Gaby Fernandez loves her high school, despite the neighborhood surrounding it.
The invisible boundaries that demarcate gang turf, the frequent police and ambulance sirens, the media that swarm one moment and are gone the next: These have played as large a role in Gaby's high school experience as algebra class and SAT preparation.
Public high schools
It's not unusual for such criminal activities to worm their way into Aldine High School. Gaby hates it when fights break out. The troublemakers just get in the way.
For Gaby, high school is a refuge from the apathy and lawlessness she witnesses on the streets. Her teachers challenge her. She works hard to meet and exceed their expectations.
"Some teachers are blah-blah-blah boring," says the 18-year-old senior, who plans to attend the University of Houston. "But some really care. They inspire you."
Aldine High, in the Aldine Independent School District, serves more than 2,000 teenagers. Its student body is 90 percent minority and 70 percent poor, and ten percent of its kids arrive with few English-language skills. Despite these challenges, the school produces high graduation rates and test scores with an emphasis on preparing kids for college.
Last May, Newsweek magazine published a list of what it said were the top 1,000 public high schools in the country. No Houston-area school cracked the top 100. After conversations with Dr. Robert Sanborn, now president and CEO of Children At Risk, the Houston Press decided this subject deserved another look.
Children At Risk, a local nonprofit and advocacy organization, put its statistical researchers to work developing a rating system. The system would evaluate the performance of 116 high schools from all 26 independent school districts in Harris and Fort Bend counties, as well as Friendswood and Pearland. The Press then went out to these schools to put a face on the statistics.
The Press prides itself on blowing the lid off stories to show what's wrong. For this story, we peel back the curtain a little to reveal what's right. The result is an inside look at the remarkable, frequently heroic efforts and achievements of local administrators, teachers and students.
Aldine is one of these best schools. It ranked sixth overall and is one of the schools profiled in this issue. Next week the Press will unveil the area's five best public high schools and include a four-tiered system enabling parents and kids to see how their schools stack up.
Private schools weren't included since they're not required to disclose performance-related information to the state.
Our survey illustrates that top-performing schools, such as Aldine, are often located in unlikely places.
"The location and demographic composition of a school has far less of an effect on its performance than expected," says Sanborn, who developed the survey's methodology. "What's important is strong leadership, an openness to try innovative ideas and dedicated teachers immersed in the belief that all students can succeed."
Houston's best schools serve both the affluent and the poor. Some are predominantly white, others racially mixed. Some have thousands of students, others hundreds. Some deal with serious disciplinary problems such as fights and gangs. At others, the most serious offense is a hanging shirttail or an unshaven face. Some administrators promote high school as a time to dabble in everything, while others stress the need to specialize.
Despite these differences, the top ten schools share similarities that ensure their success. They offer rigorous and innovative academic curricula; stress the importance of college; and provide strong, consistent leadership. This is exemplified at Friendswood High, our seventh-ranked school, where the principal began as a teacher and coach a half-century ago.
Smaller schools tended to score well in our survey, especially those with high rates of economically disadvantaged students. The top super-sized high schools, which boast superior athletic programs, often broke students into Smaller Learning Communities, giving them greater individualized attention.
Parental participation is a key ingredient in any school's success. At many white suburban schools, it's the community that drives a school's high expectations. For these kids, it's not a matter of "if" they're going to college, but where.
That's a huge difference from schools with large concentrations of poor students, many of whom have parents who never graduated high school. Since lots of these kids are in single-parent families, where parents sometimes work multiple jobs, getting parents involved is a challenge.
But the best schools find creative ways to reach out to these parents. One school asks parents to sign a pledge that their child will spend a couple of hours each night doing homework, and requests that parents not pressure their child to work a part-time job during the school year.
At Eastwood Academy, which ranks eighth in our survey, the student body is 90 percent poor and almost completely Hispanic. Principal Dr. Rogelio Lopez del Bosque has worked hard to involve the surrounding community by offering adult classes in computer technology and English as a second language. Since most of the families don't own computers, he also keeps the school library open several evenings a week.
