Rating the High Schools

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Can a high school’s greatness be plotted on a graph, boiled down to a simple algebraic equation? Probably not. And yet when trying to decide whether your teen is better off attending a large public high school or transferring to, say, a smaller private school, you need some reliable tools of measurement—something more than a rah-rah recommendation from a well-meaning friend or neighbor.

That’s where we hope to help.

In the pages that follow, we lay out the raw data for 65 of our region’s public high schools. Statewide rankings. API scores (which take into account STAR testing and other assessments). SAT scores. Graduation rates. Enrollment figures.

We also provide a guide to some of the area’s largest private high schools, including similar data, plus tuition costs—for many families the pivot point that decides whether private school is even an option.

But numbers aren’t everything, which is why we invited local high school seniors to reflect on their experiences, from what they thought of their teachers to how well prepared they feel for college. Getting the straight scoop from students is just as important, we think, as graduation rates or API scores.

Finally, a word of encouragement: While there’s no way to paint a smiley face on the budget crisis, with a potential $4.8 billion cut from education statewide, there are glimmers of hope. Even as local teachers and administrators are pink-slipped and programs are eliminated, the Sacramento area is teeming with innovative new schools—one for every kid, it seems. In the Sacramento City Unified School District alone, a cluster of small, themed high schools offer unique educational alternatives, while traditional high schools are reinventing and modernizing themselves with the addition of small learning communities.

Another finding: The four-county region offers more private high schools than we knew existed. Whether you want your teen at an all-boys, an all-girls, a co-ed college prep, a special ed or an Adventist school, these and more options abound.

But enough of our lecture. It’s time to start reading.
 

How They Rank

The following is a list of area high schools ranked from 10 to 1, according to statewide ranking based on API scores. We include the API Base score, which reflects a school’s student performances on the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program examinations that are held every year. In most cases, the 2007 API Base score is reported.                                                             

Statistics provided by the California Department of Education / Compiled by Elizabeth Marxen

The Terms

API: Academic Performance Index. Determined by converting into points a student’s scores on the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) examination and the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), and then averaging all student scores. School scores range from 200 (low) to 1,000 (high) and are used to assess performance.

Statewide rank: Determined by comparing a school’s API Base score to all other schools of the same type in the state. Ranks range from 1 (low) to 10 (high).

SAT:
Scholastic Assessment Test. Scores reported by schools and API reports. Scores on each of the three sections—Critical Reading, Math and Writing—range from 200 (low) to 800 (high) for a total possible score of 2,400.
 

West Campus High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 868
2007 API Base score: 880
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 464 Critical Reading, 498 Math, 467 Writing
Graduation rate: 100 percent

Davis Senior High School
Davis Joint Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,693
2007 API Base score: 854
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 591 Critical
Reading, 606 Math, 586 Writing
Graduation rate: 93 percent

Folsom High School
Folsom Cordova Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,867
2007 API Base score: 844
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 539 Critical
Reading, 559 Math, 533 Writing
Graduation rate: 99 percent

Oak Ridge High School
El Dorado Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,182 
2007 API Base score: 841  
Statewide rank: 10  
2006–2007 SAT averages: 540 Critical Reading, 570 Math, 533 Writing  
Graduation rate: 97 percent

Leonardo da Vinci High School
Davis Joint Unified School District
Enrollment: 282
2007 API Base score: 838
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 604 Critical Reading, 605 Math, 567 Writing
Graduation rate: 96 percent

Ponderosa High School
El Dorado Union High School District
Enrollment: 1,979 
2007 API Base score: 836  
Statewide rank: 10  
2006–2007 SAT averages: 525 Critical
Reading, 568 Math, 516 Writing  
Graduation rate: 96 percent

Rocklin High School
Rocklin Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,623
2007 API Base score: 832
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 517 Critical
Reading, 545 Math, 510 Writing
Graduation rate: 99 percent

Granite Bay High School
Roseville Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,096
2007 API Base score: 826
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 531 Critical
Reading, 552 Math, 534 Writing
Graduation rate: 99 percent

