That's what the Houston Press/Children at Risk survey of area schools found in an evaluation of 116 public high schools from independent school districts in Harris and Fort Bend counties, as well as Friendswood and Pearland.
Children At Risk, a nonprofit advocacy group, came up with the methodology and crunched the numbers to produce the rating system. The Press then visited each top-ranked school, chatting up students and roaming the halls in search of what makes these schools tick.
Last week, the Press featured the schools in the sixth through tenth positions ("Houston's Best Public High Schools," by Todd Spivak, February 23). This week it continues its countdown of the ten best public high schools in the area, profiling schools ranked one through five.
Click here for a complete list of schools included in our survey. Only the top ten schools receive numerical rankings. The rest are divided into tiers and ordered alphabetically. Click here to see the also-rans.
At DeBakey, school is more than solving equations and memorizing the periodic table. Students learn to apply their knowledge. They shadow professionals in the Medical Center and learn to speak their jargon. They study dentistry, learn to draw blood and earn certifications in CPR and first aid.
Even gym class isn't just about trying to bruise other kids with a rubber ball.
"We learn about health and diet and how our muscles move," says 17-year-old senior Benedict Ifedi, who is torn between becoming a family physician and a surgeon.
DeBakey muscled its way to the top of an elite group of schools by posting near-perfect statewide test scores, SAT scores that rank among the highest anywhere and sending virtually all its graduates to college.
It narrowly edged out another magnet school from Houston ISD: The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the runner-up in our survey.
Both DeBakey and HSPVA are tough as nails to get into. Each year they admit fewer than 25 percent of applicants from throughout the Houston area.
"It's a privilege to go to this school; we all understand that," says HSPVA senior Imani Harris-Johnson, who aspires to become a Broadway actress.
At HSPVA, budding art students are taught by professional artists with decades of worldly experience. Every teacher is a potential mentor.
The school fosters an environment that's strict yet creative, competitive yet nurturing.
"There's a big difference between me and teenagers from other schools," says Tassity Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at HSPVA. "Not only do I have to keep up with my regular classes, but I have to think about who I am as an artist."
Coming in at No. 3 is YES College Preparatory School, which helps at-risk, inner-city kids become college-bound scholars. Memorial High School in Spring Branch ISD and Clements High School in Fort Bend ISD, a pair of suburban schools that manage to exceed the enormous expectations of their communities, placed fourth and fifth, respectively.
Students at the top ten schools featured in our survey each year net tens of millions of dollars in scholarship offers from elite colleges across the country. The schools boast dedicated administrators and teachers who emphasize discipline, innovation and achievement. They're the best Houston has to offer.
See for yourself:
1. Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions
Total Enrollment: 706
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 100 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 85 percent
Average SAT Score: 1161 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 50.3 percent
36.4 percent African-American
30.2 percent Asian
25.9 percent Hispanic
7.1 percent white
It wasn't Mackenzi Green's idea to attend Houston's best high school.
"My mother sent me here," Mackenzi says. "When I was 12 I made the mistake of saying I wanted to be a doctor."
A year later Mackenzi enrolled in the summer math academy at Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions, located in the Texas Medical Center. The school requires all students to complete five years of math in four years.
The program was tough for Mackenzi: lots of homework, not much social life. And the two-and-a-half-hour bus commute from Pleasantville was a drag.
But Mackenzi hung in. Her studies, which mixed traditional academics with practical experience, captivated her.
In tenth grade Mackenzi became licensed in first aid and CPR. In 11th grade she learned to draw blood, enabling her to work as a phlebotomist. She studied dentistry, basic nursing skills and spent weeks shadowing a veterinarian.