Wednesday, September 30

Jacksonville High School Search - An Annotated List of Options for East Arlington Families

Jacksonville High School Auditorium

Let's say you've got kids, and like most parents, you want the best for them. Choosing the right high school for your kids can be complicated, especially if you haven't had to make similar choices in the past. I've decided to detail my search for the right high school in this article in the hopes that I can reference it as the time nears for enrolling my eldest child in high school, but my research might be able to help you, too. 

[Some of the updates will detail how the process went and my evolving perception of the schools.]

Make sure you also read my guide for middle school parents BEFORE your kids are in 8th grade. (And if you are dealing with Duval and can't get your kid registered, schedule an appointment to go in and meet someone rather than wait for hours on the phone.)

I believe in a free public, liberal arts education. I taught at a public school for 12 years. However, I also believe that not all public schools have a positive influence on kids (not because of the teachers but because of the other kids). My wife teaches at a private school, and that school is better than most of the local public middle schools. Again, I'm not blaming Duval teachers for this. When the schools underperform, often because the best students leave for private schools, parents take note and build new homes in St. Johns or Clay. This is not new; the expansion of Duval County Public Schools to cover all the suburbs was meant to stop this process (and it's a great, failed experiment). As an urban planner, Jacksonville is so interesting, since the annexation of basically the entire county didn't stop urban sprawl, failing schools, crime, or even people moving to the next county. What we've ended up with in Jacksonville is a system of lackluster public schools with one stellar school in a lackluster neighborhood, along with seedy, parasitical charter schools that suck the life (and some decent students) from the public schools. We also have an array of private schools that take the top students out of Duval Schools but are also somewhat threatened by publicly-supported charter schools. If nothing else, the private schools keep some of the wealth in Duval County to pay the property taxes that get blown on Duval's public school system. 

There are all kinds of "objective" ratings out there. Some of them rate local public schools only, while others will also rate the private schools. In the end, all of these ratings are subjective to me, so I'd rather talk to real people who have either recently graduated or sent their kids to these schools. From interviews and our own opinions, we'll develop a personal rating system. Of course, it's our rating system for our family, so consider it subjective, but it might apply to you depending on your point of view. If you read all of this article, you'll know if we are like-minded. 

We live in East Arlington, about 15 minutes from the closest high school. There is no clear winner when it comes to location, but there are some fairly clear losers if our goal is to keep commutes to 30 minutes or less. Our neighborhood school would be Sandalwood, but the absolute closest high school to us is Providence. Being that we are in a residential area, plenty of people are in the same boat as us--those who live between St. Johns Bluff to the west and Girvin to the east and north of Atlantic. It's about 20 square miles with no actual high school, public or private. Compare that to the same basic square miles that includes Bolles, Bishop Kenney, Episcopal, University Christian, River City Science, Wolfson, Englewood, and Sandalwood. I guess we've got all the car dealerships over here, and they've got all the high schools over there. People who live in the older part of Arlington are basically in the same boat as us, since the only high school over there is Terry Parker, and the only thing I've ever heard about Terry Parker is, "You don't want to go to Terry Parker." And, really, we don't have much in terms of high schools all the way down to the JTB. Really, there are a lot of homes between the 295 and the Intracoastal / the river down to JTB. Besides trying to get a high school built at Kernan and McCormick, most of us residents have to resign ourselves to driving or the bus.

Based on our location in Ft. Caroline Shores / East Arlington / Intracoastal West, here are the times to get to local schools during morning rush hour (from Kernan and McCormick): 

Current middle school (Grace Lutheran) - 4 minutes

Harvest - 9-14 minutes
Seacoast - 10-18 minutes
Providence - 12-20 minutes
Parsons - 12-20 minutes
Lone Star - 12-20 minutes
Sandalwood - 12-22 minutes
Fletcher High  - 14-22 minutes
Beaches Chapel - 14-22 minutes
River City Science - 16-26 minutes
Episcopal School of Jacksonville - 18-28 minutes
University Christian  - 18-30 minutes
Atlantic Coast - 18-30 minutes
Bishop Kenny - 18-35 minutes
Stanton College Preparatory School - 20-30 minutes
The Bolles School - 26-45 minutes

Scroll down to see my opinion on each of the preceding area schools. Think of it as an initial guide that you can use as a starting point.

Kids' Preference
Kids like to go where their friends go. I totally get that, and our kids would have ready-made friends at BK, UC, Sandalwood, Beaches Chapel, and maybe Atlantic Coast. They would at least know someone at Providence and Harvest, as well. Both kids would like to have a high school experience in a medium-sized school that is safe and offers lots of opportunities. 

Parents' Preference
Just like you, I think my kids are special. They both consistently test in 90+ percentile in math and English. One loves sports, and the other loves performing. They both really enjoy school and learning, even if it's from a stupid TikTok video. They are not socially inadequate, and they make friends easily. However, they have not had to deal with too many bad influences. I attended public schools in Milwaukee, including a high school with high poverty and low graduation rate / expectations. My wife attended an elite private school. Neither of us see "diversity" as a real factor in ranking a school, though we are also not against it. I don't want my kids saddled with endless homework or oppressive expectations, but I also don't want them to cruise through high school and then fall flat in college. We don't want to send the kids on a 15 minute bus ride to a loading station for another 20 minute bus ride. And both of us are a little wary of college while in high school, even if it means fewer years of college and less money spent. I really don't care about AP or other more advanced classes and tests, but I also know that these classes have become what used to be simply the honors or advanced classes. Going into this process, I had been predisposed to choose Providence because it would be giving my kids an opportunity to hobnob in a way I never could. My wife, who did get that opportunity, seemed to favor Sandalwood before we began talking to people, so go figure. And one last thing is that both our children will be attending the same school. I know one likes performing and might benefit from an arts school, but we're not those parents who are going to run ourselves ragged because the kids want to be at different locations. That said, we need to find one school that works well for both kids.