"The community wants to participate," Lopez del Bosque says. "Nothing is more important to me than having a parent come in to talk to me."
The Houston Press/Children At Risk survey goes beyond the Texas Education Agency's singular criterion for evaluating school performance -- the percentage of students who pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test -- and considers a variety of factors proven to contribute to a school's success.
In addition to TAKS scores, weights were assigned to graduation rates, SAT scores, average class size and various other factors (see "Methodology" for a complete explanation). To help level the playing field between rich and poor schools, scores were adjusted for socioeconomic status, based on the percentage of students on the federally subsidized lunch program.
This mix of objective and subjective criteria is critical to gauging a school's overall performance, says Sanborn, who determined that graduation rates would be weighted most heavily. He used a variation of the Manhattan Institute's widely accepted formula, which essentially compares the number of graduating seniors in 2004 with the freshman class in 2001 while adjusting for growth in each grade.
This was deemed a tougher and more accurate way of measuring graduation rates than the TEA's system, which allows for a variety of exemptions. For instance, students who leave and get a General Equivalency Degree, who say they're being homeschooled or who serve time in a juvenile detention facility and never return are not considered dropouts, according to the state.
Education experts say these exemptions result in a massive undercount that deceives the public about the actual number of high school dropouts (see "But Who's Counting?" by Margaret Downing, October 18, 2001).
In August 2005, the TEA reported for the '03-'04 school year an annual dropout rate of just 1.2 percent for Texas high schoolers. Meanwhile, the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio set the statewide dropout rate at a more realistic 36 percent. In Harris County, the attrition rate is currently a staggering 54 percent for Hispanics and 48 percent for African Americans, according to the IDRA.
School districts are responsible for reporting their own graduation rates to the state. This is problematic since school funding and accountability ratings are tied to attendance rates. Last October a Sharpstown High School staffer was indicted for fudging a government document to make it appear there were zero dropouts during the '01-'02 school year.
"It's like telling a student to grade himself," Sanborn chides.
Houston ISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra's recent pledge to create a "college-bound culture" is predicated on students' getting through high school. To Saavedra's credit, the state's largest school district has employed some innovative strategies, including opening a new high school for immigrants at risk of dropping out.
"Education," says Dr. Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, "is the most critical issue that we face in a world where what you earn depends on what you've learned, where there is no longer a blue-collar path to economic security, where the gap between rich and poor is accelerating, predicated above all else, on education beyond high school."
It's no wonder, then, that everyone from parents and kids to local, state and federal lawmakers is eager to know how schools are performing. The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program is essentially a rating system that punishes or rewards schools based on student test scores.
There are countless ways to measure a school's success.
In the Newsweek effort, education author Jay Mathews created a controversial rating system for the 1,000 best public high schools in America. Bellaire High in Houston ISD led the pack at 113.
Mathews used a simple ratio: the number of advanced placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school in 2004, divided by the number of graduating seniors. Mathews asserts in the article that AP and IB courses show proof of academic rigor, since they can sometimes be used for college credit.
But many educators rejected this evaluation system, since AP/IB tests fall outside school curricula and have no effect on a student's grade-point average or class standing. According to Newsweek's methodology, schools with large numbers of students who didn't pass the AP or IB courses still benefited in the rankings.
"It makes no sense," says Michael McKie, principal at Clements High School in Fort Bend ISD, which ranked 315 in the Newsweek assessment. "Some schools say they enroll kids in AP programs, but they don't even teach the AP curriculums."
And which school, according to Newsweek, is America's finest? Jefferson County IBS in Irondale, Alabama.
Jefferson County IBS topped the list though it's a smaller school located within the large campus of Shades Valley High, which failed to make the cut. Jefferson IBS is ranked first simply because it's an all-IB school. So when the number of AP/IB test takers is divided by the number of graduating seniors, a perfect score is achieved.
A closer look at other schools in Newsweek's top ten reveals the shortcomings of its methodology.
According to Newsweek, Florida is a mecca for great high schools. No fewer than five of its top-ten schools reside in the Sunshine State. But the Florida Department of Education is less than impressed by the magazine's selections.
