At first glance, it looks like a typical suburban high school. The glass cases outside the gym are filled with dusty, gold-plated statuettes holding tennis rackets, kicking soccer balls, or crouched in wrestling stances. Repainted numerous times, the bathroom stalls are somewhere between green and gray, while the cinderblock corridor walls are on the gray side of white. More than 30 desk-and-chair sets are squeezed into classrooms meant to hold 25 students at most.
But a closer look at Millburn High School provides some clues that help explain its newfound status as the state’s number one public high school. First, there are the bumper stickers affixed to the guidance counselor’s office window: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Cornell. (Of this year’s 331 graduating seniors, thirteen are going to Cornell.) The professional-quality paintings that line the principal’s office walls and the giant mural in the cafeteria were all done by students. And the course catalog lists classes such as meteorology, Russian literature, film and society, American law, and architecture, among the hundred-plus electives available to the school’s 1,380 students.
After placing eleventh in the 2004 New Jersey Monthly high school rankings, and third in 2006, Millburn High School earned the top spot this year, in large part due to its students’ impressive test performances. Millburn outranked the state’s 315 other high schools on average SAT score and performance on the state-mandated High School Proficiency Assessment.
Among the 2008 seniors, 97 percent are set to attend four-year colleges, including 29 who are Ivy League-bound. In addition to being ranked among the top U.S. high schools by Newsweek, US News and World Report, and the Wall Street Journal, Millburn High has been named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, the highest award a school can receive.
“It comes down to motivated, hard-working kids, supportive parents, and excellent faculty and administration,” says Millburn schools superintendent Richard Brodow. “When you have that combination, it’s not hard to see why our kids do so well.”
Millburn High School principal William Miron agrees. Study halls are almost unheard of, he says—most students choose to take eight classes a day. Sixty percent of seniors during the last school year took AP classes, some as many as five or six. And students do not excel only academically; most are involved in enough extracurricular activities to stuff a day planner—not to mention a college application. More than 70 percent of students play one or more sports, and one-third participate in the expansive music program. With 29 varsity teams and more than 70 clubs and organizations, barely a day goes by when someone is not setting up a bake sale or some more elaborate fund-raiser.
“Our students are so diversified in their interests, very few of them are doing just studying,” says Miron, himself a 1974 graduate of Millburn High. “They have demanding lifestyles. It’s part of our society and of this community. And we support that.”
If the school has any real cause for concern, it is that all this striving for excellence can place enormous pressure on Millburn’s overachieving students. Alexander Mills is a typical 2008 graduate. During the school year, he spent his afternoons fencing, competing on the debate team, and rehearsing with the school orchestra, then staying up past midnight most nights to do homework for his numerous AP courses.
The competition to get into the best colleges is intense, and the buzz grows earsplitting each spring. “Every day you’d walk in and people would be asking, ‘What colleges did you hear from?’” says Mills, who learned early he had been accepted at Princeton. Mills says the desire to do well was largely self-imposed, but for many the pressure comes from parents in this largely professional community just fourteen miles from New York City. In fact, says head guidance counselor Nancy Siegel, many students prefer to check the status of their college applications online in her office rather than at home. “The idea that kids have to go to Ivy League schools is insanity. It’s a name, and that’s why they want it,” Siegel says. “By their senior year, most students recognize it could happen, or it could not.”
If you happen to be among the estimated 10 percent of students who are not academically oriented, Millburn High can be a pretty alienating place. Allison Dilyard, herself a high achiever who is headed to Barnard College this fall, says a couple of her good friends were more interested in art than academics and “had a tough time adjusting.” Still, she says, everyone she knows is “ending up where they belong.”
“You can be at the bottom of your class and still go to a good college,” Dilyard says. “That’s what Millburn does for you.” The school has sought ways to ease some of the stress, like doing away with individual class rankings (students are instead divided into deciles: top 10 percent, top 20 percent, etc.) and limiting to eight the number of AP classes for which students can earn added weight toward their grade point average.
Philip Roth put Millburn—or more specifically its upscale neighborhood of Short Hills—on the literary map with his novella Goodbye Columbus, in which a well-to-do Jewish family tries to break into the Waspy, upwardly mobile society there. Today, Millburn is home to a large Jewish population, and while the high school is still predominantly white–only 1 percent of the students are African-American and less than 5 percent are Hispanic—the school district has seen an influx of Russian, East Asian, and Indian families over the last ten years.
Siegel estimates the high school’s Asian population at 20 percent. About 15 percent of the school population falls under the special education classification, but these are mostly students with minor learning disabilities that require only slight accommodation, according to Siegel. And while some of the newer families do not come close to Millburn’s median family income of $152,300, only a handful take advantage of the free lunch program, she says, mostly because “they are very proud and don’t want anyone in the district to know.”
The student population has grown exponentially in the last ten years, from 189 graduating seniors in 1998 to 390 in last year’s freshman class, largely due to families moving to Millburn for its excellent schools. But while Millburn is frequently described as an education-oriented community, support for education does not automatically show up at the polls. Voters almost always pass the school budgets each year, but bond issues for infrastructure work have been known to fail in the first round. As a result, Miron says, the high school is “a patchwork of additions” dating to 1957, causing a severe space problem, with some classes held in the cafeteria and four or five teachers sharing an office the size of a large closet.
“Taxes are very high in this community,” says Miron. “People don’t mind paying [for school expansion] if they think there’s a need, but they find $10 million a lot easier to stomach than $20 million.” A $20 million bond issue for improvements at Millburn’s middle school and high school passed in 2006. Now under construction, the high school’s three-story addition, with eighteen new classrooms and an upgraded cafeteria, is expected to open in fall 2009.
Alex Mills could point to teachers who “really know what they’re talking about,” or the fencing coach who helped facilitate his entrée to Princeton, but he has trouble pinpointing one factor to explain his, or the high school’s, stunning achievements.
“It’s a school that gives you all the tools you need to succeed,” the college freshman says. “But no one is going to do it for you. It’s up to you to take advantage of it all.”
To see the rankings of 316 public high schools in NJ, click on the appropriate link below:
- Complete Rankings in Numerical Order
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- Full New Jersey High School Rankings (PDF format)