Our kids attended the best public elementary school in Milwaukee. You can debate all you want about neighborhood versus magnet schools, but if you live in a city with magnet schools, you better use them. After getting an education in both English and German in MKE, we moved to Kansas for one year, where the kids continued to do well in a Lutheran school. However, we decided to move one more time to Jacksonville, even though we realized that the Shawnee Mission high schools in Johnson County, Kansas, were all solid choices compared to what I'd read about Jax high schools. But here we are, with kids who have been in both public and private schools, trying to figure out how to move forward. As parents, we are not averse to public schools or private schools. Both my wife and I have worked as public school teachers, and we believe in the mission of public education, though we will not force a public education on our kids if we deem the local options inadequate. I think a lot of JAX parents in our part of town have done just that, which also helps to deplete the public schools even more.

St. Johns County
I have spoken to some people who moved to St. Johns County for high school. I know it happens a lot, and I can see the appeal of sending your kids to one of the best public school districts in the state instead of spending $10,000+ per kid per year for a Duval private school or taking your chances with DCPS. The parents who stick around in my neighborhood seem to prefer Providence or Stanton, based on recent yard signs. Even if we decided to stay here and drive the kids each day, St. Johns County is not allowing open enrollment in any of its high schools. Therefore, we don't have to consider the 28-45 minute trek to Creekside. Also, like a lot of people, we enjoy living in Jacksonville, so it's sad we all have to consider moving 30 minutes south just to get a decent school. Also also, I can't believe that it's legal for St. Johns County to get away with no Section 8 housing, no open enrollment in middle or high school, and probably a dozen other policy decisions that insulate it from reality.

My wife recently informed me about a parent who lives in Jacksonville who enrolled her child in a St. Johns County school. I am sure the woman has a sibling or parent who lives there. Here's what the St. Johns website says:   "In order for a student to enroll in St. Johns County schools, the student’s residence must be in St. Johns County." That's clear (and elitist), but it also won't stop parents from pretending if they are desperate to avoid First Coast or Terry Parker.

The Schools
Here's an annotated list of the potential schools based on our location. At the end of each opinion will be a personal rating phrase rather than an actual number. 

Harvest Community School
100+ students in HS
$8,500+ tuition and fees

People who aren't all about ultra-conservative values or homeschooling don't seem to think much of Harvest. Is it a school or a resource center? Is it accredited? Are the teachers certified? The high school seems to run on a 4-day schedule, with Friday being set aside for 
an opportunity to apprentice, intern, service projects and extra curricular activities.
I don't even know what to say about that. The website also has some weird "Dating vs Courting" advice on the main high school experience page. And it claims all block-scheduled classes are taught at the "honors" level. However, under "What are Teacher Qualifications," here's what the website claims: 
All high school teachers are mature Christians whose first priority is to disciple the students, offering Biblical world view in all classes. The high school team instructs classes within their field, and most are certified or mastered in their subject.
In the real world, being a "mature Christian" isn't really a job qualification, which seems to imply Harvest isn't exactly operating in the real world. I suppose that's fine for mature Christian business owners who want their kids to take over the family business after high school, but my family business isn't a huge money maker, so my kids probably need to learn from teachers who are ALL certified or mastered (not sure what mastered is) in teaching.

We actually know someone who sends their kids to Harvest. I believe there was a lot of homeschooling going on in the family before the school, so it's probably a good fit, as the school uses Fridays for families. I think Covid Times made most of us realize that homeschooling is only for some parents, and I'm not really one of them myself, which would mean Friday Funday with Dad instead of whatever mature Christians do on Fridays. 

Harvest DOES have a good location for us and the freedom to allow us to take long weekends, so I have to give it at least some love that way. I just don't think it's really a high school (and I'm not sure it claims to be). The website lists all the colleges students have somehow managed to gain admission to, so I guess the kids do find a way to prove themselves. 

Rating: Not for us, mainly because we want our kids to graduate from a real high school and attend a real college. 

Seacoast Christian Academy
Under 100 students in HS
$8,000+ tuition and fees

I am not sure if Seacoast is trying to be both a Christian Academy AND a Charter Academy for all grade levels, but it's a little confusing. The high school, which is part of the Christian Academy, costs $7,500 a year(2020), which puts it on the low end. According to the Seacoast website, the high school has some academic offerings:
Our curriculum includes college placement, honors and AP courses as well as a leadership program to help mold the spiritual formation of these young men and women of God.
This is a fairly vague representation, probably because these classes vary based on students and faculty at any given time. I understand that some local private schools are going to be small, but I'm also not sure I want my kids to have a grab bag of advanced options, and I'm also not clear on how Seacoast chooses its teachers: 
Our teachers meet or exceed the academic and personal qualifications for certification with ACSI. They are committed to providing the best educational environment in order to effectively prepare our students to impact their culture for Christ.

So, ACSI certifies high school teachers who have at least a bachelor's degree with a renewable General Studies designation, but it seems to encourage people to eventually get 20 credit hours from a college. I know from teaching in Duval that a lot of teachers there are also learning to teach as they teach with semi-related degrees, so I'm not going to bash Seacoast or ACSI too much here. However, I also do not know the percentage of teachers who are fully ACSI certified in their fields of study, or whether any current teachers are allowed to teach AP Calculus or "college placement" science courses. Please feel free to ask Seacoast about teacher qualifications, since I can't find much else on the website. I also want my kids to be prepared for college and life beyond just impacting their culture for Christ.

Seacoast's location isn't super-awesome in my book, but it's fairly close to us.

Rating: Even if I would get a job teaching here (as a real English teacher), I'm not sure about this school. It seems to lean towards reality more than Harvest, but I still feel it might be an alternate reality that won't be fit my kids in college. 


Providence School of Jacksonville
400-500 est. HS / 1200-1500 students (k-12)
$15,000+ tuition and fees

Providence would be our closest "elite" private school, with Episcopal and Bolles being a bit further down the road (and a bit more elite academically). The kids have been talking about "Providence Disease" ever since one friend left for that school, so there's obviously a backlash against the school. I also saw news stories about the sports program getting caught doing something wrong twice in the last several years, though I don't really know (or care about) the details. 