Natomas Charter
Natomas Unified School District
Enrollment: 410
2007 API Base score: 823
Statewide rank: 10
2006–2007 SAT averages: 535 Critical
Reading, 519 Math, 519 Writing
Graduation rate: 100 percent

Whitney High School
Rocklin Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,365
2007 API Base score: 810
Statewide rank: 9
Most recent SAT averages: 490 Critical Reading, 530 Math, 480 Writing
Graduation rate: not available

Bella Vista High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,839
2007 API Base score: 807   
Statewide rank: 9
2006–2007 SAT averages: 537 Critical
Reading, 548 Math, 534 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Pleasant Grove High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,086
2007 API Base score: 806
Statewide rank: 9
2006–2007 SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: not available (new school)

Del Oro High School
Placer Union High School District
Enrollment: 1,618
2007 API Base score: 803
Statewide rank: 9
2006–2007 SAT averages: 529 Critical
Reading, 551 Math, 517 Writing
Graduation rate: 97 percent

Rio Americano High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,713
2007 API Base score: 793
Statewide rank: 9
2006–2007 SAT averages: 564 Critical
Reading, 579 Math, 566 Writing
Graduation rate: 97 percent

Union Mine High School
El Dorado Union High School District
Enrollment: 1,260 
2007 API Base score: 790  
Statewide rank: 9 
2006–2007 SAT averages: 529 Critical
eading, 543 Math, 508 Writing  
Graduation rate: 99 percent

El Camino Fundamental High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,695
2007 API Base score: 787
Statewide rank: 9
2006–2007 SAT averages: 529 Critical
Reading, 540 Math, 515 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Colfax High School
Placer Union High School District
Enrollment: 999
2007 API Base score: 783
Statewide rank: 9
2006–2007 SAT averages: 553 Critical
Reading, 556 Math, 548 Writing
Graduation rate: 97 percent 

Mira Loma High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,663
2007 API Base score: 770
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 573 Critical
Reading, 604 Math, 574 Writing
Graduation rate: 89 percent

Small Learning Communities

Kids can get swallowed up by large, traditional high schools. So five years ago, the Sacramento City Unified School District set out on a mission: to create smaller schools where teens could reap the benefits of a more personalized, career-oriented education.

Today, Sacramento City Unified boasts seven small, themed high schools, including America’s Choice (which stresses hands-on work and “real-world matters”) and the Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School. The newest, Social Justice, opens in September. In addition, five conventional high schools—McClatchy, Hiram Johnson, Kennedy, Luther Burbank and Rosemont—are home to small learning communities, or SLCs, catering to everything from health care and business information and technology to law and performing arts.

“The research was clear that the large traditional high schools—what we call the ‘industrial model’—wasn’t working for kids,” says Maria Lopez, district spokeswoman. “We needed to develop a model where they would no longer feel like a cog.”

Called “Education for the 21st Century,” or simply “e21,” the revolutionary system-wide redesign is a partnership with LEED: Linking Education and Economic Development. Grant money for the program came from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Early results are promising. Graduation rates are up (from 76.1 percent in 2002–03 to 86.8 in 2005–06), and the dropout rate has decreased by 6 percent.

Students attending these schools still enjoy the same broad-based curriculum they would at any other school. The career tracks are a value-added feature, giving students a chance to focus on individual interests and adding relevance to everything they learn.

“Kids can integrate what they’re learning [in the career tracks] and integrate it with the curriculum they’re learning in the classroom,” she says. “They can see the relevance of what they’re learning.”

