The 10 Best High Schools in California

The mix of public and private institutions in California, ranging from populations of a few hundred to several thousand, are among the best in the world through innovative programs, facilities, and student resources.

Many schools in California focus on students’ curricular experiences in STEM, the performing arts, or community service. Across the board, schools show a dedication to growing problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and well-rounded citizens. 

Students attending the best high schools in California go off-campus to pursue experiential learning in internship placements, community partnership programs, and international study-away exchanges. 

How about tuition? Most of the schools on this list are public and thus, free. Admission is typically based on academic records and standardized tests. 

Private California high schools charge anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 per year, and most offer generous financial aid packages to families based on need.

Attending one of the best high schools in California is excellent preparation for entrance into a two- or four-year college or university. 

Several high schools on this list are actually located within a college campus! 

These schools are ranked in several popular college-ranking publications like U.S. News and Niche.

Without further ado, here are 10 of the best high schools in California. 

University High School (Fresno, CA)

Located on the Fresno State University campus, University High is a free public charter school that uses a lottery system to enroll approximately 130 new 9th-grade students annually. 

Benefits of attending University High School include intimate class sizes, exceptional college and career preparedness, and exciting interscholastic activities like the Science Olympiad and Mock Trial team.

To be eligible for admission, candidates should have a minimum of two years of musical experience, though passion certainly overrides a lack of involvement in formal musical groups or lessons.

Many University High students are bonded by a shared passion for music, though the curriculum also emphasizes excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. 

All scholars take music theory classes and participate in a vocal or instrumental musical ensemble of their choice for all four high school years.

The Nueva School (Hillsborough, CA)

Nueva School
Pentaquark, Nueva School – Bay Meadows Campus, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Nueva (New) School is an independent school serving nearly 1,000 gifted and talented students from 79 Bay Area zip codes. 

The school offers a need-blind admissions process, granting over $6 million in financial aid to Nueva families. Upper School tuition totals between $57,000 and $60,000 annually. 

At the time of this writing, the school advertised 35-45 spaces in the 9th-grade cohort and only 1-3 spaces in grades 10-12: admission is competitive.

Nueva has adopted an interdisciplinary approach to its curriculum. 

Students regularly embark upon excursions to California outdoors and exciting international locations, where community service is often a part of their experiential learning. 

Upper School students can also take advantage of the Nueva Internship Program, which places scholars in one- to eight-week engagements with Bay Area community partners specializing in research, medicine, publishing, technology, and other relevant career subject areas. 

Intersession, which runs in the first week following winter vacation, prompts students to choose from sessions focusing on unique interests like blockchain, beginning ukulele, and conflict management, among many others.

Dr. Richard A. Vladovic Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy (Wilmington, CA)

The result of a collaboration between Los Angeles Harbor College and District 8 of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy (VHTPA) is a four-year Early College high school located on the LA Harbor college campus. 

Some of VHTPA’s program highlights include the Summer Bridge Program for incoming 9th graders, designed to ease their transition to a rigorous high school curriculum. 

Assignment workshops are offered twice weekly in the afternoons, where students have the opportunity to redo poor assignments or seek extra assistance.

Service learning is a critical part of the 9th and 10th-grade curriculum, in which all students complete a Teaching Project

Within their AVID classes, scholars create STEM-based lessons for elementary school students. 

The Teaching Project recently won a $75,000 grant from State Farm Youth Advisory Board for its efforts in closing the achievement gap!

The College Preparatory School (Oakland, CA)

College Preparatory School
Cassiville, College Preparatory School Oakland, CC BY-SA 4.0

A private co-ed high school nestled in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, The College Preparatory School, houses 14 students per class, on average, and employs a faculty and staff in which 86% possess advanced degrees. 

The 370-member student body is highly diverse, and 75% of students participate in the performing arts in some capacity.

Non-credit requirements include three or four years of sports or three years of dance, completion of wellness and decision-making coursework, “life prep” for juniors and seniors, and a 9th-grade Connections and Advisory Program (CAP).

The College Preparatory School features two Applied Studies courses, which merge on-campus classwork with engagement in a six-week laboratory or nonprofit internships. 

The school’s xLab is a makerspace where students can explore facets of design, robotics, and modeling as part of their course curriculum. 

Previous classes have constructed drones, made jewelry, and tested motion-activated model trains using laser cutters, 3D printers, and other engineering tools.

For the 2022-2023 academic year, tuition totaled nearly $52,000, in addition to fees. Over a quarter of enrolled students receive financial aid, with an average grant amounting to over $30,000.

Canyon Crest Academy (San Diego, CA)

Canyon Crest Academy
Docnavi, Front entrance of the Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the newest public high schools in the San Dieguito Union High School District, Canyon Crest runs four daily courses in 90-minute blocks. 

The Envision Conservatory Program is an optional 5th period for sophomores, juniors, and seniors interested in refining their skills in the performing arts. 

Additional clubs dedicated to video production, graphic design, and student governance bring together passionate students from diverse backgrounds.