I've met a few Providence graduates, and they seem like good kids. I am sure the education is decent, and it's a real school. Providence is the obvious result of mediocre public schools in an expanding part of Jacksonville that includes 100s (maybe 1000s) of $1 million homes. People have found land to develop near the Intracoastal down to JTB, and they are going to need a school for the kids, so Providence is the de facto private school for anyone east of St. John's Bluff in Jacksonville, especially if the parents don't have ties to one of the older private schools. 

Providence has this vague description of its high school:
In Upper School, our rigorous curriculum challenges students to integrate critical thinking skills as they learn to search for answers beyond conventional wisdom.
So, does the high school curriculum question Christianity at a Christian school? Or democracy? Or that wealthy people work hard for their money? Marriage? Buy low and sell high?  I think I'm misunderstanding Providence's view of a "generally accepted theory or belief." To me, an obviously conservative school is kind of conventional, unless the folks at Providence think we're living in some kind of post-Christian, evil America where conventional wisdom says everyone deserves universal healthcare. (Sorry for that rant; vague, subject/noun-changing mission statements do this to me.) 

In trying to sell the school to my kids (and myself), I said things like, "It's good to get to know the kids whose parents have money." Or, "My friends from high school couldn't do much to help me when I got laid off." However, the fact of the matter is that our kids would need scholarships to attend Providence (and be seen as scholarship kids), and those other kids (and their parents) probably aren't any more likely to help our kids out someday as my friends were, so the connections might not be worth the investment of $15,000 a year to attend (2020). That said, one job offer IS worth the $60,000 investment, as long as you know you'll get that offer. With two kids, even with a second-child discount, we'd be looking at an investment of $100,000 or thereabouts. I'd probably rather pay off my rental home in Milwaukee than send my kids to Providence, but it's still a consideration because of where we live. 

The big question would be whether parents at Providence would accept that our kids are as smart as theirs, or as good at sports, especially if we got a discount and/or scholarship. That said, it would be fun to have some cocktails on someone's yacht during a Trump boat rally on the Intracoastal. Or for the kids to get invited to Switzerland for the summer. I talked to an obviously wealthy (private island) young man who did NOT attend Providence, and he used as his reasoning that he wasn't looking to go pro in sports and thought that the students there never experienced the real world. The problem with that assessment is that the real world can be kind of harsh, so I can see the allure of staying sheltered. 

My wife had a hard time joining her elite private school late in middle school because social groups had already been formed, and I am sure that also applies to joining Providence for high school. Unless the new kid is wearing a Louis Vuitton backpack and getting dropped off in Daddy's Maserati on the first day of school, you probably get sent to the back of the line. When I went to a tough city school, I could come in as a cool customer because I was a big deal on the undefeated freshman football team, but my daughter doesn't play football or croquet or go sailing or live in Queen's Harbour, so I don't know. 

Yes, it's a good school that has all the numbers to prove it. And it's close to our house. However, another parent told me that the tour guide at the school said, "Providence chooses you; you don't choose Providence." That was the final nail. 

Rating: This may be the right school if you have a money tree in the back yard or a rich uncle who happens to like you and die right as your kids are ready for high school. For us, the investment would basically mean no travel or gifts or going out or actual meals on Saturdays. 

Parsons Christian Academy
80-100 students
$7,200 tuition

Parsons isn't too terribly far away from our house, but I didn't know it existed until one of my kids said a friend's sibling attends the high school. It hadn't turned up in my local searches on Google Maps, most likely because it's listed as a "club" on Maps. The website also lacks vital information that parents might use to decide if it's a decent school, so maybe it is more of a club, anyhow. 

I had to work pretty hard to not really find out much information about the high school here. I am not sure about the types of classes or electives. I don't know if students tend to go on to college. No test scores. From scrolling through Facebook, it looked like 25ish students graduated from the high school last year, but the website doesn't seem to list enrollment numbers. I saw photos of some very young middle and high school staff members, but I don't know what they teach or if they have teaching degrees. Here's the philosophy of the school:
With a strong emphasis on academics blended with sound Christian teaching and a sincere interest in the well-being of children, Parsons Christian Academy focuses on embracing and growing the whole child.
The website also mentions art later on. Again, I didn't see examples of the art or know which teachers teach it or if art is a high school focus. There was a lot about tuition and payments, so at least you'll know what you're paying if not what you're paying for. 

It was kind of strange to see two people on the website listed as "owners" of the school. I guess if a school is not owned by a church or some kind of group, the owners are individuals, but you don't see it too often. When I tried to find out more about the accreditation of the school, here's how the FACCS describes its standards for academic programs: 
A quality Christian school offers a curriculum that is consistent with the school’s vision, mission, and a Biblical worldview, using instructional strategies that are aligned with the goals and objectives, as taught at each grade and subject level, for student learning, and provided in a comprehensive Academic Manual.
Unfortunately, that's even more vague than the Parsons website. I get it that if you know the owners of this school from church, you're probably comfortable with the curriculum being based on their vision and mission, but I don't know them. That said, the school does have a lot of positive online reviews, so people believe it's accomplishing something with their kids. 

Rating: It feels like this school is for people who already know about the school, maybe through owners or teachers or a church. Given its location near some suspect apartment complexes in Arlington, the goal might be to have a safe haven for folks who live in nice homes near the river but are afraid of Terry Parker and don't want to drive a half-hour to high school. That's a legitimate niche, but since I don't fit in that niche, and I'd need a lot more information than is available to part with $7,200 per kid per year, then it's not for us.

Lone Star Charter High School Diploma Center Place
168 students
$0 tuition

If your kids get into some kind of situation, then Lone Star might be the alternative to high school for them. It's a high school diploma, or Good Enough Diploma. One Google reviewer said he got his diploma in three days, probably by passing a bunch of tests. For most students, it's a 4-hour per day program. You can be 15-21 years old. 

