Best Schools 2010: The Honor Roll

From Acton to Wellesley, area high schools are offering students unprecedented opportunities to excel. Here, some standout programs that prepare kids for life beyond the classroom.

Wellesley High School
Wellesley students read and write — a lot. So do students in many other high-flying districts, of course, but what makes Wellesley different is how far the school’s English department goes to connect students with the subject. Kids aren’t just assigned summer reading; they have the opportunity to hear prominent writers speak (David McCullough, Robert Pinsky). Sophomores study the works of a single American author and write a thesis. The department also runs a lab that helps students with all things written. Says former English teacher and current assistant principal Jamie Chisum: “The courses are challenging, the expectations are high, but the support is really good.”

Acton-Boxborough Regional High School
Where some schools have jocks, AB has “mathletes.” The school’s 640 average math SAT score tops the state’s, and the math team placed number one among large schools in New England last year. The not-so-secret weapon is Bill Noeth, the head of the school’s math department, who plays up geeky humor in the classroom. Kids laugh, but they also learn their stuff. The curriculum builds to college-level calculus, advanced probability, and stats. There’s even independent study available in multivariable calculus.

Norwell High School
A couple of years ago, when the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation began doling out grants, the staff at Norwell High School didn’t just settle for creating a few new lesson plans. Rather, they looked to the grants as seed money for building a dedicated biotech lab and a full-year curriculum. “Our goal was to help students understand this new frontier of science, which is an important supply of jobs in our state,” says Norwell science coordinator Diane Provenzano. The school requires four years of lab science (most only ask for three). Students take biology their first year, ace the MCAS as sophomores (98 percent are proficient or advanced in math, 83 percent in science), then roll up their sleeves for APs in chemistry, physics, and biology. Or they can pursue interests in astronomy, energy and the environment, anatomy, or marine biology.

Bedford High School
“The important question isn’t ‘What?’ it’s ‘So what?’” says Bedford teacher Jim Sunderland, who was named Massachusetts History Day Teacher of the Year in 2009. “Take what happened and find the implication and resonance for our lives today.” Finding resonance doesn’t seem to be a problem at Bedford, where each history classroom has a document camera to study maps and newspaper articles, and interactive screens for collaborative web research. When Sunderland’s pupils were learning about Keynesian economics, they interviewed Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman. No wonder Bedford students have either won or been finalists in four of the past six National History Day contests.

Walpole High School
Roughly 20 percent of students at Walpole take more than one language (the school offers Spanish, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, and a unit of classical Greek), a statistic that is no accident. “At Walpole, language is not considered a sideline elective,” says George Watson, named 2008–2009 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year for his efforts leading the language program. “We’re a major academic area with an emphasis on linguistic immersion and authentic cultural experiences.” Learning to parlez-vous starts with language-immersion homerooms in middle school, followed in high school by a lab for dialogue practice. Outside the classroom, there are afterschool clubs, and trips to Germany, Costa Rica, China, Italy, and Greece.

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School
In these lean times, many high schools have trouble funding a single dedicated theater or music teacher. Not Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which has 16 (yep, 16!) performing and visual arts teachers, and a course selection to rival a small college. Dance troupe? Check. Lighting and set-design program? Yup. Darkroom? Two. The school has won the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival, an annual play competition, 14 times — a record. Through community partnerships, CRLS students get internships at Harvard’s A.R.T. and Central Square’s Underground Railway Theater. And when they graduate, they go onto the best: NYU, Emerson, and, of course, Hollywood.

Beverly High School
Picture this: every student working wirelessly on a Mac laptop in a new building. Teachers using Wikis to post assignments, give feedback, and encourage discussion online. Assessments that aren’t just term papers, but 21st-century ways to demonstrate knowledge — blogs, documentaries, PowerPoint presentations, and podcasts. It’s about to happen at Beverly High, which this September becomes the first school in eastern Massachusetts to require every incoming freshman to have a laptop. (Thanks to a deal with Apple, students can purchase, rent, or borrow a computer.) The school teaches everything from basic computing literacy to AutoCAD, the design-industry standard. And it also trains students to provide tech support to peers. Kyle Sweeney, Beverly class of ’07, says that experience helped him get into college. “It taught me communication and problem-solving skills better than any class.”

Boston Latin School
Three years ago history teacher Cate Arnold’s students were so moved by An Inconvenient Truth, they started a climate-action club. These days, that club, YouthCAN, is nationally recognized, having gotten 28 solar panels installed at the school, kicked off single-stream recycling, and set in motion plans to build a $6.2 million green roof. Yet the effort is no student fad. This summer BLS faculty spent a week brainstorming ways to re-engineer the curriculum to include sustainability issues. “It has been an incredible think tank,” says English teacher Joseph Concannon. “When you give our students projects that really challenge them, it’s amazing how far they’ll go.”

Lexington High School
What do Amherst College and Lexington High School have in common (besides their Bay State addresses)? They both have about the same number of clubs and activities. And Lexington’s 96 extracurriculars cater to all types of pursuits. Do-gooders have the Lexington Feeds Africa Club; game nerds have a Magic the Gathering Club; and cultural aesthetes have the Seinfeld Appreciation Club. There’s even the Pump It Up Club, which raises awareness about the environmental impact of, um, improperly inflated tires. School administrators attribute the wide-ranging list to a brew of savvy pre-college planning, a community-instilled mandate to expand involvement outside the classroom, and the basic desire to meet like-minded people. “It is a huge socializing motivator,” says Lexington principal Natalie Cohen. “You wouldn’t see this in most districts.”