By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Lopez del Bosque credits the school's success to a dedicated staff driven by the hard reality that every Eastwood graduate is an against-the-odds success story.
"We can no longer give the excuse of being minority and low socioeconomic," Lopez del Bosque says.
"It's all right to be a gardener -- I'm not putting that down," he continues. "A lot of my students, their parents do that. But I want to give them a choice."
9. James E. Taylor High School (Katy ISD)
Total Enrollment: 2,786
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 96.1 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 96 percent
Average SAT Score: 1136 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 6.1 percent
4.9 percent African-American
12.2 percent Asian
9.1 percent Hispanic
73.7 percent white
Educational philosophy: "Attitude is more important that aptitude."
Advice to students: "If you don't expect anything, you won't get anything."
Secret to handling problem kids: "You have to capture their hearts before you can capture their minds."
And, alas, school motto: "Taylor made for success."
Corny? Sure. But, as McDonald says from his wood-paneled office, "At other schools it's not cool to be smart or make good grades. The kids are ashamed to put on an academic patch or get straight As. It's not that way here."
During McDonald's 22-year tenure, the Katy-based school has consistently turned predominantly white, middle-class suburban kids into college-bound scholars.
Taylor is a giant warehouse of a high school, with 2,800 students, 170 teachers, 22 secretaries, eight principals and seven counselors. The academic competition is fierce, and students obsess over how they rank.
Consider Andrew Le. Class president for three years, Andrew has already been accepted to Harvard University and offered a full-tuition academic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. He plans to become a brain surgeon.
And yet Andrew's near-obscene 4.77 grade point average doesn't guarantee that he will be this year's valedictorian. Nearly a dozen of his classmates boast a GPA that falls within one 100th of a point of his.
"At the last ranking," laments 18-year-old senior and varsity cheerleading co-captain Megan Altobelli, "my GPA went up, but my rank went down a couple slots."
Megan doesn't dwell on it too much, though. She was recently accepted by her top-choice school, the United States Military Academy at West Point. She spent a week at the campus during a summer camp offered to juniors.
"I got to fire a howitzer," says Megan, who hopes to become a military officer and have a career in military intelligence.
Choosing schools far from home, Megan and Andrew say they'll miss family and friends. But neither is intimidated about the competitive and demanding institutions they're about to enter.
"Taylor's curriculum is so rigorous," Megan says, "that I know I will be prepared."
10. Kingwood High School (Humble ISD)
Total Enrollment: 3,940
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 94.3 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 85 percent
Average SAT Score: 1117 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 3.3 percent
2.4 percent African-American
3.5 percent Asian
7.8 percent Hispanic
86.1 percent white
Josh Applegate is a varsity yell leader at Kingwood High School.
"I guess you could call us male cheerleaders," he says, "but we're so much more."
Sunk into a couch in the principal's office, Josh slips off his sandals and rests his hairy-toed feet on the carpeted floor.
"I'm gonna do what I love and I'm gonna excel at whatever I choose," asserts the 18-year-old senior, who plans to study Christian theology at Franciscan University in Ohio.
This healthy mix of confidence and entitlement is evident throughout Kingwood. Most students hail from white, well-heeled families in the affluent northeast Houston suburbs. For them college is a birthright.
Still, you'd expect the school's enormous size to create some problems. More than 200 teachers and 3,000 students attend Kingwood -- and that's just for the tenth to 12th grades that constitute the main campus.
At the helm is 39-year-old first-year principal Melissa Hayhurst. Raised in a small East Texas town with 104 teens in her graduating high school class, Hayhurst admits Kingwood intimidated her when she first started as an English teacher back in 1987.
Such fears are no longer detectable as Hayhurst marches through the school, clapping her hands to separate couples lip-locked in the halls. She seems less embarrassed about the smooching teens than the rusty, dented lockers they're leaning against. This summer will begin a two-year, $50 million renovation and expansion of the nearly 30-year-old building.
To help make sure no kid is overlooked, Kingwood five years ago implemented the federal education program Smaller Learning Communities. According to this model, students are assigned to assistant principals who counsel them throughout their high school careers. "We make sure all 3,200 kids are connected," Hayhurst says.
Kingwood's huge student body has helped earn the school an enviable reputation as a sports powerhouse, winning state titles in basketball, swimming, tennis, baseball and track.
The school also boasts more than 100 clubs. Quirkier ones include the Surfing Society, whose members have taken early-morning field trips to Galveston Bay, and the Really, Really Ridiculously Good-Looking Club, which hosts fundraiser fashion shows and donates the money to charities.
"School today is a lot more than just geometry and English," Hayhurst says. "It's not about making the A; it's about learning about yourself and what you're good at."
Kathryn Trappey, an 18-year-old senior and standout choral singer, says Kingwood offers the perfect balance of rigorous academics and wide-ranging extracurricular activities.
"People compare Kingwood to a good private school," says Kathryn, who hopes to attend Notre Dame this fall. "The only difference is here it's free."