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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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Gaby Fernandez loves her high school, despite the neighborhood surrounding it.
The invisible boundaries that demarcate gang turf, the frequent police and ambulance sirens, the media that swarm one moment and are gone the next: These have played as large a role in Gaby's high school experience as algebra class and SAT preparation.
It's not unusual for such criminal activities to worm their way into Aldine High School. Gaby hates it when fights break out. The troublemakers just get in the way.
For Gaby, high school is a refuge from the apathy and lawlessness she witnesses on the streets. Her teachers challenge her. She works hard to meet and exceed their expectations.
"Some teachers are blah-blah-blah boring," says the 18-year-old senior, who plans to attend the University of Houston. "But some really care. They inspire you."
Aldine High, in the Aldine Independent School District, serves more than 2,000 teenagers. Its student body is 90 percent minority and 70 percent poor, and ten percent of its kids arrive with few English-language skills. Despite these challenges, the school produces high graduation rates and test scores with an emphasis on preparing kids for college.
Last May, Newsweek magazine published a list of what it said were the top 1,000 public high schools in the country. No Houston-area school cracked the top 100. After conversations with Dr. Robert Sanborn, now president and CEO of Children At Risk, the Houston Press decided this subject deserved another look.
Children At Risk, a local nonprofit and advocacy organization, put its statistical researchers to work developing a rating system. The system would evaluate the performance of 116 high schools from all 26 independent school districts in Harris and Fort Bend counties, as well as Friendswood and Pearland. The Press then went out to these schools to put a face on the statistics.
The Press prides itself on blowing the lid off stories to show what's wrong. For this story, we peel back the curtain a little to reveal what's right. The result is an inside look at the remarkable, frequently heroic efforts and achievements of local administrators, teachers and students.
Aldine is one of these best schools. It ranked sixth overall and is one of the schools profiled in this issue. Next week the Press will unveil the area's five best public high schools and include a four-tiered system enabling parents and kids to see how their schools stack up.
Private schools weren't included since they're not required to disclose performance-related information to the state.
Our survey illustrates that top-performing schools, such as Aldine, are often located in unlikely places.
"The location and demographic composition of a school has far less of an effect on its performance than expected," says Sanborn, who developed the survey's methodology. "What's important is strong leadership, an openness to try innovative ideas and dedicated teachers immersed in the belief that all students can succeed."
Houston's best schools serve both the affluent and the poor. Some are predominantly white, others racially mixed. Some have thousands of students, others hundreds. Some deal with serious disciplinary problems such as fights and gangs. At others, the most serious offense is a hanging shirttail or an unshaven face. Some administrators promote high school as a time to dabble in everything, while others stress the need to specialize.
Despite these differences, the top ten schools share similarities that ensure their success. They offer rigorous and innovative academic curricula; stress the importance of college; and provide strong, consistent leadership. This is exemplified at Friendswood High, our seventh-ranked school, where the principal began as a teacher and coach a half-century ago.
Smaller schools tended to score well in our survey, especially those with high rates of economically disadvantaged students. The top super-sized high schools, which boast superior athletic programs, often broke students into Smaller Learning Communities, giving them greater individualized attention.
Parental participation is a key ingredient in any school's success. At many white suburban schools, it's the community that drives a school's high expectations. For these kids, it's not a matter of "if" they're going to college, but where.
That's a huge difference from schools with large concentrations of poor students, many of whom have parents who never graduated high school. Since lots of these kids are in single-parent families, where parents sometimes work multiple jobs, getting parents involved is a challenge.
But the best schools find creative ways to reach out to these parents. One school asks parents to sign a pledge that their child will spend a couple of hours each night doing homework, and requests that parents not pressure their child to work a part-time job during the school year.
At Eastwood Academy, which ranks eighth in our survey, the student body is 90 percent poor and almost completely Hispanic. Principal Dr. Rogelio Lopez del Bosque has worked hard to involve the surrounding community by offering adult classes in computer technology and English as a second language. Since most of the families don't own computers, he also keeps the school library open several evenings a week.
"The community wants to participate," Lopez del Bosque says. "Nothing is more important to me than having a parent come in to talk to me."