Roseville High School
Roseville Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,134
2007 API Base score: 768
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 500 Critical Reading, 526 Math, 495 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

El Dorado High School
El Dorado Union High School District  
Enrollment: 1,308 
Most recent API Base score: 764  
Statewide rank: 8   
2006–2007 SAT averages: 518 Critical
Reading, 520 Math, 508 Writing
Graduation rate: 93 percent 

Franklin High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,822
2007 API Base score: 761
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 495 Critical
Reading, 513 Math, 491 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Placer High School
Placer Union High School District
Enrollment: 1,367
2007 API Base score: 760
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 534 Critical
Reading, 552 Math, 527 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Woodcreek High School
Roseville Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,094
2007 API Base score: 760
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 508 Critical Reading, 526 Math, 504 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Del Campo High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,765
2007 API Base score: 756
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 513 Critical
Reading, 519 Math, 506 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Elk Grove High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,958
2007 API Base score: 754
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 501 Critical
Reading, 526 Math, 496 Writing
Graduation rate: 95 percent

Center High School
Center Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,180
2007 API Base score: 747   
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 489 Critical Reading, 523 Math, 483 Writing
Graduation rate: 91 percent

IB Programs

AP programs are widespread in the Sacramento region. But IB—International Baccalaureate—programs are slowly beginning to build steam: Just this year, Oakmont and Granite Bay high schools became the first schools in Placer County to be accepted into the IB program, making them the third and fourth area high schools to offer IB (the others are Mira Loma and Luther Burbank).

According to the International Baccalaureate Organization’s official website, the diploma program for students ages 16 to 19 is a “demanding two-year curriculum leading to final examinations and a qualification that is welcomed by leading universities around the world.” (There also are “Primary Years” IB programs for students ages 3–12 and “Middle Years” IB programs for those ages 11–16).

“We’re in a period of globalization where kids are going to be competing with kids who not only went to school in California but from all over the world,” says Ron Severson, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Roseville Joint Union High School District. “IB offers a much more global perspective than students would get in traditional American education.”

For more information about the IB program, visit ibo.org.

Oakmont High School
Roseville Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,115
2007 API Base score: 746
Statewide rank: 8
2006–2007 SAT averages: 514 Critical
Reading, 540 Math, 512 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Foresthill High School
Placer Union High School District
Enrollment: 242
2007 API Base score: 739
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: 100 percent

Galt High School
Galt Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,200
2007 API Base score: 738
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: 478 Critical
Reading, 494 Math, 471 Writing
Graduation rate: not available

Sheldon High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,571
2007 API Base score: 737
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: 491 Critical
Reading, 507 Math, 488 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

Casa Roble Fundamental High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,691
2007 API Base score: 735
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: 500 Critical Reading, 516 Math, 493 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

Golden Sierra High School
Black Oak Mine Unified School District
Enrollment: 670
2007 API Base score: 731
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: 540 Critical Reading, 549 Math, 537 Writing
Graduation rate: 99 percent

John F. Kennedy High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,253
2007 API Base score: 729
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: 489 Critical Reading, 528 Math, 484 Writing
Graduation rate: 97 percent

Winters High School
Winters Joint Unified School District
Enrollment: 589
2007 API Base score: 729
Statewide rank: 7
2006–2007 SAT averages: 517 Critical
Reading, 516 Math, 506 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

Futures High School
Grant Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 382
2007 API Base score: 723
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: 33 percent*
*Futures had fewer than 10 students for graduation-rate calculation; not statistically significant

Shenandoah High School
El Dorado Union High School District
Enrollment: 121  
2007 API Base score: 722
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: 100 percent

Inderkum High School
Natomas Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,137
2007 API Base score: 721
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: 456 Critical
Reading, 482 Math, 452 Writing
Graduation rate: not available

C.K. McClatchy High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,165
2007 API Base score: 716
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: 533 Critical
Reading, 536 Math, 523 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

Advanced Placement

If it seems you’re hearing the term AP more than you used to, rest assured it’s not your imagination.

AP—advanced placement—are college-level courses offered at the high school level, giving students the opportunity to challenge themselves academically and, potentially, kick up their GPA a notch. (Classes are weighted on a five-point scale.) And since a 4.5 GPA looks better to college admissions officers than does a mere 4.0, savvy Gen Yers are jumping on the AP bandwagon with the same kind of fervor they reserve for text messaging.

But here’s the kicker. While you’d expect to find an AP bonanza at top-notch schools like Granite Bay (where 16 AP subjects are offered), even some of the area’s lower-ranked schools are ramping up their offerings, and not in a shy way: Grant Union, for example, has eight AP courses on tap for fall. That, plus the fact that students may request an intradistrict transfer (or, in some cases, just sign up for an individual course) if their school doesn’t offer the AP class of their choice, makes the program a viable option for most any student who is willing to take on the challenge.