For instance, Eastside High in Gainesville is ranked fourth in the survey. But the state reports that just half of Eastside's students are meeting high standards in reading. The Florida DOE gave Eastside a "B"-rating from 2001-2004 and last year demoted it to a "C"-rated school. Eastside ranked so high in Newsweek, it turns out, because it runs an in-house IB-program.
Two other Florida high schools -- Pensacola, which ranked eighth in Newsweek, and Hillsborough, which ranked tenth -- get a "D" rating from the Florida DOE. At these schools, fewer than half of students meet reading standards.
Most absurd of all, Newsweek's choice for the fifth-best high school in America isn't even a high school. H-B Woodlawn in Arlington, Virginia is a countywide secondary program. That means any school in Arlington County can participate.
While many students in the program take AP courses, fewer than half of them received a passing grade in 2003. This demonstrates the cafeteria-sized loophole in Newsweek's formula.
"Students don't have to pass the AP/IB tests in order to garner their school a high ranking," says Sanborn, who analyzed the Newsweek data. "Heck, they don't even have to be able to read the test questions. They only have to sign up and show up."
The Houston Press/Children At Risk survey sidesteps this pitfall by selecting a wide range of factors deemed critical to a school's success. Of course, any rating system is bound to provoke some dissent. Some of the statistical results surprised us and no doubt will surprise you: A few well-known schools did not make the top ten.
But the aim, Sanborn says, is simply to provide a sense of how schools rate and to tip our caps to the academic trailblazers.
"There are some really good things going on in public education in Houston," Sanborn says. "Our top schools are as good as any in the nation."
And now, the schools we ranked sixth through tenth:
6. Aldine High School (Aldine ISD)
Total Enrollment: 2,191
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 93.8 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 82 percent
Average SAT Score: 874 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 70.7 percent
25.4 percent African-American
2.7 percent Asian
65.8 percent Hispanic
0.1 percent Native American
6.0 percent white
Most students who attend elite high schools know their schools rock. It's drilled into their heads year after year by teachers and administrators.
But kids at Aldine High School can't seem to believe their school ranks among the best.
"Honestly, I am shocked," says 17-year-old junior and band member Gina Roberts. "When we're publicized, it's in a bad way."
Indeed, it seems Aldine students each year must confront some grisly, unspeakable tragedy that dominates local news coverage.
In January 2006, students walking home from school witnessed the aftermath of a double murder that occurred in a local music store less than a mile away.
In October 2005, a 16-year-old Aldine junior wrapped his parents' Honda around a tree during a 90-mile-an-hour joyride that killed his five-year-old sister, a 16-year-old Aldine student and two teens from nearby Sam Houston High.
In November 2004, former Aldine football star Demarco McCullum was executed for fatally shooting a man ten years earlier.
In September 2002, a 15-year-old Aldine sophomore was kidnapped and raped at knifepoint while waiting for a school bus.
And the list goes on.
Students testify that violence regularly occurs in and around the northeast Houston school. Some are matter-of-fact about it.
"It's high school," says 18-year-old senior Brittmy Martinez, shrugging. "You have to have a thick skin in high school."
Administrators ask students to alert them to simmering conflicts before they boil over. When successful, assistant principals mediate and resolve disputes before a first punch is thrown. "Without that," Principal Cecil Hutson says, "I'd hate to think of how many fights we'd have."
Though such serious disciplinary problems usually spell doom for a high school, Aldine students are thriving.
The school's demographics have changed dramatically in recent years. More than 60 percent white two decades ago, Aldine students today are predominantly Hispanic. Many come from low-income, single-parent families, and nearly ten percent arrive with few English-language skills.
Though best known for its rich sports tradition -- the school won state and national football championships in 1990, and this year's boys' basketball team is ranked in the top 20 statewide -- it's the school's academic record that's turning heads. In 2004 and again in 2005, Aldine ISD was cited among five finalists for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education, the country's largest education award.
This year Aldine became a Small Learning Communities campus. Starting in tenth grade, students select from four concentrations: health and human services, industrial engineering, law and public service, or business and fine arts.
