These Kids Go to the Best Public High School in Houston

This week: Our first- through fifth-place finishers

Ask 17-year-old Mackenzi what she wants to be when she grows up and she'll tell you, precisely, "I love chemistry and I love kids, so I want to be a pediatric anesthesiologist."

Mackenzi hopes to be accepted into the Houston Premedical Academy, a partnership among DeBakey, the University of Houston and Baylor College of Medicine. Every year as many as ten DeBakey students earn eight-year, full-tuition scholarships to study medicine at the two institutions.

DeBakey's innovative magnet program has won state, national and international acclaim.

Dr. Charlesetta Deason oversees a diverse student body at DeBakey High, where flags are displayed to represent the wide range of nationalities.
Daniel Kramer
Dr. Charlesetta Deason oversees a diverse student body at DeBakey High, where flags are displayed to represent the wide range of nationalities.
Thirty-five-year-old Christopher Barbic's state charter school program has been hailed as a model throughout the nation.
Daniel Kramer
Thirty-five-year-old Christopher Barbic's state charter school program has been hailed as a model throughout the nation.

In 1998 and 2003 the U.S. Department of Education designated DeBakey a Blue Ribbon School. In 2004 the National Association of Secondary School Principals recognized it as a "Breakthrough High School," and the International Center for Leadership in Education named it a "National Model School."

The Texas Education Agency has designated it an Exemplary school every year since 1994. DeBakey consistently produces the highest attendance rates and SAT scores in Houston ISD. The school has three sister campuses in Texas: in Corpus Christi, Laredo and Mercedes.

DeBakey accepts students from middle schools throughout Houston. Selection is based on interest in health sciences, previous academic performance and standardized test scores. Each year the school receives 1,200 applications and accepts 250.

The school also reserves a few spots for kids living outside Houston. Affluent families from Clear Lake, Pasadena, Pearland and Sugar Land have proved eager to fork over the $7,300 out-of-district tuition fee.

"A lot of parents would rather pay tuition for their children to come to DeBakey than for private school," says principal Dr. Charlesetta Deason.

The school, named for the pioneer heart surgeon, who is 97 and lives in Houston, has had just two principals since it opened in 1972. Deason has served in the top post for 16 years.

The school boasts a diverse student body, half of whom come from poor households. The more than 50 flags hanging in the first-floor hallway represent the nationalities of its students. Though there are more than 50 clubs, kids who want to compete in athletics must go to their zoned schools.

Of course, DeBakey's program isn't for everyone. Some students can't handle the pressure, while others find it all-consuming.

"About 30 kids left my first week of school," Mackenzi recalls.

But Deason says DeBakey grads are receiving elite preparation to compete in the new global economy. She plans to introduce higher-level science classes such as nanotechnology and bioengineering, and to fill classrooms with state-of-the-art equipment.

"Kids working in the 21st century are so technology-based," Deason says. "Public schools have not kept up to maximize their abilities.

"I irritate my faculty by saying we're not where we want to be" she adds. "But we cannot rest on our laurels."

2. The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
(Houston ISD)

• Total Enrollment: 671
• TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 97.8 percent
• Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 89 percent
• Average SAT Score: 1139 (out of 1600)
• Economically Disadvantaged: 12.7 percent
• Demographic Breakdown:
21.9 percent African-American
4.2 percent Asian
17.4 percent Hispanic
0.1 percent Native American
56.3 percent white

Tassity Johnson, take a bow.

The 17-year-old high school senior was recently named among the top 160 artists in the United States by the prestigious National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, which also nominated her for its 2006 Presidential Scholar in the Arts award.

This fall Tassity hopes to begin studying psychiatry and visual arts at Duke University.

But four years ago, when Tassity compiled all her canvases and stood fidgeting before a panel of judges, she was just another anxious teen praying to be accepted into The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

"I felt horrible about my first audition," Tassity recalls. "Everybody else's drawings looked better than mine."

At this moment, hundreds of teenagers throughout Houston are on pins and needles hoping to receive callbacks from HSPVA, which each year auditions some 800 kids and accepts 175.

The process can be grueling. Parents aren't allowed inside to watch as their kids dance, paint, deliver monologues or showcase their musical talents in a setting reminiscent of the film Fame.

The high-pressure environment doesn't end with an acceptance letter, either. Every semester HSPVA students must withstand a portfolio review in which they lay out what they've produced, how they've improved, why they attend the school and what they hope to accomplish in their high school careers.

The result is a mature, independent and self-possessed student body.

"Our kids want to be here," says 11-year principal Dr. Herbert Karpicke. "They want to be here very badly."

Started in 1971, HSPVA is one of Houston's oldest magnet schools and has served as a model for other similarly specialized programs throughout the country.

The teachers are professional artists who not only inspire students with their own works but offer practical advice on interviewing techniques, creating portfolios, marketing their work and how to survive in big cities as the archetypal starving artist.

HSPVA's graduates include Mark Seliger, chief photographer for Rolling Stone and Us magazines; Kendrick Scott, a professional drummer whose music was featured in the 2004 Spike Lee film She Hate Me; Renee O'Connor, an actress with a role on Xena: Warrior Princess; and of course singer-actress-diva Beyoncé Knowles.

The Montrose-based school is also getting it done academically, an impressive feat since students are screened solely on artistic talent and training. Last September the U.S. Department of Education named HSPVA a No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon School for academic excellence.

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