The challenge: As important as GPA

“Personal challenge” was one of the main reasons he took seven AP classes during his years at Christian Brothers, says David Tracy, who also benefited from the GPA boost (4.5) that helped him get into UCLA, where he is headed this fall. “When I took AP world history, it was purely for competition—to satisfy my competitive side,” he says. Tracy also enjoyed being treated “more like an adult in those AP classes than in my regular classes. You’re not given ‘baby’ homework every night. It’s your responsibility to do as well as you want.”

That kind of spunk, regardless of GPA, always looks good in the eyes of college admissions officers, says Dennis Carocci, the recently retired associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for El Dorado Union School District.

“Graduating with a 4.46 does impact a student’s ability to apply to prestigious colleges and gain acceptance to them,” he says. “But they’re also looking for students who have challenged themselves with rigorous coursework.” A teacher recommendation or minimum grade in the preceding course is typically required to enroll in an AP course, according to Carocci.

Jenny Griffin, a Rio Americano grad, says she believes that taking seven AP classes “demonstrated to colleges that I was willing to work extremely hard and to challenge myself.” It paid off: In addition to Occidental College, where she starts this fall, Griffin was accepted by a number of prestigious schools, including USC and UC Berkeley.

But that wasn’t her main reason for taking AP, she says. “I chose to take these classes because I was genuinely interested in the subject matter, and AP classes allowed me to study these subjects in more depth.”

English literature, U.S. history, biology, calculus and U.S. government are some of the most commonly offered AP courses, according to local curriculum directors. A total of 37 courses across 22 subject areas are offered by the College Board, the governing body of the AP program.

College credit

Getting college credit is another reason to take AP classes. But that requires a good score on the AP exam (there’s one for every subject), which is based on a five-point scale (a “five” is tops).

A minimum score of three is generally what’s needed to be eligible for college credit. But it doesn’t apply across the board. “Most colleges and universities will give you some kind of credit with a score of three, but every college treats the courses differently,” says Ron Severson, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Roseville Joint Union High School District. “An AP history class might earn you three units in one school and six semester units in another.”

This is where most people get confused—even whiz kids like Tracy.

“I really wish I knew more about how that works,” says Tracy, who still isn’t sure which college classes he might be excused from, and which not. “But I assume I’ll go to a counselor when I get to UCLA and find out.”

Clearer-cut are the costs—$84 per AP test—which, in the case of top students like Tracy or Griffin, can really add up: Seven tests at $84 a pop amounts to $588.

But some money spent now can theoretically save big bucks down the road.

“Some students are entering college with a semester or even a year of class credit from AP testing,” says Carocci. “From a parent’s perspective, that’s a money saver.”

Even those who opt to skip the exams can enjoy the GPA advantages and other benefits of AP, says Severson. “Learning to study at that level, being able to read and write at a college level, is a huge advantage for students today. To compete economically, to be competitive any more, kids need to be able to access a higher level of learning, and with AP, high schools help to accommodate that.”

Cordova High School
Folsom Cordova Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,000
2007 API Base score: 716
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: 477 Critical
Reading, 504 Math, 485 Writing
Graduation rate: 94 percent

Sutter High School
Sutter Union High School District
Enrollment: 766
2007 API Base score: 716
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: 497 Critical
Reading, 503 Math, 486 Writing
Graduation rate: 100 percent

Foothill High School
Grant Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 1,412
2007 API Base score: 711
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: 482 Critical Reading, 476 Math, 465 Writing
Graduation rate: 84 percent

Laguna Creek High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,321
2007 API Base score: 711
Statewide rank: 6
2006–2007 SAT averages: 474 Critical
Reading, 487 Math, 465 Writing
Graduation rate: 93 percent

Mesa Verde High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,224
2007 API Base score: 703
Statewide rank: 5
2006–2007 SAT averages: 486 Critical
Reading, 515 Math, 479 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

