What makes an 'elite' school?

Yeshivah of Flatbush High School
Source: Yeshivah of Flatbush High School
Yeshivah of Flatbush High School

Did your child not get accepted to the elite college of his or her choice earlier this month? Are you freaking out because now you think he or she will have to go to a lower-ranked school? A lot of educational, economic, and social experts have written a lot of good things about how this needn't be a terrible blow to your child's future. And I'd like to add to that wisdom, but not by focusing on college. Because if you're looking to give your kids a better education and a better path to financial and career success, college is not the place to start.

Just about everyone agrees that a superior education is still the best bet to make it in this country. Count me among that group, but with some important disclaimers. First, I don't believe a great education necessarily means going to a highly-ranked college, even if that college is an Ivy League school. And second, it's entirely ridiculous for parents and kids to freak out over the college application process. Great educations, to be truly called that, have to begin earlier. I would argue that means the parents have to start properly educating their children themselves right from birth. But it also means the focus should be on the middle school to high school years at the very latest.

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But how do you know which school is best when it comes to measuring your child's chances for success in adult life? It's not as easy a question to answer as you might think, because the best middle and secondary schools in America measured by curricula, faculty and test scores aren't necessarily the best when you check back with the graduates of those schools 10, 20 or 30 years later. Based on what I've seen from my own educational path, I've come to realize that the geography and community surrounding a school are probably more important when it comes to measuring its alumni success.

I don't put too much emphasis on luck, but I do try to acknowledge where I've been fortunate. And I was truly fortunate to have been born into a two-parent home with a mom and dad who placed my and my sister's education on the top of their priorities. That remained true regardless of where we lived. And that's why the two best schools I ever attended were in totally different parts of the country and didn't resemble each other very much in any other way either. The one common denominator was that my parents carefully decided to send me to them.

In my elementary school years, they sent me briefly to Norfolk Academy in the Tidewater region of Virginia. While it was not a boarding school, it had many of the same trappings. It was founded in 1728, (not a typo, and yes that is four years before George Washington was born), had a rigorous admission exam, sit-down meals served at lunch family style, a full slate of foreign language, fine arts, and athletics requirements, etc. I was just a pre-teen when I went to Norfolk Academy, but it remains the most rigorous academic challenge I ever faced in my life and that includes my four years at an Ivy League college. The only reason why I didn't spend more years at Norfolk Academy was because my family moved to New York in 1981. But what I learned there both academically and socially plays a profound role in my decisions and thought processes to this day.

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The other school that influenced me the most was extremely different. It was my all-Jewish, Modern Orthodox high school called the Yeshivah of Flatbush located on the very urban streets of the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Flatbush was a tough school too, particularly because failure to learn Hebrew fluently basically meant you weren't going to graduate. But the priorities there were different. Superior college admissions were somewhat important to both the parents and the administration at my high school, but not the top priority by a long shot. Our teachers there wanted to make sure we grew up to be productive and valuable members of the Jewish community. Part of that was religious instruction, but Flatbush was and is unique for its extensive Zionism education that included a historic, political and cultural immersion into all things Israel. That emphasis naturally led to school-sponsored activism, not only for the State of Israel but also, (in my high school years of the 1980s), Soviet Jewry and the plight of the remaining Jews trapped in Arab lands. Norfolk Academy focused on the whole student as well, particularly by requiring a complete set of extracurricular activities with a special emphasis on the arts. Athletics were also a major part of life at the Academy, something that was barely on the radar at Flatbush. To be frank, Norfolk Academy did and does a better job providing its students every skill that you'd think would give a young person a better chance at succeeding in the secular business or political world as an adult.

But consider this: while Norfolk Academy had a superior secular curriculum, a more prestigious faculty, and a better path to elite college acceptance, the funny thing is the graduates of my Jewish high school in Brooklyn are more successful when strictly measured by the criteria of career success, aggregate wealth, and even political prominence. And this is true of an entire era of graduates from the years 1960-2000. It's the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and not Norfolk Academy, that has two Nobel Prize winners among its alumni. It's the Yeshivah of Flatbush that has Pulitzer winners. It's Yeshivah of Flatbush alumni that you're more likely to find at the highest levels of government and in the private sector.

