Thank you all for the thought provoking responses.
Yes, this is a very good point about practices. Many times, I'd show up to pick up DD from cross-country practice and would have to wait, or I'd get there and she would have finished 20 minutes early. It wasn't a big deal--everyone needs to be flexible, but it is a factor to consider.
Ramona Mom to 2 great kids and wife to one wonderful hubby since 1990!
We just went through this process last year with our son. My only suggestion is that you drive the route to his top choice schools (or your top choice schools) during rush hour a few times. My son's top pick, and the school he ended up going to, was a 45 minute commute each way on a good day. Our daughter also applied to the same school and was accepted very late in the game. When they started in Sept., I thought I would lose my mind. Sometimes it could take as long as 70 minutes for me to get home. Needless to say, we ended up moving to be closer to the school.
It's not just about the academics and the good fit; family life matters, too!
I agree that quality of life is an important factor, but more so for the kid than the parent, unfortunately. ;)
Our oldest transferred to a single-sex Catholic HS at the start of 10th grade.
We went through this a couple years ago and are now going through it again. Our local high school wasn't an option and so we went through the ringer digging up as many other options as we could find. We landed at a performing arts magnet after an intense audition process that my DD really wanted to attend and we drive her 20 miles away to go there freshman and now sophomore years. However, while it's not a "bad" situation, DD has really grown and matured and honestly, ready for much more. So, we are at it again. At least this time, the ideal situation is clear and closer to home (and only available to juniors and seniors so something we couldn't have considered a couple years ago.) However, it is a dual high school/college program and takes references, essays, interviews, testing. We're also still hunting for a "back-up" and so all sorts of different paperwork to be done.
Don't discount convenience. Quality of life is something really important to consider. DH and my DD have to be up at 5:30am to get to school and it's tough... really tough... especially for a theatre girl who spends hours a day in rehearsals and often late nights. Teens need sleep and if they have to be up at 5:30, I guaruntee they aren't getting enough. Plus, if your child is not passionate to go where they are waking up early to get too, well, it's that much harder. I gave up my part-time job in order to be able to get her afterschool and to her activities (and we have a middle schooler in the mix too.) It's a sacrifice we can afford to make but still, when you are making a sacrifice to get your child to a special school, your expectations are much higher because you are all working that much harder to make it work.