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Class Struggle
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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 07/07/2011

How many high schools are there?

There are 195 public high schools in the Washington area. I know because I just counted them on a list that is one of my most treasured possessions. On it I have recorded annual data on every school, in some cases dating to 1996.

But that 195 is deceptive. It does not include some alternative and vocational schools that are small and rarely offer college-level courses, my prime focus. The number can also change depending on how you define the metropolitan area. When my editors aren’t looking, I add schools — such as two in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland — that The Washington Post does not consider part of our local region, but that interest me.

My supervisors have caught on to this. But their philosophy is to humor the old guy. So I try to be as accurate as I can be. The 195 schools include only those in districts that The Post considers part of our circulation area.

My ambition is to develop a complete list of every high school in the nation. Several years ago, the College Board published a big red guide to all U.S. high schools. It cost $125. But it is out of date. I can’t even use it to calculate the number of just public high schools in the country.

High schools don’t get enough respect. People put their colleges on their resumes but not their high schools. In their obituaries, only their colleges get mentioned. High schools are ignored even though they have a great influence on our character and interests. Unlike college, high school is an experience nearly all of us share.

Yet I struggle to get even a simple count of them. When I started my annual ratings of public high schools in 1998, the national total was about 27,000, I was told. Some experts said fewer than that. Some said more. Now I think the number has decreased. Campuses have been closing in urban and rural areas. Suburban high schools are not growing as fast as they once did.

I checked with the National Center for Education Statistics, as well as the College Board and the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research. I am getting close to a number. Others who share my obsession for high school statistics and have a view on this should contact me.

Jennifer Sable and Yan Wang of the American Institutes for Research , analyzing the 2009 to 2010 NCES data, count 23,176 public high schools, based on the definition I gave them, which is having at least one 12th-grader. Using another survey based on 2007 to 2008 school year data, they found 7,341 private high schools.

That public high school total includes special education, vocational and alternative education schools. They make up 4,805 of the total. For my count, I am going to subtract approximately 1,000 schools, mostly special education, because they are unlikely to offer college-level courses and don’t fit in an analysis of how schools use Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, which is what my list is for.

That puts my total of public high schools at around 22,000. Other lists will have different totals because they use different data and have different uses.

Those 195 public schools in the Washington area make up slightly less than 1 percent of the national total. What is interesting, however, is that because of the unusual academic emphases of our schools, we have 7 percent of the schools with participation in challenging courses and tests high enough to qualify for my national list.

What can the rest of the country can learn from us? What are we missing that we can learn from them? That will be one of my recurrent themes in the coming school year.

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 07/07/2011

 
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