Basically, this is not a liberal arts education. Probably more like daily test prep and learning of core subjects. This high school shouldn't be anyone's first choice, but it might be an OK last option. I guess I don't know why it's a charter school when DCPS probably has its own versions of this. 

Rating: Not a high school, but it could be useful in very specific situations. 

Sandalwood High School
2,800+ students
$0 tuition

We've been, at various times, both sold on Sandalwood and dead-set against it. Like many public schools, it seems to be an institution that works for students who know what they want out of the school and do the work necessary to meet their goals. While our kids do fit into that category, we've all kind of started to question the objective most students we've talked to from Sandalwood seem to have, which is to not be students at Sandalwood at all. Parents and students alike have told us that the only way to do Sandalwood is to use the early college option, which is basically working hard for two years in high school in order to then work towards a two-year associate's degree from a community college. The reason that doesn't seem glamorous is because it's not; it's practical, at least for anyone who doesn't really care about having a high school life OR a college life. The students we met who talked up this option seemed to be lower-end 4-year college students, meaning a lot of them might be first-generation college or in need of the cost-savings. I have to wonder how many of these students end up finishing a 4-year degree somewhere. Back when my cousin from Indiana was all impressed that she'd gotten an associate's degree, I asked my parents what it meant, and they said it meant she could work as a secretary somewhere. That was the opinion of people who'd graduated from college in the early 70s in the early 90s, but I'm thinking it might still hold true. 

Since this isn't Hollywood or one of those weird dreams I still have, you cannot go back to high school to make up for not really attending high school, so one person I talked to said the better option at Sandalwood is really the dual-enrollment, where you stay at the high school and get more like one year of college credits out of the way rather than two, or maybe one semester. You'd still have to navigate the world of a large, public high school, but you wouldn't feel like some odd college kid hanging out at a high school during your senior year to play sports or attend dances. 

I like the fact that there are plenty of course options for students at Sandalwood, but, as you can tell, I am not a huge believer in accelerating past high school and into college while IN high school. Personally, I enjoyed high school, but that was in-part because I was able to take interesting classes like woodworking, drafting, and yearbook. I also had options for classes like art and media broadcasting that I couldn't even fit into my schedule. For us specifically, if Sandalwood offered German, it might have swayed us in its favor, but when I looked into it a few years back, only Lee had a German program. Actually, I'm not entirely sure Sandalwood offers that many more electives than the smaller schools, since so many schools have gone to concentrating on core classes that matter for assessments, which is kind of sad. 

Almost everyone we've talked to about Sandalwood agrees that the negative perception of the school is now unwarranted and that it's a pretty good school. And it really ought to be, based on the location. I don't know if anything specific happened in the past or if it's just a case of Stanton and the private schools being seen as better alternatives, but I don't think Sandalwood is a bad option at all, particularly for students who want to attend college early.

Sandalwood is a huge school. I talked to a man who went there a while back who said it was a middle AND high school at the time. And I think it also uses portables, meaning it's the size of two schools plus some extra classrooms. I mean, I don't know if there were 2,800 people at the Jaguars game I attended in December of 2018. It's like the size of the college my wife attended, and it's more populated than nearly half the municipalities in Florida. A single high school that's more than double the size of Providence's k-12 school, and twice the size of the high school I attended. Or 35 times the size of Beaches Chapel High School or Seacoast. It's big, so you might meet future murderers or murder victims, as well as future mayors or congressmen. And you'll have to keep clear of some kids to make it through unscathed. I do appreciate the creativity in the Sandalwood nicknames that resulted from its past (hopefully) problems: Scandalwood, Sandalweed, and Scandalweed. You could probably add Skankyhood, Amplewood, Handandfoot, etc.

Rating: A month before this article, Sandalwood was our choice. As of writing this article, it's not. However, I think it's a decent school, especially for people in the East Arlington area with kids who aren't really sure about college, since it kind of pushes kids in the direction. I do wish it had a strong tech ed (autos / skilled trades) program rather than so much focus on college credits, just based on the people I've met living here. Sandalwood is probably the best school for lots of kids, but I don't think it's the all-around number-one for us.

After spending time watching Sandalwood athletic teams and being on campus for events, I'm glad we didn't send our kids to the school. Sandalwood students seem kind of mean. Plus, my kids have heard stories about the school being a bit scary. Again, I'm sure most students are fine, but my kids didn't grow up attending Duval middle schools to toughen them up, so I'm glad we chose another school.

Fletcher High School
2,150 students
$0 tuition

When we moved to Jacksonville, we heard about how the local public schools weren't all that great except for maybe Fletcher. At least one family we know had moved to The Beaches in order to send their kids to Fletcher, but that's not really an option for us. Even though this school does have a low rating on right now (because it's not currently improving), it's still one of the better schools around based on college preparedness, so the lack of continual improvement doesn't bother me all that much. I think the problem might be that good students at Fletcher kind of underperform. I am hoping that would not be the case with my kids. 

Like most public schools in Jacksonville, Fletcher is neighborhood school that also allows some open enrollment options. We know one family that lives in the Terry Parker section of town with one kid now at Fletcher, which should allow all the siblings to attend. They use the open seats, but if we choose Fletcher, then we'd apply to their Cambridge AICE program, which also has open seats for outsiders. I'm sure anyone who wants early college can apply to Sandalwood for its program, as well. While I'm not a huge fan of AP, IB, or other such programs, the AICE option is OK because it has a writing focus and allows a lot more choice in courses. I believe there are four AICE schools in Jacksonville, but Fletcher's the only one in the Arlington/Intracoastal/Beaches part of town. 

Generally, if you find a school you like in Jacksonville that isn't Stanton, you might be able to get in to the school if your kids qualify for AICE, AP, or IB, so keep that in the back pocket. While we'd love to live closer to the ocean, a house our size would cost twice as much anywhere near Fletcher. Open enrollment seats are not guaranteed, but a student who gets into a special academic program should have a seat. 

