My wife and I talk alot about education. Maybe it is become we have about 36 years of organized education between us. Specifically, where we would sent any potential offspring, both to college and high school.
Cheryl is a graduate of the very small, rather diverse, University of Chicago Lab School and a very passionate alum. I went to the very big, very undiverse St. Charles High School, now St .Charles East.
Grades. One of the biggest selling points of St. Charles was that grades mattered. If you wanted to go to a decent college you needed to take virtually all AP classes and be ranked in the top 2 or 3%, no ifs, ands or buts about it. You knew you needed As and worked to get them. I think having to work in the pressure cooker is a good thing. Admittedly, this was made a bit easier by a curriculum that didn't real challenge you (but more on that later). Cheryl on the other hand, though she probably worked harder than I, didn't have to do it in a pressure-filled environment. People who were ranked in the bottom 10% of her class were admitted to Harvard and Yale. When I graduated, St. Charles hadn't sent a person to Harvard in the past 20 years.
Counseling. This is what you pay your tuition dollars for. Cheryl had a counselor who knew her personally and knew college admissions directors personally. She got SAT prep help that you can't find in any book and knew exactly how to get into any college she wanted to. I rotated through several counselors, one of whom didn't even know what state Yale was in.
Extracurricular activities. Obviously, alot more choices at St. Charles. Plus, any competition event St. Charles competition for state of national honors. (On a related note, I think the drop in athletic performance and academic performance since i graduated go hand in hand.) Lab had limited options. Big difference is that you could do whatever you wanted at lab and didn't need to specialize. At St. Charles, there can only be on newspaper editor or starting point guard. Despite this, kids always wanted to do more. Not sure why this was. Was it because there were more opportunities or because we all knew how stacked the college odds were against us.
Curriculum. Despite its size, Lab offered much much more for someone on the college track. Plus its relationship with the University was nice. St. Charles tried to offer more AP classes, but it had a catch-22. If it offered an advanced class, it needed to make sure that students would actually stick with it. As a result, the teachers couldn't push the students as much as they wanted to. I can really only remember two teachers who really pushed students, Jay Friberg and Lisa Hahns. Sadly, neither one of them is teacher there anymore. Don't get me wrong. I don't blame anyone at St. Charles High for the education I received. I truly believed most of the teachers and some of the administrators really tried hard and did what they could.
So where does that leave us? Obviously I believe that a large school has many selling points. Though from the perspective of a potential parent, you can't sacrifice your child's future just so they had an experience like Dad. In other words, if you live in the Chicago area and wanted to send your child to a top college from a public school, you have very limited options-- New Trier, Stevenson, Hinsdale Central and maybe a few others. There are some very good parochial schools as well like Loyola and Fenwick. But other than that, you are stuck with the big name private schools.
Its a funny game, a prisoner's dilemma of sorts. You want to prove that you can beat the system and get into a great college from an regular old public school, but you don't want to take the risk yourself. You'd like every other parent to send their smart kids to your public school, but you will still send your to the private school. An unfair game, but the one we live in.