These Kids Go to the Best Public High School in Houston

This week: Our first- through fifth-place finishers

"There's a strong correlation between academic and artistic achievement," says Karpicke, a professional violist and conductor. "English, math and social studies teachers are expected to be gurus, too."

According to Karpicke, roughly 40 percent of HSPVA graduates pursue preprofessional art programs at two- and four-year colleges. But, he says, even those who go on to become doctors, lawyers and engineers remain deeply committed to the arts.

"We don't say everybody needs to be professional artists," Karpicke says. "We want our graduates to be lifelong artists."

Lacking an indoor gymnasium, students at YES College Prep run laps in the school parking lot.
Daniel Kramer
Lacking an indoor gymnasium, students at YES College Prep run laps in the school parking lot.
Aspiring premed student Priya Gandhi spent several hours each week in a hospital emergency room as part of a class offered at Clements High.
Daniel Kramer
Aspiring premed student Priya Gandhi spent several hours each week in a hospital emergency room as part of a class offered at Clements High.

3. YES College Preparatory School (state charter)

• Total Enrollment: 646
• TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 93.9 percent
• Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 88 percent
• Average SAT Score: 1042 (out of 1600)
• Economically Disadvantaged: 71.1 percent
• Demographic Breakdown:
5.0 percent African-American
1.1 percent Asian
92.3 percent Hispanic
1.7 percent white

Jacob Wells can't relate to the kids on his block.

"I ask friends from my neighborhood," the 18-year-old says, "'What are you going to do out of high school?' They say, ' don't know, get a job.'"

Disgusted, Jacob shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

"It's difficult to talk with kids from other schools about academics," he says. "They're not on the same level."

Jacob is going to college. He's not sure where yet, but he's going. The importance of postsecondary education has been drilled into him since he first enrolled at YES College Preparatory School in the seventh grade. Every YES student must gain admission into a four-year university in order to graduate, according to the school's charter.

Each year YES sends students on free, extended field trips to tour the nation's top universities. Jacob has visited more than two dozen campuses in several states. He keeps two drawers stuffed with college information.

During senior year, kids meet weekly with a counselor to discuss everything from SAT preparation to scholarship and financial aid applications. YES has one college counselor for every 30 students.

Jacob's attitude – prevalent in affluent white suburban schools – is unusual in a school where nearly three quarters of the kids are poor, 97 percent are African-American or Hispanic and most parents are first-generation immigrants with no secondary education. But, then, YES is not a run-of-the-mill inner-city public high school.

Founded in 1998, YES is the brainchild of 35-year-old Chris Barbic, a Georgia native who came to Houston as part of Teach for America, which recruits college grads to teach in rural or inner-city schools. Assigned to Rusk Elementary in Houston ISD, Barbic became frustrated watching his sixth-graders move on to chaotic, low-performing middle schools where many joined gangs, got pregnant or dropped out.

Barbic rounded up the best teachers he could find and started his own sixth- to 12th-grade program that catered specifically to low-income, minority youths.

Today YES, which stands for Youth Engaged in Service, has three campuses and this year will graduate its sixth class. It's the only charter school system in Texas to earn a TEA Exemplary or Recognized rating every year of operation. It's also the only school of its kind in Houston to offer a college-preparatory program.

Admission is based on a lottery system. The school enrolls some 1,000 students from 80 different zip codes across Houston.

"We're not creaming from the top," Barbic says. "We're building some of the best-educated students in Houston."

The expectations are high, the curriculum demanding.

Kids attend class for nine hours each weekday, four hours on Saturdays and one month during the summer. They're expected to spend two to three hours a night completing homework assignments.

The school's motto: Whatever it takes.

The program's success challenges several accepted notions about what makes schools work.

For instance, the average class size at YES is larger than what's generally recommended, and most of the teachers have fewer than ten years' classroom experience.

The school receives scant parental involvement since many families are led by single parents who often work multiple jobs. Barbic and other administrators ask parents to support the school simply by not pressuring the kids to work part-time jobs.

The YES campuses comprise several drab modular units. The high school parking lot also serves as a gymnasium, and kids can be seen on late afternoons jogging between rows of cars.

Despite all these factors, students excel.

"They don't want to disappoint us," Barbic says.

Antwonette Hobbs, a 16-year-old sophomore, only wishes her siblings could attend as well.

"My older brother. He's not looking to the future," Antwonette says. "His high school isn't really preparing him for college. But he sees how I'm flourishing in my education, so maybe I can influence him."

4. Memorial High School (Spring Branch ISD)

• Total Enrollment: 2,225
• TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 94.1 percent
• Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 81 percent
• Average SAT Score: 1165 (out of 1600)
• Economically Disadvantaged: 10.7 percent
• Demographic Breakdown:
1.5 percent African-American
11.7 percent Asian
14.1 percent Hispanic
72.6 percent white

In addition to a full boat of classes, including three advanced-placement courses, Justin Karnes participates in the Memorial High School band, musical theater program and chess club.

"It's like trying to juggle while riding a unicycle," says the garrulous 18-year-old senior.

Justin's class rank falls just below the top quarter of students. Despite heroic efforts, he fears this statistic will result in rejection letters from his top college picks: Stanford University and the University of Virginia.

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