Few aspects of Business First's school rankings are totally predictable, yet the top-rated high school seemed to be. Nardin Academy High School was No. 1 for seven years after the separate standings of public and private schools were combined in 2007.
But that's no longer the case. Buffalo's City Honors School has edged past Nardin to take first place in 2014.
City Honors, which attracts high-powered students from all corners of Buffalo, posted the best Regents diploma rate in the eight-county region in 2013, the latest year for which official figures are available. Fully 96.3 percent of its graduates earned Regents diplomas with advanced designations, which are awarded to students who pass at least eight Regents exams.
No other Western New York high school had a rate better than 91.2 percent. The regional average for advanced diplomas in all public and private schools was 43.4 percent.
WESTERN NEW YORK HIGH SCHOOL LINK:
• Top-to-bottom high school rankings.
• Slideshow of the top 100 high schools.
• Profiles of all high schools.
• Subject awards for high schools.
• Explanation of how the ratings were done.
• List of unranked high schools.
"The taxpayers have invested in us as a magnet school, and we want to be worthy of that investment," says William Kresse, the principal at City Honors. "The No. 1 thing is that every student here should be challenged to the fullest. And I think we've been successful at that."
City Honors is no stranger to first place. It was rated as the best public high school every year from 1997 to 2006 before slipping to No. 2 when private schools were added to the mix in 2007. It dropped as low as fifth in 2009 and 2010 before bouncing back to second place two years ago.
Nardin, which finds itself in the unaccustomed position of runner-up, is just 0.41 points behind City Honors on Business First's 100-point rating scale. Its second-place finish breaks a 12-year streak on top, which began with No. 1 ratings on the private school lists from 2002 to 2006.
Nardin, a Catholic all-girls school in Buffalo, is known for its exceptionally high Regents diploma rates, and it delivered again last year. Advanced designations were awarded to 89.7 percent of its grads, more than doubling the Western New York average.
But the competition is getting stronger. Nardin's rate was virtually the same (91.2 percent) in 2007, when only four other schools in the region topped 70 percent. But nine Western New York schools reached that threshold last year, and four were above 85 percent.
"You're seeing more and more students at the public or private level who are interested in college," says Rebecca Reeder, Nardin's principal. "And with the cost of college going up, more and more students are looking for scholarships. So the interest in high achievement is going up, too."
Business First analyzed graduation rates and test scores for 135 high schools across the region, using four years of data collected by the New York State Education Department.
Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school in Amherst, is third in the current standings, the same position it held a year ago. It's followed by No. 4 East Aurora High School and No. 5 Mount St. Mary Academy.
Twenty-one of the top 25 high schools are located in Erie County. The exceptions are Maple Grove (13th), Lewiston-Porter (15th), Notre Dame of Batavia (17th) and Alfred-Almond (25th). All but Lewiston-Porter have fewer than 250 students from ninth through 12th grade.
Joseph Scanlan, the principal at Notre Dame, says his school's record proves that location and size are not barriers to success.
"We do it the old-fashioned way with expectations and hard work," he says. "There are a lot of normal kids here -- some who struggle, some who have disabilities -- but we expect them to take on as much as they can handle. Our classes are challenging, and we hold our students accountable."
Business First rates not only the overall academic records of high schools, but also their performances in four core subjects, based on test scores from 2010 to 2013:
City Honors is the top-rated high school in social studies and science. "We have enhanced our science facilities tremendously," says Kresse. "They are state of the art. They're twice the size of what they were. Now, that's only part of the equation, but we're definitely seeing a payoff."
Nardin leads the other two fields, mathematics and English/foreign languages. "Nardin Academy has always been very strong in that realm," Reeder says of the latter category. "We've always put a strong emphasis on writing. It's a point of pride for us."
Twenty-six schools have earned subject awards this year, indicating that they rank among the top 10 percent of Western New York's high schools in at least one of the core fields.
Five schools have pulled clean sweeps of all four awards: City Honors, East Aurora, Nardin, Sacred Heart and Williamsville North.
Regents exams are not compulsory for private schools. Among those that do not participate in the statewide testing program are Buffalo Seminary, Canisius High School, Nichols School and Park School of Buffalo.
Business First does not rate schools that aren't on the Regents track, since it lacks the objective data to assess their academic records.