River City SeniorHigh School
Washington Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,609
2007 API Base score: 702
Statewide rank: 5
2006-2007 SAT averages: 438 Critical
Reading, 477 Math, 445 Writing
Graduation rate: 75 percent 

Rio Linda High School
Grant Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,042
2007 API Base score: 699
Statewide rank: 5
2006–2007 SAT averages: 462 Critical
Reading, 493 Math, 454 Writing
Graduation rate: 87 percent

Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 389
Most recent API Base score: 695
Statewide rank: 5
Most recent SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: 97 percent

Valley High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,772
2007 API Base score: 693
Statewide rank: 5
2006–2007 SAT averages: 422 Critical
Reading, 441 Math, 428 Writing
Graduation rate: 85 percent

Monterey Trail High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,175
2007 API Base score: 692
Statewide rank: 5
2006–2007 SAT averages: 438 Critical
Reading, 451 Math, 416 Writing
Graduation rate: not available (new school)

Florin High School
Elk Grove Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,832
2007 API Base score: 689
Statewide rank: 5
2006–2007 SAT averages: 443 Critical
Reading, 457 Math, 438 Writing
Graduation rate: 85 percent

Pioneer High School
Woodland Joint Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,447
2007 API Base score: 687
Statewide rank: 5
2006–2007 SAT averages: 482 Critical
Reading, 489 Math, 483 Writing
Graduation rate: 93 percent

Highlands Academy of Arts and Design
Grant Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 1,748
2007 API Base score: 682
Statewide rank: 4
2006–2007 SAT averages: 430 Critical
Reading, 464 Math, 430 Writing
Graduation rate: 91 percent

Esparto High School
Esparto Unified School District
Enrollment: 305
2007 API Base score: 672
Statewide rank: 4
2006–2007 SAT averages: 482 Critical
Reading, 476 Math, 460 Writing
Graduation rate: 93 percent

Sacramento New Technology High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 346
2007 API Base score: 672
Statewide rank: 4
2006–2007 SAT averages: 470 Critical
Reading, 469 Math, 440 Writing
Graduation rate: 98 percent

Rosemont High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,901
2007 API Base score: 668
Statewide rank: 4
2006–2007 SAT averages: 478 Critical
Reading, 480 Math, 465 Writing
Graduation rate: 87 percent

Woodland Senior High School
Woodland Joint Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,477
Most recent API Base score: 659
Statewide rank: 3
Most recent SAT averages: 467 Critical Reading, 470 Math, 460 Writing
Graduation rate: 86 percent

Natomas High School
Natomas Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,562
2007 API Base score: 658
Statewide rank: 3
2006–2007 SAT averages: 413 Critical
Reading, 433 Math, 420 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

San Juan High School
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 849
2007 API Base score: 643
Statewide rank: 3
2006–2007 SAT averages: 479 Critical
Reading, 492 Math, 458 Writing
Graduation rate: 67 percent

Sacramento High School/St. HOPE Academy
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 1,026
Most recent API Base score: 636
Statewide rank: 3
Most recent SAT averages: 417 Critical Reading, 402 Math, 416 Writing
Graduation rate: 85 percent

Encina Preparatory High School 
San Juan Unified School District
Enrollment: 745
2007 API Base score: 633
Statewide rank: 2
2006–2007 SAT averages: 414 Critical
Reading, 423 Math, 409 Writing
Graduation rate: 64 percent

Luther Burbank High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,077
2007 API Base score: 619
Statewide rank: 2
2006–2007 SAT averages: 374 Critical
Reading, 418 Math, 382 Writing
Graduation rate: 87 percent

The Met Sacramento Charter High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 141
2007 API Base score: 614
Statewide rank: 2
2006–2007 SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: 100 percent

Hiram W. Johnson High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 2,149
2007 API Base score: 603
Statewide rank: 2
2006–2007 SAT averages: 412 Critical Reading, 452 Math, 420 Writing
Graduation rate: 59 percent