One of the largest schools on our list of the best high schools in California, Canyon Crest enrolls nearly 2,350 high school students. 

Early College credits are available in subjects like marketing and business management, giving students a boost in their transition to a two- or four-year college or university.

PALs is one of Canyon Crest’s stellar organizations. Students develop leadership skills in active listening and communication to relate to peers regarding social conflicts, anxiety, and managing trauma. 

The Peer-Assistant-Listeners organize events like Stress Less Week and Community Day, among other activities focused on improving mental well-being.

Oxford Academy (Cypress, CA)

Oxford Academy is a public school that partners with Cypress College to provide dual enrollment courses in topics like cybersecurity, counseling, or automotive issues for 1,250+ highly motivated students in grades 7-12. Students focus their studies on one of four career pathways: business, biotechnology, computer science, or engineering.

Admission is competitive and mainly based on standardized test scores and student academic records – more than 900 students pursue one of the approximately 230 openings annually. 

Oxford typically admits the top 35 candidates from each of the school district’s eight public junior high attendance zones and 35 non-district students.

The diverse student body is 60% Asian, 7% White, 7% Filipino/Pacific Islander, and 17% Latinx students. 

Most students come from homes where English is not the primary language, and the student population speaks over 33 different languages. This provides for a vibrant cultural milieu within the school community.

Harvard-Westlake School (Los Angeles, CA)

Harvard-Westlake is a co-ed, independent school serving 1,620 students in grades 7-12. To apply, scholars complete an application and student questionnaire. 

They visit the campus and engage in an admissions interview before completing a 30-minute timed writing exercise. 

Additionally, the admissions committee requires letters of recommendation from a math and English teacher, an administrative recommendation, a transcript, and optional ISEE scores.

The school’s Senior Independent Study grants seniors and faculty advisors the opportunity to collaborate on a shared passion project within the Kutler Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and Independent Research. 

Students can additionally choose from 29 Honor courses and 25 AP courses. As of 2022, Harvard-Westlake caps the semester load for AP courses to two for sophomores, three for juniors, and four for seniors (in an effort to alleviate stress and promote balance).

Many Harvard-Westlake students opt to study away for a semester or year in programs like the Vermont Mountain School, the Maine Coast Semester, or the Colorado High Mountain Institute. 

International programs thrive in countries like France, China, and Italy. Back home, student endeavors are supported by over 2,000 community partners, and students complete nearly 20,000 community service hours annually.

California Academy of Mathematics and Science (Carson, CA)

California Academy of Mathematics and Science
Marcmann15, California Academy of Mathematics and Science, CC BY-SA 4.0

The California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS) is a four-year public high school dedicated to strengthening critical thinking in the mathematics and science realms. 

All 9th-grade students take an introductory course in engineering and computer science. Once sophomores, they take an introductory biotechnology course. 

Once they reach their junior years, students can choose their career pathway for the remaining two years.

Within the biotechnology pathway, students engage in chemistry, physics, and statistics within laboratory settings. Computer science students learn about everything from internet privacy and programming in Java to networking essentials. 

The engineering program is home to a state-of-the-art makerspace where students can access various 3D printers, engravers, lathes, and bandsaws.

CAMS’ reputation is partially built on the success of its competitive robotics teams. 

Team 687, for example, has competed in 48 FIRST Robotics competitions, while the CAMS chapter of VEX Robotics – the most extensive and quickest-growing global robotics program – brings parents, teachers, and students together to design mechanical systems and computer programming. 

CAMS high school students even mentor middle and elementary school students in a summer enrichment program in China!

Henry M. Gunn High School (Palo Alto, CA)

Henry M. Gunn High is a public high school that schedules nine 45-minute periods on Mondays from 7:55 to 4:45, including time for brunch and lunch. 

The schedule converts to four 90-minute blocks on Tuesday/Thursday and five 90-minute blocks on Wednesday/Friday. 

Significant emphasis is placed on experiential learning. Students in grades 9-12 can study criminal and civil law, where they explore controversial cases and participate in mock trials and field trips to courts. In Exploratory Experiences, students engage in unpaid internships under the supervision of an adult mentor in a field of interest. 

Gunn’s Small Learning Community gives 24 9th-grade students a chance to engage in an outdoor adventure program designed to build their leadership abilities, while the Social and Emotional Literacy and Functionality Program (SELF) prompts students to hone their skills in awareness, self-efficacy, and self-management.

Whitney High School (Cerritos, CA)

The best high school in California, Whitney High, is an academic magnet institution serving the ABC Unified School District’s top 15% of 7th-12th graders. 

Admission is based upon several factors, including English and math assessments, writing tests, and GPAs.

An impressive 96% of students pass their AP exams with a score of three or higher. All students take at least six classes each semester, though seniors may reduce their course load to five classes per semester based on their academic progress.

Whitney High just launched the first cohort of its Early College Program in the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Thirty 9th-grade scholars engage in this program, where they can complete lower-division credit requirements through the University of California and/or California State University.

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