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Choosing the right Catholic high school

As members of the Arlington Diocese, we are blessed to live in an area with quality choices for our children's secondary education. With the opening of St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries in 2008, there are options and opportunities for rising high schoolers throughout the entire diocese.

With this blessing, however, comes a challenge - how do you choose the right high school for your child? Complicating the decision is the presence of excellent high schools in the Archdiocese of Washington. With this wealth of opportunities to enrich the faith and grow mentally and spiritually, what are some factors that parents and students should consider when choosing the right school?

As with everything else in Northern Virginia, transportation is critical. You may love a high school you visit, but if the time it takes for your student to get to school and back home does not permit them to thoroughly finish their homework or participate in extracurricular activities, that high school experience will be lacking. While it may be impossible to plan every extracurricular activity your student may participate in, can they get to school for those 6 a.m. swim practices or be picked up from chess club practices that end at 6 p.m.?

Through its diverse public transportation options as well as numerous roads, many diocesan high schools have multiple ways for students to reach school. With the increase of high-occupancy toll lanes, carpooling is not only a good way to make new friends but to fly by traffic and save a little money. Check if the school has a way to arrange carpools or bus transport for students who live farther from campus.

Much like college, high schools come in various sizes. While it may be obvious that more choices and options in academic and extracurricular activities are ideal, a smaller high school with fewer AP classes may offer more personalized attention from faculty and staff. If a student has clear interests they want to follow - acting or volleyball, for example - this can help narrow the choice. Most eighth-graders don't have such a clear vision, so experiencing different schools and comparing their offerings is important.

Ultimately this comes down to feel - when you visit the school. Bishop O'Connell Director of Admissions Michael Cresson recommends students visit a school "multiple times via shadow, open house and school events to make sure they feel comfortable." Diocesan Catholic schools allow many opportunities for students to visit and participate.

For many Catholic families, legacy also is important. If a sibling or parent attended a local high school, their sibling or child may want to attend to continue a family tradition or because they grew up hearing about the school. Or the student may want to blaze his or her own path at a new place. Parents should be open to both; if nothing else, a child attending a school separate from the rest of the family will spice up sporting events.

Diocesan high schools offer a strong Catholic identity. With the number of quality schools throughout the state - both highly rated public schools and strong private schools - it is this commitment to Catholic education that sets diocesan high schools apart. Cresson noted that all diocesan high schools have a full-time chaplain and "this is not something many dioceses can do."

So whether your child becomes a Knight or a Cardinal, a Panther or a Wolf, rest assured knowing their faith will continue to grow during these critical four years.

Hay is a freelance writer from Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016