Ask anyone to name the top high schools in our area, and chances are the relatively new Downingtown STEM Academy won’t be one of them. Yet there it sits, atop Niche’s latest list of elite public schools in Chester County. Now in its seventh year, Niche’s ranking system combines the usual data on academics, teachers, resources, facilities, extracurricular activities, and student/faculty/curriculum diversity, while also weighing input from students, alumni and parents. The Pittsburgh-based company’s methodology targets the increasing number of young families looking to relocate from urban centers. Though competitive in nature, the rankings are aimed at providing transparency. “A lot of times, big life decisions like moving somewhere new or adjusting to a different work situation are tied to choosing a school for your kids,” says Luke Skurman, Niche’s co-founder and CEO. “Parents and students should be able to find out what it’s really like to attend a school before applying and enrolling.”
Over the past 15 years, as Downingtown has become a destination suburb, overcrowding has been a problem in the school district. Enter Downingtown STEM Academy, which opened in 2011 as a magnet charter school. Lower Merion Township has been grappling with similar overcrowding issues, though that hasn’t compromised the lofty academic standards of its two high schools. It’s no surprise that Lower Merion and Harriton occupy the top two spots on Niche’s list for Montgomery County. But while each of these high schools have more than 1,200 students, DSA is a different animal. With just 800 students, it’s more personalized approach has been tested by COVID-19. “In the virtual model, it is more challenging to have one-on-one interactions between teachers and students,” says DSA headmaster Art Campbell.
The disconnect at DSA has been partially remedied with breakout rooms, individual conferencing, modified projects that maximize collaboration, and advisory periods for online activities. “These interactions form important and lasting bonds that we have to work extra hard to create in the virtual environment,” Campbell says.
Radnor High School was ranked the number one public school in Delaware County and the fourth-best in the state. There, a chief concern was transitioning students from middle school to high school.
To help, principal Panayota Kevgas created a freshman mentorship program made up of administrators, faculty and upperclassmen. “The relationships built outside the classroom and the support this program provides our students are especially crucial during this pandemic,” says Kevgas.
Maintaining community during COVID is also a priority at Westtown School, named the top private high school in Chester County by Niche. Head of school Tori Jueds and her staff created “a multitude of virtual alternatives to beloved community traditions and activities,” including a residential program, at-home theater productions, esports competitions, online gatherings for student clubs, and video challenges.
The challenges that have coincided with COVID-19 have been opportunities for learning and growth at Westtown, and Jueds notes that improving the virtual platforms has expanded the school’s ability to facilitate connections with alumni, parents of boarding students, and members of the surrounding community. “We engage students in deep and meaningful conversations about race and other aspects of personal identity,” Jueds says. “At all ages, our students are active participants in their own identity development and our efforts to build a genuinely inclusive anti-racist community.”
It’s also been a year of thinking proactively at Radnor. “Our superintendent has asked our administrative team from the very beginning of this pandemic, ‘What can we take away from this experience that will enrich our program moving forward?’ This question remains at the forefront of my mind, and the minds of all our administrators,” Kevgas says.
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Like her colleagues, Kevgas points to technology’s expansive reach as a new tool. RHS recorded its open house and other events, posting them online so families could watch at their convenience. “There’s always a silver lining,” she says, “whether it’s the ability to create flexibility for students in their schedules when looking at the possibility of blended learning, or the ways we communicate into the future.”
*ABOUT NICHE: Niche is the leader in K-12 and college school searches. Its mission is to make researching and enrolling in schools easy, transparent and free. With in-depth profiles on every school and college in America, 140 million reviews and ratings, and powerful search tools, Niche helps millions of people find the right school. Niche also helps thousands of schools recruit more best-fit students by highlighting what makes them great and making it easier to visit and apply