Best High Schools 2008: Public

Despite all of the bleak news about dropout rates and budget cuts, L.A. has many high-performing public schools whose college placement records are comparable to those of their private counterparts. Here are the 12 that made our top tier.

Illustration by Steven Burke


Anderson W. Clark Magnet High School
La Crescenta
Glendale Unified | magnet | 9-12


The science and technology magnet has attained U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon status in both the high-achievement and high-poverty categories. Students may chart mercury levels in Los Angeles Harbor and send underwater robots to monitor protected areas of the Channel Islands. Clark receives assistance from JPL, Raytheon, and NASA, among others. The school was founded ten years ago at an old junior high site that now is packed with T1 lines and Mac towers. Not everything involves chemistry labs or cyberspace. In June, Clark presented its first film festival, which highlighted works from its cinematography program.

Arcadia High School
Arcadia Unified | 9-12

Arcadia is a haven for overachievers who pursue what the school newspaper calls “the AHS lifestyle—functioning at 3 a.m., dedicating countless weekends to studying and balancing extracurricular activities.” The curriculum is loaded with college prep courses, but it also offers culinary arts and sports medicine. Although it sprawls over 40 acres, the school can seem crowded because of an enrollment of 3,600 and the constant schedule of club and team events. Music programs are popular; Arcadia has three show choirs and a 400-member band that has played at the 2004 presidential inauguration and in 14 Tournament of Roses parades.

Beverly Hills High School
Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills Unified | 9-12

Large, teeming, and high performing—that’s not quite the image of Beverly Hills High promoted by 90210. The school has 2,400 students, more than 40 percent of whom speak a primary language other than English (Korean and Farsi are the most common). Everyone is assigned to one of three “houses” overseen by an assistant principal and several counselors. Even so, students say, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of choices: nearly 200 courses, including 46 advanced placement sections and 82 electives. Beverly Hills has its own television station and recently opened a science and technology center. Its theater and music productions are, as might be expected, nearly professional in quality—a number of students have ended up working in Hollywood.

California Academy of Math and Science
Long Beach Unified | Magnet | 9-12

CAMS enables students to take the equivalent of five years of science as well as courses in logic, university-level calculus, digital electronics, and computer design. Juniors and seniors also can attend classes at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where the academy is located. Students are selected from public and private schools in the South Bay and southeastern Los Angeles County. As with many specialized campuses, athletics and other extracurricular activities are not a strong suit; kids pick CAMS because they want to focus on their studies.

Crescenta Valley High School
La Crescenta
Glendale Unified | 9-12

Crescenta Valley is the classic all-around suburban school. It has a robotics team led by a rocket scientist, a championship softball squad, an award-winning Junior Air Force ROTC, and a science and medicine academy whose members work with emergency responders and hospital technicians. One quality that sets CV apart is its commitment to helping struggling students through aggressive assessment, tutoring, and incentive programs. The 1930s-era campus was expanded six years ago.

Gretchen Whitney High School
ABC Unified | 7-12

Parents from South Korea and India have moved to the Cerritos area in hopes of getting their children into Whitney. The former community learning center has been transformed into one of the top public schools in the United States through selective admissions—it only accepts the district’s highest-scoring students—and a dedication to traditional educational values. Whitney keeps beating its record for the Academic Performance Index (it was number one in the state for the school year ending in 2007). “From the day you enter Whitney’s doors, college prep will be one of the uppermost priorities,” says a graduate. “But the students here aren’t just nerds. A lot of people join drama or the yearbook for fun and not just to pump up their résumés.”

Hawthorne Math & Science Academy
Hawthorne | Charter | 9-12

Since it opened in 2003, Hawthorne has overcome lousy facilities and a high dropout rate (nearly 50 percent its first year) to become one of the best-performing schools in Southern California. “We’re gonna work you,” says principal Joaquín Hernández. “Don’t do your homework and it’s an automatic trip to the office and a call home.” Many kids live at or near the poverty line; the 2007 valedictorian was a teen mom. Hawthorne has started to attract private school transfers because of its API scores.

La Cañada High School
La Cañada Flintridge
La Cañada Unified | 9-12

Tucked in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, La Cañada benefits from serving an affluent, close-knit community. Its performances on the API and AP exams rank among the best in the state, and parental involvement is unusually strong. The Institutes for the 21st Century is a mentoring program that pairs students with bankers, geologists, and legislators. The theater department, which operates like a miniconservatory, teaches everything from sound design to stage combat.

Mira Costa High School
Manhattan Beach
Manhattan Beach Unified /| 9-12

Generations of aerospace families and more recently many celebrities have moved to Manhattan Beach because of the ocean, the weather, and the area’s great schools. Mira Costa is hailed for its high test scores, its music and drama programs (the orchestra and choir have performed at Carnegie Hall), and its powerhouse sports teams. Students produce an award-winning video newscast.

Palos Verdes High School
Palos Verdes Estates
Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified | 9-12

Palos Verdes Peninsula HighSchool
Rolling Hills Estates 
Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified | 9-12

District residents can attend either campus—the choice often depends on where a student’s friends are and whether one prefers Palos Verdes’ block schedule of three two-hour classes or Peninsula’s seven-class day. PV promotes student independence through the Senior Project, which involves writing research papers, testing theories in the field (for instance, analyzing emergency room access and then volunteering in an ER), and presenting findings to a panel of faculty and community members. PV’s nationally recognized video news unit broadcasts twice a week. The technology club competed against colleges like Caltech in a contest to build and race unmanned vehicles from Barstow to Las Vegas. Peninsula has a reputation for academic intensity; last year it produced 27 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. Classes include gourmet cooking and glassblowing. The science program continues to produce Westinghouse (now Siemens) Scholarship finalists, and the Latin team has won the state competition 13 times in 16 years. Athletes can join the crew, equestrian, roller hockey, lacrosse, or surfing teams.

San Marino High School
San Marino
San Marino Unified | 9-12

With its immaculate grounds and a phalanx of new academic and athletic facilities, San Marino could pass for a small college. A recently completed $40 million renovation and construction project was financed largely through bonds and fund-raising—one sign of how avidly residents support the school. Such community interest translates into extraordinary pressure to succeed, which feeds the demand for AP and honors courses and extracurricular activities. Besides academics, the visual and performing arts are major draws.