Grant Union High School
Grant Joint Union High School District
Enrollment: 2,158
2007 API Base score: 593
Statewide rank: 1
2006–2007 SAT averages: 382 Critical Reading, 402 Math, 381 Writing
Graduation rate: 92 percent

GENESIS High School
Sacramento City Unified School District
Enrollment: 218
2007 API Base score: 546
Statewide rank: 1
2006–2007 SAT averages: not available
Graduation rate: 49 percent

Schools with no rank available:

School of Engineering and Sciences
Sacramento City Unified School District
Opened September 2007
Enrollment: 66

Vista del Lago High School
Folsom Cordova Unified School District
Opened August 2007
Enrollment: 603 (ninth and 10th grades only)

Getting Into University of California

While many local high schoolers cried this spring as the rejection letters piled up, Dennis Zheng did some rejecting of his own.

Accepted by even the University of California campuses known as the toughest to get into—Berkeley and Los Angeles—Zheng turned around and rejected them: He begins study at Harvard this fall.

But in a year when a record-breaking number of UC applicants led to a heartbreaking number of rejections, the 2008 Granite Bay High School grad knows he was one of the lucky ones.

“When you look at the numbers, it’s mind-boggling how many people apply,” he says of the UC system, considered by many California high school students (and their parents) as “it”: the ultimate in-state college dream.

This year, the population bulge of the “baby boomlet” made entrance to the UC system more competitive than ever. UCLA and Berkeley accepted less than one-fourth of the freshmen hopefuls who applied. Closer to home, students had about a fifty-fifty chance of getting into UC Davis, where the freshman acceptance rate was 52.4 percent.

Making the grade

Getting into UC has never been so competitive. So just what does it take?

There are three ways for California residents to become UC eligible for freshman admission:

• Eligibility in the statewide context: The route most students take, requiring a high school diploma (or equivalency) and the satisfaction of three components: The subject requirement (that infamous alphabet soup known as the “A–G” subjects; see sidebar); the scholarship requirement, which can be met by having the right combination of GPA (3.0 is minimum) and college test scores; and the examination requirement—the ACT Assessment plus Writing or the SAT Reasoning Test, plus SAT Subject Tests in two different subjects.

• Eligibility in the local context: An option open to students who rank in the top 4 percent of their graduating class (as determined by UC) and fulfill certain subject requirements.

• Eligibility by examination alone: High scores on ACT or SAT tests may qualify a student for this option.

Still with us? OK, there’s more: When a campus has more applications than spaces available, admissions officers look beyond the numbers to a student’s overall résumé—something UC calls “comprehensive review.” This includes extracurricular activities, life experience and demonstrated leadership, such as being the captain of the tennis team or club president of the Future Business Leaders of America. (Zheng was both.)

Location, location, location

Qualifying is not a breeze. But here’s the good news: Every California resident who is UC eligible is guaranteed a spot in the system. The bad news: It may not be the spot they want.

“They want the college on the beach,” says Linda Drever, guidance counselor at Granite Bay High School. “Well, they might not get the college on the beach. But there’s almost always room at UC Merced or Riverside, and at a lot of the state colleges, too.”

Students rejected from the UC campus of their choice are advised of such options. But it’s not usually what they want to hear.

“In our letter to denied freshmen, we let them know that other UC campuses might have room for them,” says Pamela Burnett, director of undergraduate admissions at UC Davis. But that’s apparently little consolation to the broken-hearted; Burnett’s office hears from a lot of students who can’t get over the fact that their UC Davis dream didn’t come true.

Insider tip

One thing students can do to improve their chances, says Burnett, is to remember that college admissions officers are not mind readers. Coloring in the details can help.

“If a student says they’re president of the senior class and that’s it, how are we to know that they helped to bring about a policy change or that they changed the culture of the student body through their leadership?” she asks.

Some students such as Zheng understood that well enough to ace the applications game, at least for the most part: Of the 19 schools he applied to, he was only rejected by two: Stanford and Columbia.

His advice for other kids?

“It comes down to a balance between the numbers, your extracurricular activities and being able to write well—beyond the formulaic writing of high school,” he says. “I think I had pretty good essays, and that really helped.”