Fletcher is a typical high school, in that most students treat it as a four-year endeavor. With over 2,100 kids, this is a large school in my book, but it's not quite as huge as Sandalwood. 500 students per grade level is manageable, I think, though the school I attended and the one I taught at were both closer to 1,500 students. One thing we do acknowledge is that there will be some bad actors at a public school of over 2,000 students. Based on former students I've met, I'd say pot smoking is a thing at Fletcher. Hopefully, it's a small percentage of the kids. 

One of the main reasons that we started leaning towards Fletcher was based on a conversation I had with a Sandalwood graduate. He said that he was glad he did not do the early college program at Sandalwood, but he also said that if he had to do it over again, he would have gone to Fletcher. Not Providence or Stanton or any of the private schools his parents could have afforded. He also mentioned the AICE program, which had been recommended by others we've asked. 

As long as the rest of the school isn't in total chaos and smoking weed in the halls between classes, Fletcher should provide a decent mix of opportunities for our kids. Sports, clubs, a decent academic program. Four blocks to the ocean. If I had to choose a high school for myself in this area, it would probably have been Fletcher. The main issue when compared to Sandalwood might be transportation, but that's really the case for any non-neighborhood or private school you might choose. I'd also have liked German as a World Language option rather than sign language (which is about as useful as Turkish to most students), but you can't always get what you want.

I also wanted to address the auditory handicap faced by the AICE program. Since everyone just pronounces it as ACE rather than spelling it out, I assumed it was the ACE program, which sounds a lot like some kind of program for reforming derelicts rather than something that competes with AP Capstone. I suppose IB (without knowing it's International Baccalaureate, sounds like a disease treatable with a steroid-free ointment, so whatevs. 

Rating: As of the writing of this article, Fletcher is the front-runner for our kids, but we'll have to take a tour and sign up for the AICE program. Did I mention completion of the AICE qualifies students for the Florida Bright Futures scholarship without worrying about SAT scores and whatnot? Anyhow, if the school looks like a decent facsimile of a high school, we're probably going for it. With $0 tuition (we do pay property taxes), it's good if at least a few of the public schools are worth considering, and Fletcher should be on your radar if you live in the Ft. Caroline area, especially since the actual time to get there is basically the same as going to Sandalwood.


We took a family tour of Fletcher, and it was good enough. Smallish gym and cafeteria. Some portables that might disappear with referendum money. But students who were not bouncing off walls, a decent auditorium, and some cool outdoor spaces. Basically, it didn't feel like a prison (memories of my own high school), and the staff didn't seem like prison guards (memories of teaching at other Duval schools).  I could imagine Mr. Shoop teaching summer school here, and that's pretty radical.

Also, we talked to a couple more students who confirmed that there are enough go-getters at the school, meaning the AICE or AP or Dual Enrollment classes that are offered are not just joke classes that anyone can sail through, and that's what we're looking for. 

Duval's online system is a new kind of awful, which I pretty much knew from the time I was applying for a position in the district. I had to create my third Focus account (one to apply, one as an employee, and one as a parent) in order to begin the enrollment process. You can't even bookmark the focus login page because, terrible. And then, there's a hidden application for students new to the district. This needs to be fully completed before you can choose a program with which to apply, even though the link you get if you didn't finish the application sends you elsewhere. What's insane is that someone is probably going to print all of the documents off to look at them, so why not just have me print them and mail them in rather than this mess, which reminds me of my last two mortgage application programs and the Florida unemployment system. 

[Update 3]
After a couple of years, both kids are on track to achieve full Bright Futures status through AICE. However, I have been somewhat disappointed with a couple of social studies teachers who assign way too much homework. We stayed away from Stanton because every student I talked to kept complaining about homework, yet my kids seem to do Stanton-amounts of work at home. Some electives end up kind of being study halls so students can get work done. The theatre program is OK, but it's enough for me that it exists at all. I'm also generally disappointed in all Duval Schools in the slow construction of new classrooms based on referendum money, but I guess my kids will be able to return to a nice school for a visit after they graduate. Overall, it's been a good mix of challenging work, lots of clubs and sports to try, and fairly friendly students. Sure, some leave campus to surf and / smoke pot, but that's just some.

Beaches Chapel High School
80-ish students
$8,500 tuition and fees

I kind of knew Beaches Chapel had a high school because my kids have played basketball at the gym there, and the school has all kinds of giant photos on the walls of the high school kids. What I didn't realize was that the high school was on the same campus as the K-8 school, and that the enrollment is less than 100 students. Like Harvest or Seacoast, it's doubtful Beaches Chapel can offer a substantial mix of honors, AP, and elective courses to make it a perfect choice. Fewer than 100 students at a high school is, without a doubt, small. 1/20th the size of Fletcher small. Too small?

The people I've met from Beaches Chapel Middle School seem nice, and I've generally been impressed with their sportsmanship in games compared to some of the other local Christian schools. My wife was just talking to a current student who seems to like it, as well. It's also cheaper than the Providence or BK options. 
We offer an advanced academic tract that includes college dual enrollment, fine arts department, international student program and a full athletic program in our new gymnasium and weight room.
The gym is nice, and using articles properly in sentences with lists is also a good idea. I think the quote from the website is probably reflective of what any small school deals with in trying to recruit: it can't have everything be perfect or new, so it promotes what it does have in kind of a disjointed list. Since dual enrollment isn't imperative to me, and neither of my kids are really weight room material, the gym and some kind of international student program stand out. However, if "international" simply means bringing wealthy Chinese kids to Beaches Chapel to help pay for costs, then it's not really anything...I looked it up, and that's kind of the thing, except all the kids look like they are from Italy rather than China. Anyhow, means nothing, so there's a gym. And the school is near the beach rather than sitting next to a seedy apartment complex in Arlington. 