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Diversity of career choices and gender disparity also present a stark contrast. Grab five graduates from Norfolk Academy from the classes of 1960-2000 and you'd be hard pressed to find three of them who don' t have the same job. Grab five graduates from Yeshivah of Flatbush from the classes of 1960-2000 and you'd be hard-pressed to find three people who DO have the same job.

Norfolk Academy
Norfolk Academy

And then there's gender comparisons. Put aside any prejudices you might have about career roles for religious Jewish women, because almost every woman from my class of 1988 is not only employed full-time, but self-employed. Entrepreneur is the most common job title among them. And that's despite the fact that most of the female graduates are also mothers of more than the average 2-3 children apiece. In fact, many of my female high school classmates began having children very soon after graduation and are already grandmothers.

I want to make it clear that Norfolk Academy alumni are also elite in just about every way. It would be ridiculous for anyone to even try to portray the N.A. alumni in anything but the most positive light. This is not a "good vs. bad" comparison, but an examination of why one school's alumni have outperformed outsider expectations.

The big question is "why?" Why do the alumni of the one school I attended that puts less emphasis on elite college preparation, with less funding per student to boot, outperform? In hopes of finding an answer, I asked two top administrators at Flatbush today who were also there when I was a student 30 years ago.

Head of School for the high school Rabbi Raymond Harari credited the total communal aspect of the Flatbush education and the specific real-world responsibilities pressed onto every student in the high school years especially. Assistant principal and former head of college guidance Jill Sanders believes that emphasis creates a bigger impact on female students who quickly recognize and benefit from the knowledge that they're being asked to take on the same academic, communal, and social responsibilities as the boys. I also had to ask the only other person on Earth who attended both Flatbush and Norfolk Academy: my older sister Marianne. She believes the fact that most of the Flatbush students during the 1960-2000 period were immigrants or first generation Americans plays a huge role in their post-school career success.The drive to succeed just seems stronger with newcomers to this country no matter where they come from.

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I think those are great answers, and they make more sense when you consider the geographical aspect to this story as well. Flatbush benefits from the fact that most of its alumni currently reside in either New York City or Israel. And New York is... well, you know the song that says, "if you can make it there you can make it anywhere." Silicon Valley is quickly gaining on New York and the Northeast in general on that score, but this is still the city that never sleeps. And Israel, for all its political challenges, has gone from a small agricultural settlement to an economic and technological powerhouse over the past 50+ years. Many Flatbush graduates who emigrated to Israel, (some classes boast up to 30-35% of their members who have done so), have benefited from that boom or participated directly in bringing it about. Now just think about that for a second. Is there any other ethnicity in America where young people could return to their traditional homelands and enjoy great economic success? I suppose it will be more likely to happen in the coming decades for American immigrants from China, India, and even Africa. But that certainly was not common or very possible from 1960-2000.

Of course, this entire discussion hinges on whether parents really do have a choice when it comes to their family's education. Too many children in America, especially minority children, are still trapped in ineffective public school systems in states where the political powers that be restrict access to charter schools and private school vouchers. We'll never know just how far all of our kids can go with a better education until that problem is solved.

And it's also important not to put too much emphasis on school at any level. No matter what the education level, children who have two loving and caring parents closely involved in their upbringing will always have a leg up on the kids who don't. We can all take heart in the fact that while we may not be able to get all our children into Harvard, we can give them something a lot more important and enduring.

But for those of us who do have that kind of upbringing and the luxury of school choice, I think a good recipe for a school that wants to produce successful alumni is becoming more clear. Rigorous college prep is great, but even better is a rigorous classroom curriculum combined with teaching young people that they must find a purpose greater than grades, financial gain, and themselves. And you can't get all of that from a school, not even in the Ivy League or a super prep school. If all you want out of your child and your child's high school is an elite college acceptance letter, then that's all you'll ever get. The key to achieving the greatest financial and career success is making sure not to put so much emphasis on any one part of education and focus on molding the entire child as a productive and purposeful person instead.

That's easy, right?

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.