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 competition in our school is very intense," Justin says. "Sometimes the pressure is too much; it can be overwhelming.
"My freshman year I kind of slacked off," he continues dreamily. "I've been trying to make up for it ever since."
Memorial consistently produces the highest SAT scores in Spring Branch ISD, graduates multiple valedictorians and turns out an unusually high rate of scholar-athletes. Defying the dumb-jock stereotype, four varsity football players are in the top 5 percent of this year's senior class.
The school ranked 133 in Newsweek's May 2005 report of the country's best high schools. "The publicity from the article built confidence for people who may think private schools are better," says four-year principal Stephen Shorter.
But families in the area, located ten miles west of downtown Houston, don't need a magazine to validate what they already know. Many students' parents who graduated from Memorial returned to the area to ensure their children receive a similarly top-notch education.
"Most of our parents, they're professionals," Shorter says. "They're doctors and CEOs of companies and bankers and lawyers."
The school at last has a building to match the quality of its programs. Last January wrapped up a two-year, $16 million renovation of the school, which now includes a state-of-the-art auditorium, black-box theater and new gymnasium.
At Memorial, Shorter says, it's the school's job to fulfill the expectation for excellence that begins at home:
"Our recipe for success is built into the culture of the community."
5. Clements High School (Fort Bend ISD) • Total Enrollment: 2,308
• TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 95.8 percent
• Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 89 percent
• Average SAT Score: 1161 (out of 1600)
• Economically Disadvantaged: 2.6 percent
• Demographic Breakdown:
3.6 percent African-American
38.6 percent Asian
5.1 percent Hispanic
52.5 percent white
The four hours Priya Gandhi spends each week shadowing doctors in a hospital emergency room are thrilling, nerve-racking, emotionally draining and addictive.
She's witnessed shooting victims, failed suicide attempts and raving psychotics, all while hungrily absorbing the lingo employed by nurses. "Code blue," she knows, stands for heart attack or cardiac arrest. "BS patients" is how they refer to the uninsured, who use the ER as if it were their family practitioner's office.
The 17-year-old senior at Clements High School in Sugar Land hangs out in the ER each week as part of her Scientific Research and Design class, an exclusive and highly coveted course that requires students to pass an admissions test to enroll.
It's the student's responsibility to select and recruit a mentor, who doesn't always agree to participate. And that's just part of the real-life lesson the class intends to impart.
"The students have to go out and knock on doors and talk to medical professionals," 31-year veteran teacher Doug Ronnenkamp says. "For some, it's the first time they have to deal with rejection."
It's helped Priya, an aspiring premed student, to discern a career path. Before taking the class, she wanted to work in a medical clinic. But that sort of environment may be too tame for her. She prefers the manic energy of the ER.
"This class is one of the best things that's ever happened to me," she says. "It's given me experience in the medical field. And I've learned a lot about life itself."
Clements boasts a well-deserved reputation for stellar academics. The teachers are experts in their fields: More than 40 percent of faculty members hold advanced degrees. Students score off the charts on statewide tests and choose from 26 advanced-placement courses ranging from macroeconomics to European history to studio art 3-D design.
Last year the school produced 17 National Merit Society finalists. Nearly all Clements students pursue postsecondary education in two- or four-year universities.
The school also offers excellent athletic programs. The baseball team won the district championship last year, and the boys' and girls' golf teams were district runners-up.
Clements has benefited from the recent construction of new high schools in Fort Bend ISD, a trend that continues as the district plans to open a tenth campus. This has enabled Clements to substantially decrease enrollment, which dropped to about 2,300 from nearly 3,000 a decade ago, and to escape the trouble faced by similar schools whose populations grow to unmanageable proportions.
In addition to top-notch academics and innovative teaching methods, Clements places a premium on imbuing its graduates with a sense of social and ethical responsibility. The school recently adopted an honor code to combat cheating and academic dishonesty. Students must conduct 125 hours of community service to be recognized at graduation.