activities and application requirements. These are typically run by the school’s principal or administrators.

Some schools also have summer programs to expose younger students to the building and academic curriculum. Prospective students may also be matched with current students to learn about the school culture and classroom experiences.

“We’ve seen parents who want the school more than their kids and the kids don’t pass the entrance requirements or they’re miserable in class,” Weinstein says. “So kids need to want it as much as the parents do.”

[See: Top 100 Public High Schools Map.]

High-Ranking STEM Public Schools

Previously ranked as No. 6, The Davidson Academy of Nevada climbed to the No. 1 spot in the U.S. News Best STEM High Schools rankings this year. Three schools — Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, The School for the Talented and Gifted (TAG) in Texas and The Davidson Academy — ranked in both the top 10 for STEM schools and top 10 overall.

Each school in the rankings receives a STEM Achievement Index — a combination of the STEM Math Achievement Index and the STEM Science Achievement Index — that has a maximum score of 100. Only the top 250 high schools that earned a score of at least 76.6 on the STEM Achievement Index receive a numerical rank.

Two factors contribute to the STEM Math Achievement Index: the percentage of test-takers who score a 3 or higher on at least one AP math exam and the percentage of students in the 2020 high school graduating class who took at least one AP math course. The STEM Science Achievement Index is calculated the same way, except with science exams and courses.

“Because students in STEM schools are often accelerated in mathematics and science, they may access AP courses a year or two earlier than peers in non-STEM schools,” Bonitatibus says. “This means STEM schools often offer post-AP courses and research opportunities to extend student learning.”

The chart below features the schools in the top 10 of the 2022 Best STEM High Schools ranking, along with their location, enrollment size, STEM index and rankings. These schools either explicitly emphasize STEM in the curricula or offer a variety of STEM AP courses.

High School District City/State Enrollment (Grades 9-12) STEM Index U.S. News STEM Ranking U.S. News National Rank
The Davidson Academy of Nevada Davidson Academy School District Reno, Nev. 143 98.8 1 6
High Technology High School Monmouth County Vocational School District Lincroft, N.J. 295 97.9 2 65
BASIS Scottsdale BASIS Charter Schools Inc. Scottsdale, Ariz. 374 97.7 3 29
BASIS Chandler BASIS Charter Schools Inc. Chandler, Ariz. 335 96.5 4 11
BASIS Peoria BASIS Charter Schools Inc. Peoria, Ariz. 282 96.3 5 30
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Fairfax County Public Schools Alexandria, Va. 1809 95.9 6 1
Science and Engineering Magnet School (SEM) Dallas Independent School District Dallas 513 95.8 7 22
The School for the Talented and Gifted (TAG) Dallas Independent School District Dallas 464 95.7 8 8
The Early College at Guilford Guilford County Schools Greensboro, N.C. 200 95.1 9 35
Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies Middlesex County Vocational and Technical School District Edison, N.J. 169 94.5 10 23

See the complete rankings of the Best High Schools.

More from U.S. News

Why Choose a STEM Private School?

See High School Graduation Rates By State

How to Choose High School Classes for College Benefit

What to Know About STEM Public High Schools originally appeared on usnews.com

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