If you were to pick a high school to attend, the six-decade old Skyline High School might not make the best first impression.

Its floors have been stripped down to the concrete due to asbestos mitigation work. The 62-year-old school has a persistently leaky roof, outdated systems and a California design not compatible with school safety practices.

And yet, Skyline has become school of choice for students and their families. More than half of the 2,150 students who attend the Granite District school live outside its boundaries.

“There’s nothing by design. No one is manufacturing this enrollment. It just comes,” said principal Mitch Nerdin.

It is also a school of choice among faculty. Just one teacher opted not to return to Skyline this fall, Nerdin said.

Outward appearances aside, Skyline is flying high academically, so much so that it is part of the national conversation regarding the top high schools in the nation.

According to the latest U.S. News & World Reports rankings, Skyline is the top-ranked traditional high school in Utah. It earned an overall score of 97.1 out of 100, which took into account its 96% graduation rate, 69% of students who take at least one Advanced Placement exam and 55% who passed at least one AP exam among other factors.

Students walk through Skyline High School in Millcreek on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“This year’s rankings, we’ve surpassed a whole bunch of charter schools we’ve been behind, which in my mind is very special because we have no business passing them because charter schools, despite what the law says, they kind of can handpick their kids. Their ‘n-size’ is very small. So you can really get in and help 50 kids, right? But we’ve got 10 times that in a graduating class, 11 times that, and we take who comes,” he said.

Only Beehive Science and Technology Academy ranked higher than Skyline but by just five-tenths of a point at 97.66. The public charter school serves 170 students in grades 9-12.

While Skyline may be perceived within the Granite District as “that privileged east side school,” its culture differs from other schools in affluent ZIP codes because more than half of the student body comes from elsewhere, Nerdin said.

“When we compare apples-to-apples, there’s a whole bunch of schools that have a socioeconomics like us and they’re not pulling it off,” he said.

Syd Lott, who is a Skyline alum and a member of its faculty, said several factors contribute to the school’s success.

“The general vibe of the school is, ‘Being nerdy is cool’ and there’s a lot of peer pressure,” said Lott, who teaches AP psychology, which has the highest enrollment schoolwide for an “elective” course.

Peer pressure is not exerted over manner of dress or what kind of car a student drives but over how many Advanced Placement classes they take, he said.

If someone says “None,” friends will ask “What’s wrong with you?” Lott said.

Sixty-five percent of Skyline students take an AP class their freshman year, he said.

The average Skyline student “takes like 1.7 tests so we basically take two tests per kid. Not everybody does but lots of kids take four, five or six,” Lott said.

One senior graduating this year with the highest academic honors took 14 AP tests. “She works two jobs and actually is pretty chill,” said Lott.

The study body has a college-going ethos so most students are willing to do the work that helps them succeed in school and gain acceptance to selective colleges and universities.

That culture is embraced by the vast majority of Skyline students. Students in its Advancement Via Individual Determination or AVID program, an in-school academic college prep support program for students who would be first-generation college students, regularly ask Lott what it will take for them to get into college and succeed.

Their attitude is “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it,” said Lott, who leads the program.

Lott credits Skyline for setting him up for success. He moved frequently as a child because his father had trouble keeping a job. At times, his family lived with family members in the Skyline boundaries and for brief periods would attend its feeder schools. Even then, Lott recognized that the schools were “better” than the schools he had come from and he eventually moved in with his grandmother.

He graduated from Skyline with a full-ride scholarship to Weber State University, which set him on a path to becoming an educator.

Nerdin says the school’s International Baccalaureate program is a magnet and “has really pushed us up to the top.”

The IB program, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is an internationally recognized program for academically advanced and highly motivated students.

“I’m sure West (High) people would tell you that this is not true but I think we’re the premier IB school. It’s run very well. It’s very successful. The rate of the attrition is low and what we’ve been doing recently to try to grow it is new, as well. So I think that coupled with the AP classes is what sets us apart,” Nerdin said.

Another measure of its academic prowess is that three of the past four years, the Wasatch Front’s top Sterling Scholar has been a Skyline student. This year’s winner, Dallin Soukup, achieved perfect scores on his ACT and SAT tests and plans to study astrophysics in college.

Ask most Utahns what they know about Skyline and “I think that people outside the county are still rooted in ‘Oh, that’s that really good football school,’ “ Nerdin said.

Skyline has not won a state football championship in several years but Nerdin boasts that it excels in swimming, golf, tennis, soccer, basketball and volleyball and debate, among other activities. Last year, Skyline was recognized as the Deseret News’ All-Sports Award winner for 5A schools.

Alumni tell Nerdin they would like to see Skyline to return to its former glory on the football field. “Of course we’re striving for that — and a whole lot more,” he said.

Nerdin said he is particularly proud of rising test scores, which suggest the faculty — and students — are not resting on their laurels.

Skyline has switched its freshman English courses to “honors for all,” he said. “We obviously scaffold and support every kid, but our scores have come up.”

Nerdin said he tells the faculty, “We have to maintain high rigor and make learning easy. It should be an easy process to learn really hard things,” he said.

As the school year comes to a close, Nerdin is focused on graduation and the move to Skyline’s new academic building slated to open next fall. For a while, teachers will be sharing classrooms and about a dozen portable classrooms will be in use. The construction is expected to continue for 2½ more years.

Once the new Skyline opens its doors to students, Nerdin said he anticipates there will be another swell in enrollment because students will want the best of both worlds, modern school facilities and a robust academic experience.

When he was appointed principal of Skyline four years ago, Nerdin said he worried about shrinking school enrollment in Utah that in some districts has resulted in school closures.

“I was like ‘What do we do to keep this going? And then Doug Bingham, my predecessor says, ‘You don’t have to do anything. They will just keep coming.’ And they do. They keep enrolling like crazy,” Nerdin said.