Rating:  Just based on the kids, parents, and teachers I've seen at Beaches Chapel, I have to say it's probably our choice for a tiny high school over Harvest or Seacoast (or any other little high school hiding in the local woodwork). Luckily, there doesn't seem to be a waiting list, so if we need a backup school or feel like something smaller would be better once the kids start, Beaches Chapel will probably be available. 

River City Science Academy HS
500+/- high school students 
$0 tuition

Full disclosure here, I was hired to teach at RCSA back in spring of 2019 for the 19-20 school year, and we had it settled that both kids would be attending that charter school with me (when they started high school). About a month after I was hired, the offer was rescinded. It doesn't matter whether the school no longer had two openings or decided to go with nepotism. The school lost an excellent English teacher, but its real loss was two students who would have considerably improved the student body. 

When I was researching the school, someone told me to watch out for the Turks running it. I wasn't really sure what that meant, but maybe my experience was commonplace. When I looked the Turks up, it seems the people associated with River City Science Academy in Jacksonville are considered to be terrorists by the Turkish government, which is kind of the pot calling the kettle black. The other Turkish connection is that world languages offered at the school include Spanish and Turkish. That's pretty laughable, since no one wants to learn Turkish, and it's probably just another job for a family member. I believe I saw somewhere that students could take some sort of class trip to Turkey, too. Just weird, but probably a way for staff members to get a free plane ride home. I guess some immigrants run gas stations while others run schools. 

As far as other curriculum, I noticed the English Department was teaching the dumb-kid-book version of MacBeth, and it sounded like there was all kinds of test prep time before the yearly testing. I was told that teachers had a decent amount of freedom to teach, which is a good idea if your teachers are qualified. I can't really speak to that, as I only met the principal and two English teachers who seemed a bit self-important for teachers at a charter school. Yes, I'm a little bitter, but you would be, too. I was also very concerned with the school's teacher-mentor program where the teacher is expected to meet students on weekends at restaurants or libraries--I can't imagine this is a good idea or completely legal, and I was a little uncomfortable with the mandate when I was hired.

I am sure that a school that claims to focus on math and science probably does an OK job teaching STEM, and the school's been around for some time, so it's not like one of those charter schools that will fold next year. Unless it really is a terrorist front, but I don't think it is. The gym was new, too, though the school building and location were slightly odd and on a busy street, since it was not originally built as a high school. 

The main purpose of a charter school is to siphon off the best students (who can't afford private school) from the local public schools, and it seems that RCSA has done well in this role, at least for kids interested in science. However, here's one parent who was not impressed: 
This school does not offer anything special. If you want your child to succeed this is not the place. There is no challenge for smart kids.
I'm not sure I buy this sentiment, and most of the other negative reviews focused on students not liking the dress code. It seems the school DOES offer something special in science, at least. And kids seem to do well on state tests in English as well as math, so the school is consistently ranked in the top 20% of Florida schools. Another parent used questionable spelling to say these positives:
Very good school. Nice staff. Learning is there number 1 priority.
I believe the elementary version of RCSA is probably pretty decent (at least the one in Mandarin), and I also believe a lot of those parents send their kids elsewhere for a college-prep high school rather than stick with the program, but I don't have stats on that opinion. Ask the school if that's the case; they probably won't tell you the truth. 

Rating: RCSA is probably mostly a decent school that my kids cannot attend. Lower average ACT scores than Fletcher is kind of sad, especially since the school preps so hard for the Florida test (where it ranks higher than Fletcher). I'd rather the school prep kids for college/career and then hope for the best on Florida tests. 

Episcopal School of Jacksonville
1,000 students
$27,000 tuition and fees

Even with a best-case scenario of getting a $7,000 scholarship, this school would cost us $20,000 a year per kid. I met a guy who had three kids at this high school (and another kid), so he was spending $325,000  for the three, just for high school. My initial thought is that, as a financial adviser, this person had to take a little more than he deserved in order to pay Episcopal $850,000 to educate his kids. Keep in mind that this particular person was living in a $1 million+ home in Ponte Vedra (and paying taxes to St. Johns schools). I am not judging the man I met, but I am saying that there is nothing that can occur in my life that will have me sending my kids to Episcopal. 

Maybe, just maybe, if I knew I'd be hanging out with the next JEA CEO or the next mayor of Jacksonville, such an investment in my kids could be seen as beneficial to my own business, especially if the new mayor let me in on all the new schemes to fatten all his friends' wallets. But I could get that info at BK for half the price right now. Or at Mascara's for loose change. 

Rating: At some point, the price is more than too high for even upper-middle-class families to justify sending their kids to private school. It's not about getting into Ivy League colleges or getting the best education. It's just about spending the money because the neighbor will know your kid's high school diploma cost as much as a Mercedes AMG GT, and it really shows you love him that you sacrificed adding to your car collection to make sure he was indoctrinated, I mean educated, properly. 

University Christian
600+ students
$9,100 tuition and fees

I've been told by a few people that UC is more about sports than academics, and I don't mind that philosophy as long as academics are also good. Unlike public schools, UC doesn't have to report test scores, so it's hard to tell if academics matter. Here's what the website says:
The goal of the University Christian high school program is to be distinctively Christian in all that we do while providing the highest quality education, activities and experiences possible. University Christian offers two different diploma offerings; College Prep and College Prep Honors (based on credits earned and cumulative GPA).
I guess College Prep would be for Florida colleges, while College Prep Honors would be for students who want to attend out-of-state colleges. I guess it's entirely possible that UC administration doesn't realize  parents think the school is primarily a sports school. No real mention of AP or other programs, or colleges attended by graduates, or specifics about anything academic. Honestly, if the school had a good reputation as a top tier school academically, it wouldn't matter, but this is as much as I could find:
We utilize a rigorous academic program that includes an excellent, Biblically integrated college preparatory curriculum. Technology significantly enhances our program at all levels, as students utilize iPads as a tool for learning in newly designed state of the art classrooms.
Besides wanting to see an appropriate use of hyphens, I'd also like to know how this Biblically-integrated curriculum works alongside future-world classrooms. 