Hot Trend: Private College Counselors

When their son Keith was in his freshman year at Kennedy, Myra and Dean Okasaki knew it was time to start looking college-forward. But they felt paralyzed by the endless red tape.

“We were so out of touch with the college requirements, and the various testing and filing deadlines,” says Myra. “We felt we would not properly advise Keith.”

Their solution: Hire a private college counselor—one who would hand-hold their son every step of the way, from planning his high school curriculum to helping him evaluate college choices to guiding him through the application process.

With working parents too busy to deal with these dizzying details—not to mention the student-counselor ratio of 455-to-1* in California public high schools—it’s no wonder local consultants report that business is booming.

What private counselors can do

“Applying for college is a maze, it is complicated—it is a lot of details,” says Jill Yoshikawa, one of four college advisers at Creative Marbles Consultancy in Sacramento. With budget slashes often meaning fewer counselors in California schools, Yoshikawa says, the need for a firm like Creative Marbles, which opened six years ago, is even more acute.

It was with Yoshikawa’s help that Keith Okasaki found his way to UC San Diego on a golf scholarship.

“Jill kept me aware of deadlines and important dates throughout high school, so I didn’t miss anything,” says Okasaki, a sophomore this fall. “When it came time to submit my college applications, she thoroughly read and reread my essays to make them the best possible. She really helped to make the process so much easier.”

Andrew Elmets, a 2008 Jesuit grad, credits his private counselor, Margie Amott, for helping him to get into USC. “Without Margie, I never would have known what dates to take the SAT,” says Elmets. “I would not have known about the college interview, which I believe was a major factor that played into my acceptance.”

School counselors tried to help, Elmets said, but “they have a lot of students to counsel. I just felt like I was not receiving the individual attention I needed.”

Such attention comes with a price: Amott’s “full program,” which includes one-on-one sessions for as long as it takes to get the job done, is $1,765. Other counselors, such as Yoshikawa, charge by the hour, which in her case runs an average of $150.

School counselors

But not all families can afford such help. Fortunately, some local schools have answered the need by appointing a dedicated college adviser.

“I tend to be an extra resource,” says guidance counselor Debbie Austin, who calls herself “the college person” at St. Francis. “We felt it was great to have an additional resource so parents didn’t need to have to hire a private outside counselor.” While the school’s other counselors also provide college help to students, it is Austin who serves as the central resource.

Other local high schools—Elk Grove, Davis and Rocklin, to name a few—offer a full-fledged college and career center on campus, where students can check out SAT prep books, surf colleges online, pick up applications or pick the brains of the staffers who run the center.

But not all schools are well-funded enough to have such programs—and even when they do, not all kids are resourceful enough to take advantage of them. Enter the private counselor.

“I have always had a demand for my services—even when I first started my business 12 years ago,” says Amott. These days, she says, she gets so many inquiries that she has to refer some out.

*2005-06. Source: The American School Counselor Association

High School Seniors: In Their Own Words

Katina Feil, Christian Brothers High School
Christian Brothers High School has prepared me very well for college. The school lays out all the classes you must take in order to graduate. All of our courses are also required to get into college. The faculty academically prepares us for college all four years with rigorous courses. They also challenge the students to do well. The school combines our religious standpoint into most of our classes. Religion truly is the foundation of our school. My experience at Christian Brothers has been an exquisite one. With much respect from the teachers and students, our school is no ordinary school; it is a community. Teachers are always positive and willing to push students to their fullest potential.

Antonio Love, Florin High School

Attending Florin High has created a major building block in my life. The school had a purpose greater than the experiences it gave, although the experiences were great. Most of the teachers here are exceptional, if not masterful, at teaching. They are animated and not disconnected from the student body, making learning from them quite enjoyable. One perfect example is my former AP English language and composition teacher, Mr. Don Pedersen. He orchestrates sarcasm and humor so harmoniously that it’s almost unbelievable. Like the other teachers, he is challenging but not overwhelming.

Unfortunately, though, shrouding the cool staff is a virus plaguing some of the students: lack of school spirit. There’s not enough to motivate the athletes to excel or persevere. I’ve watched fewer than 20 sports games total!

