By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The yarn begins in the late '50s, when Kennedy earned her sheepskin from the University of Houston and went searching for a coaching position. "Houston high schools didn't offer girls' sports back then," she says.
Friendswood was a mostly rural Quaker community located 25 miles south of downtown Houston in northwest Galveston County. Its high school served 50 students, with all 12 grades housed in the same building.
"At that time," Kennedy reminisces, "Friendswood had one grocery store, one feed store, one service station and a malt shop that was open when they wanted to open it, and that was it."
Kennedy landed her first job at Friendswood as a sixth- and seventh-grade science and history teacher, and coached girls' athletics. Her varsity girls' basketball teams won the district championship all nine years that she coached. In the late '70s Kennedy became an assistant principal, a position she held for 25 years before recently assuming the top post.
In all, she's spent 47 years at Friendswood. Her goal is to make it an even 50.
Kennedy embodies the notion that consistency creates strong schools.
Of course, much has changed since her arrival. The school, along with the Friendswood area, boomed when the space center moved in. Today there are computers in every classroom and even a portable, wireless computer lab.
But the surnames of many students remain the same. Several second- and third-generation families send their kids to Friendswood. Some of Kennedy's former students now have grandchildren who attend the school. Two of the five assistant principals are former students.
"We have teachers who taught the teachers who teach now," says 17-year-old senior Caitlin Hales, sounding like Dr. Seuss.
Coupled with this tradition is Friendswood's long-held reputation for academic excellence.
The school has won 13 continuous state championships in the Texas Academic Decathlon. Last year it graduated five National Merit Finalists. A bit of trivia: Three current members of the Texas House of Representatives -- Suzanne Gratia Hupp, Larry Taylor and Dan Gattis -- all are Friendswood alumni.
The school also offers top-notch athletic programs; its sports teams make the playoffs most years. But students know the way to Kennedy's heart is by participating in the annual 100-member cast, all-school musical, which she has led for 38 years.
"High school is the last time you can experience many different things," Kennedy says. "In college you become a specialist. High school's a time to find out what you like, what your interests are."
8. Eastwood Academy High School (Houston ISD)
Total Enrollment: 252
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 86 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 75 percent
Average SAT Score: 809 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 89.7 percent
1.2 percent African-American
0.4 percent Asian
96.8 percent Hispanic
1.6 percent white
Sick of the misconceptions, Dr. Rogelio Lopez del Bosque is eager to set the record straight about Eastwood Academy.
"Just because we're a little, itty-bitty school with minority children who don't wear uniforms," says Lopez del Bosque, an educator for more than 30 years and Eastwood's principal since 2003, "people immediately assume we're a school for problem kids."
Rather, Eastwood is a college prep school that's boosting expectations for all Houston inner-city students. Run out of a converted church, Eastwood caters almost exclusively to low-income, Hispanic children living in the city's tough Near East End.
Its students are primarily children of Mexican and Central American immigrants who never graduated from high school. With just 60 kids per grade, the school fosters a safe, intimate environment in a neighborhood that's been carefully platted into gang turf.
Since Eastwood offers no bus transportation, most kids either walk or bike to school, lending it a quality that's unexpectedly old-fashioned and wholesome.
One of 17 charter schools operated with approval from the HISD Board of Education, Eastwood has the flexibility to create a nontraditional learning environment that meets the unique needs of its students.
For instance, when Eastwood opened nine years ago, the school day began at 9 a.m. in order to accommodate kids who worked the night shift to help support their families.
The entire school breaks for lunch together, and kids are free to strum guitars in the halls, play soccer in a grassy plot across the street or just slouch against their lockers and page through paperbacks.
Lopez del Bosque describes it as a refuge for shy, introspective children who would be eaten alive at Texas-sized public schools such as Austin High, located less than a half-mile down the road.
"We still pick on freshman," says 18-year-old senior Arely Cervantes, "but it's never mean."
Lopez del Bosque has worked hard to involve parents by offering adult-learning classes and keeping the school library open three evenings a week. Parents show their appreciation by volunteering at the school and treating faculty members to their home cooking.
"It's not unusual for a dozen tamales to appear in the morning, a tray of pupusas in the afternoon," says Lopez del Bosque, who keeps mariachi music playing at a low volume inside his office.
To continue as one of Houston's elite schools, Eastwood faces many challenges. Because of recent cuts in small-school subsidies, Lopez del Bosque complains, budgetary constraints force him to rely heavily on corporate donations and grants in order to bring new technologies into the school.