Rating: If UC really is good at academics, then it should be more obvious based on parents and students I've met, as well as evidence from the website. I would need to hear from some of the people with positive academic experiences at UC in order to look into it further. 

One of my daughter's friends who attends the school has confirmed UC isn't exactly a hotbed for higher learning.

Atlantic Coast High School
2,350 students
$0 tuition

Let's say you decide to build a brand new high school in an area that has yet to be fully developed. You can fit over 2,000 kids in the school, but the surrounding population can't fill the school. What do you do? 

From what I've been told, the answer back when Atlantic Coast was built was to send all the behavior problems from Sandalwood and Terry Parker down to the new school. I can't really believe it, but that's what I've been told, and it led to the negative perception people have of the school. Supposedly, the school is OK now, and based on location, the school should be OK. 

Our daughter kept bringing up Atlantic Coast as an option, even though we didn't really think much about the school. I assume at least one of her friends wants to go there. I believe AC allows for open enrollment, and it might be the main AP school in Arlington/Southside/Beaches, which means someone in the Terry Parker attendance area can take the 295 down to Atlantic Coast for AP. If I liked AP more than AICE, then Atlantic Coast might be more tempting. 

It's also dumb that we have a First Coast High School and an Atlantic Coast High School in the same city, neither of which are ON the coast or describe the area where the schools are located. Whereas Fletcher is right by the beach; maybe Duncan Fletcher was some kind of champion surfer. 

Rating: Objective stats show that Atlantic Coast is very similar to Fletcher, both being slightly better than Sandalwood. All not as bad as some might think (I hope). For some people, it might come down to Early College, AP, or AICE, and there might not be a wrong answer. Either that or they are all wrong answers, which I hope isn't the case. 

My daughter always talks about how nice Atlantic Coast is as a campus. It feels kind of St. Johns County-ish. If you like pretty buildings on an expansive campus (and AP Capstone), then Atlantic Coast might be for you.

Bishop Kenny High School
1,200 students
$14,000 non-Catholic student tuition and fees

There are two reasons why my kids won't be going to Bishop Kenny, and they are probably a little petty, but it's my right to go there as a parent who has to spend the money. First, I was in a minor accident with a young man who had attended Bishop Kenny and who decided to stiff me on the money he owed. That made the school look bad in my book, since he's the only person I'd met who had gone there. Second, Bishop Kenny charges A LOT more for heathen, non-Catholics (like us) to attend the school. Since only 10% of Jacksonville is Catholic, I'm sure plenty of non-Catholics or recovering Catholics send their kids to this school. I know, they want to convert people, but I can't accept a Pope or praying to Mary, even to save $5,000 off my tuition, so no BK for me.

Here's how BK sees its graduates:
Guided by the lessons of the Gospel, Bishop Kenny graduates will be persons of integrity capable of making life-decisions and positive contributions to their faith, family, and global communities.
Again, you can see why it was disappointing to meet a jackwagon graduate of this school who didn't pay his debt to me. I suppose BK taught all the right stuff, but not all students listen. I am sure the curriculum is fine and the teachers are fine and most students are fine, but like Providence, there has to be quite a payoff after graduation to warrant this kind of money. If I just wanted the kids to get into an Ivy League college, then I'd force them to attend Stanton. 

I know, this focus on money is probably causing those of you with all kinds of cash to shake your heads at me, like the guy in his leased BMW X7 M50i who shakes his head at someone with a Mercury Villager stranded on the side of the road. Yes, that person should buy a better car. And I should send my kids to BK. Thanks, Tad. My daughter and I did the math on a family that's sending their three non-Catholic kids to BK, after sending them to a private K-8 school, and we estimated that the family will have spent around $350,000 on tuition by the time it's all over. I live frugally enough that I could possibly retire on $350,000. So, yeah, the money is a big deal, especially if Tad loses his job as a consultant. 

BK is a perfectly good high school, so if you're Catholic (or want to appease the Grand Inquisitor and become Catholic), it's not even all that expensive, relative to Providence, Bolles, or Episcopal. Also, BK is either Burger King or British Knights to me. Remember British Knights?

Rating: If only I had a rich uncle who was also Catholic. 

Back in Milwaukee, several of my friends went to Pius XI High School. We called it Holiday High because they got off school for selling enough fundraiser magazines or when the basketball team went to the state tournament. Probably for St. Peter's birthday, too. Anyhow, it seems BK in Jacksonville is also a bit of a Holiday High. It's better than Milwaukee's Hamilton High, which was known as Herpe High because of an unfortunate outbreak back in the 70s.

Stanton College Prep
1,500 students
$0 tuition

My joke with the kids when we walked around our own and other neighborhoods during graduation season was that the Providence, Bishop Kenny, Episcopal, and Bolles signs we saw were for kids who couldn't handle Stanton. It was a joke, so don't get all emailly about it. Yes, Stanton is the highest-ranked local school, but that doesn't mean it's right for your kids, even if they are overachievers like mine. 

Both of my kids have gotten all As since kindergarten, and both of them are generally in the 90th percentile rank for the major tests. Sometimes 95th or 99th; depends on the test. They qualify for Stanton, but neither of them is really interested, partially because we've heard the stories of kids taking home several hours of homework and studying incessantly. Stanton is like a big science experiment of throwing 1,500 of the area's best students together, having them take all the most advanced courses, and then also making sure they want to compete. I chose not to attend Milwaukee King (usually ranked about the same as Stanton) because I didn't want to deal with Ted K, William L, and Suzie ? as competitors in high school like I did in earlier years. I wanted to have fun, play sports, continue in French, learn a lot, and not burn out early. As a result, I kind of breezed through high school, got ranked #2 in my class, and got offers for academics and football scholarships, as well as the NROTC and Wisconsin version of the Bright Futures. What I'm saying is that you don't have to participate in the science experiment that keeps one local school on top of all the charts, unless you need that extra competition. 