The composition of students makes up for this, however. Florin has to be the most diverse campus in the Elk Grove Unified School District. One of my passions is making people laugh, so the smorgasbord of people allowed me to diversify my humor’s portfolio. The greatest thing Florin has done for me— its purpose—is make me worldlier.

Stephanie Beachley, Loretto High School
I’ve spent the past four years of my life waking up at 5:30 in the morning, driving 45 minutes to school and wearing a uniform skirt. Even though I commute to Sacramento from Auburn and dedicate two to three hours of time to homework each night, I’ve come to realize it was all worth it. Loretto High School is one of the best choices I’ve ever made for myself. I could have gone to a public school like every other girl in my eighth grade class, but after my Shadow Day visit—a program where elementary students visit and follow a Loretto student around to her classes for a day—I knew Loretto would be home. It’s not a huge campus. There are only 123 girls in my graduating class and no male students. Yet I still declare that Loretto is a wonderful place of growth and inspiration. As I graduate this year, I look upon the past four years I’ve spent walking through the halls. I look back on all the laughs I’ve shared with teachers and other faculty members that have knowledge of everything from perfecting term papers to African dancing to how to survive in college. It’s been an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve been on a journey I’ll never regret. In the fall, I’m heading off to Oregon State University and looking back on my Loretto years, I’ve realized every bit has been worth it.

Peter Wagner, Jesuit High School
Jesuit High School has been, in a word, interesting. Some of the teachers I’ve had these four years have had very diverse yet ever-effective styles of instruction, ranging from the forceful rush in AP classes to a more passive method of introducing concepts through current events. From class to class, there is a refreshing change of subject and style. As for the administration, they were always polite and understanding, even when I thought I didn’t deserve such treatment for all the times I asked for extensions and the like. In class, there was always a healthy competition among students to get the best grades, but we were always kind and respectful to each other. This respect was not contained to the classroom environment. In any sport, club or activity, you could find a friendly atmosphere where growth in talent and knowledge was always promoted. Overall, I would say that Jesuit has thoroughly prepared me to take on the challenge of college. In class, not only was the subject material covered, but also good habits and a strong work ethic were developed. Hopefully, with these skills, college won’t prove overwhelming.

Alexandra Wallace, Bella Vista High School

High school is a four-year period where students cross a bridge from adolescence into adulthood, both intellectually and socially. Conventionally, it is the rule for this growing process to be a recipe for drama, cliques and even an occasional fight. 

My experience at Bella Vista was completely atypical of this expectation; however, it was consistent with the reputation of my school. It is the social aspect of Bella Vista, combined with its academic success, that makes it really stand out. Other than a few splintered groups, there are almost no cliques at Bella Vista. This solidarity is evident at breaks and lunch, when there is just one large group of students in the quad rather than smaller groups spread out over the campus. Academics don’t get much better than at Bella Vista in the San Juan District, as we proudly boast about last year’s API score. I participated in the honors program and found almost all of my teachers to be positive, stimulating and challenging. The spirit of the students and parents for our school at athletic events and rallies is unparalleled and I don’t think can be beat anywhere in Sacramento. Bella Vista was an amazing and unique high school experience, and one that I wouldn’t trade for anywhere else.             

Benjamin Chaney, Sacramento New Technology High School
My experience at Sacramento New Technology High School has been something I would have never imagined or thought I would even be capable of.

There are a few things I wish to address. First, the teachers here listen to what issues you have and clarify anything you need. The teachers know you personally, and there are strong student-teacher relationships. Not only are the teachers completely brilliant, but the students and classroom environment are incredible. All of the students know each other, and we help each other out when we can. Project Based Learning gives us experience working with people we do not know and to create a product, just like in the business world. With PBL, we have a wide range of different projects, most we do hands-on, and most projects are ones other high schools would never even think about performing, like the 1984 project created this year.

The only issue is this is a small school. Anything you tell your friends, by the next day it’s spread like wildfire. Still, anything great comes with a price.                                                              

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