I told my son that if he really wants Ivy League or MIT (and he thinks he does right now), then he can make it his goal to be the top student at whatever school we choose. He can load up on advanced courses, get a top five ranking, do whatever Ivy League wannabes do over the summer, and apply. And then also apply to his grandparents for the special scholarship he'll need. Or I can work nights as a security guard at The Episcopal School. The point is that he can get there with or without Stanton, and since we want both kids in the same school and the daughter has to choose first and she absolutely does not want the pressure of Stanton, that's what we're doing: something other than Stanton. And that's probably similar for a lot of those Providence, etc., signs we saw. Not everyone is the rags-to-riches, first-generation-college, perfect-ACT-seeking, full-ride-everywhere student. 

That said, Stanton is the best (academic) school around. Everyone says it, so it must be true. Also, I am totally confident that 30 years from now, more millionaires will have graduated from Stanton than Bolles or Episcopal, since it's all about education, hard work, and dedication. And I'm sure Stanton graduates are bright enough to recognize cynicism.   

One last thing. Just like Milwaukee, Jacksonville went and stuck its best school in one of its most undesirable neighborhoods. I have a daughter who is lucky if she'll be 5'1", and I'm simply not comfortable sending her to the Stanton location for four years. Here's how the Zip Code is described in terms of crime:
Mid-Westside crime rates are 194% higher than the Jacksonville average.
That includes a violent crime rate about 600% higher than the national average. The school itself cannot change the surrounding area, and it's just so pointless to have it there, even if the crime doesn't tend to affect students. If you want to build the new JEA headquarters or Amazon distribution center there, jobs and whatnot might result, but using local kids as ambassadors is arbitrary at best. Probably more insulting. Build a mayoral mansion on the school grounds and move the school to a safer area, in my opinion.

Rating: The truth is that no one today cares that I attended a weak public school or that my wife attended a school that costs more than Providence. They also didn't care when we first got hired or when we graduated college. It only matters when getting accepted to college, so Stanton is the best option if you have your heart set on a college that won't accept anything less (and you don't have Bolles money). 

We keep meeting people who confirm the amount of homework at Stanton. I don't get it. In general, educators agree that homework is to practice that which was learned in the classroom, so either Stanton students need a lot of practice or it's being used a different way. I've heard that it's to prepare kids for college, but you'd have to be taking 20+ credits a semester to equal the work load students are claiming.

I met an intelligent young man who attended Paxon, the other Stanton-like school in Jacksonville. He regrets it, and implied others regretted it more than him. Here are his arguments against these two academic-obsessed schools: No life because of workload; No friends because of competition and not living near anyone; no sense of community because of school locations; lack of high school atmosphere. But his last argument was the most compelling, that many classmates did not get into UF because they were not ranked high enough amid the intense competition, meaning they would have been better off in the top 5% at Sandalwood rather than top 50% at Stanton. He recommended attending another local school, taking some AP/IB/AICE, getting the right GPA, and doing well on the SAT/ACT--exactly my advice to my kids. 

[Update 3]
My daughter literally heard gunshots while playing soccer at Stanton. Granted, we live in Jacksonville, where guns are stolen from cars at a rate of one per day, but still. 

The Bolles School
800 students
$28,190 tuition and fees; $57,580 resident student

The Bolles School is legit, ranked in the top 10 as a sports school in the country while also maintaining average ACT scores of 27 (a single point lower than Stanton). If you want to go pro as an athlete or as a CEO, this is the best all-around school in the area to achieve either or both. And it's priced as such. 

Assuming money was no object and we had a chauffeur for the half-hour commute each way, I'd love to enroll the kids here. And if I didn't really enjoy their company, I'd send them to the boarding school for $60k, where I'm sure they'd learn proper etiquette for sailboat races, equestrian events, and boardroom meetings. 

It's funny that when we first moved here, my wife was at a teachers convention and met some teachers from Bolles. The problem is that my wife didn't know what Bolles was, so she said she'd heard of it. The teachers seemed disappointed that she wasn't more impressed. But teachers at Bolles are like construction workers who work on an oceanfront home: they are just providing a service for someone else who is much more impressive who has provided the worker with all the best material available. Neither the construction worker nor the teacher gets to live in the fancy house. And neither do my kids. Bolles is the perfect example of the American Dream for some. Maybe some kind of super-scholar or super-athlete qualifies for a full-ride deal, but the reality is that realism is priced out of existing here. It's a fairy tale--a Disney version, and the rest of us are supposed to stand in awe of it from a respectful distance. 

When I was teaching, I used to tell my students how I was worth a lot more dead than alive, since I had an insurance policy that was worth quite a bit more than my salary. The students always laughed and told me to keep an eye on my wife. If I died tomorrow, my kids could attend Bolles, unless their mom wanted to retire early and move to Hawaii. Bolles is a good and expensive school, but at the end of the day, it's still just a school, like all the others on this list. I personally think my kids would rather have me alive and available for them than either dead or so busy that I need to send them to a boarding school. 

Rating: If you want to have and can afford the best of everything, then I suppose you can't ignore Bolles (or Episcopal). However, my kids will be required to pursue the American Dream the good old-fashioned way: with rich folks (ie Bolles grads) riding on their backs. 

Let Me Explain. No, There Is Too Much; Let Me Sum Up

I believe just about every school on this list could be a top pick depending on specific requirements for students and parents. For example, mature Christians who want a lot of control over their kids might decide on Harvest, while parents who want half of a college degree paid off before high school graduation will want to check out Sandalwood. AP, dual enrollment, IB, and AICE are all possible reasons for you to choose one school over another while living in the Intracoastal West/Arlington region of Jacksonville. Just remember the first rule about Terry Parker High School is that nobody wants to go to Terry Parker High School. Beyond that, I hope this guide has helped you decide to give a local school a chance. If it convinced you to move to St. Johns County, then read my article about costs of living there. If you want to give AICE a chance, then you might meet my kids over at Fletcher. That is, of course, unless one of the other schools on this list decides to hire me to teach English, in which case my kids will go there and it's totally the best choice, for sure. 
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