"All research now says that the big traditional high schools aren't getting it done," Hutson says. "This way, there's more ownership, more buy-in by the students about what they're learning."
7. Friendswood High School (Friendswood ISD)
Total Enrollment: 1,839
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 93.8 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 84 percent
Average SAT Score: 1101 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 2.1 percent
2.2 percent African-American
3.0 percent Asian
6.7 percent Hispanic
0.2 percent Native American
87.9 percent white
Ask Dr. Myrlene Kennedy about Friendswood High School and the 70-year-old principal gives a history lesson that weaves together the school, the surrounding area and her own coming-of-age biography.
The yarn begins in the late '50s, when Kennedy earned her sheepskin from the University of Houston and went searching for a coaching position. "Houston high schools didn't offer girls' sports back then," she says.
Friendswood was a mostly rural Quaker community located 25 miles south of downtown Houston in northwest Galveston County. Its high school served 50 students, with all 12 grades housed in the same building.
"At that time," Kennedy reminisces, "Friendswood had one grocery store, one feed store, one service station and a malt shop that was open when they wanted to open it, and that was it."
Kennedy landed her first job at Friendswood as a sixth- and seventh-grade science and history teacher, and coached girls' athletics. Her varsity girls' basketball teams won the district championship all nine years that she coached. In the late '70s Kennedy became an assistant principal, a position she held for 25 years before recently assuming the top post.
In all, she's spent 47 years at Friendswood. Her goal is to make it an even 50.
Kennedy embodies the notion that consistency creates strong schools.
Of course, much has changed since her arrival. The school, along with the Friendswood area, boomed when the space center moved in. Today there are computers in every classroom and even a portable, wireless computer lab.
But the surnames of many students remain the same. Several second- and third-generation families send their kids to Friendswood. Some of Kennedy's former students now have grandchildren who attend the school. Two of the five assistant principals are former students.
"We have teachers who taught the teachers who teach now," says 17-year-old senior Caitlin Hales, sounding like Dr. Seuss.
Coupled with this tradition is Friendswood's long-held reputation for academic excellence.
The school has won 13 continuous state championships in the Texas Academic Decathlon. Last year it graduated five National Merit Finalists. A bit of trivia: Three current members of the Texas House of Representatives -- Suzanne Gratia Hupp, Larry Taylor and Dan Gattis -- all are Friendswood alumni.
The school also offers top-notch athletic programs; its sports teams make the playoffs most years. But students know the way to Kennedy's heart is by participating in the annual 100-member cast, all-school musical, which she has led for 38 years.
"High school is the last time you can experience many different things," Kennedy says. "In college you become a specialist. High school's a time to find out what you like, what your interests are."
8. Eastwood Academy High School (Houston ISD)
Total Enrollment: 252
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 86 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 75 percent
Average SAT Score: 809 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 89.7 percent
1.2 percent African-American
0.4 percent Asian
96.8 percent Hispanic
1.6 percent white
Sick of the misconceptions, Dr. Rogelio Lopez del Bosque is eager to set the record straight about Eastwood Academy.
"Just because we're a little, itty-bitty school with minority children who don't wear uniforms," says Lopez del Bosque, an educator for more than 30 years and Eastwood's principal since 2003, "people immediately assume we're a school for problem kids."
Rather, Eastwood is a college prep school that's boosting expectations for all Houston inner-city students. Run out of a converted church, Eastwood caters almost exclusively to low-income, Hispanic children living in the city's tough Near East End.
Its students are primarily children of Mexican and Central American immigrants who never graduated from high school. With just 60 kids per grade, the school fosters a safe, intimate environment in a neighborhood that's been carefully platted into gang turf.
Since Eastwood offers no bus transportation, most kids either walk or bike to school, lending it a quality that's unexpectedly old-fashioned and wholesome.
One of 17 charter schools operated with approval from the HISD Board of Education, Eastwood has the flexibility to create a nontraditional learning environment that meets the unique needs of its students.
For instance, when Eastwood opened nine years ago, the school day began at 9 a.m. in order to accommodate kids who worked the night shift to help support their families.
The entire school breaks for lunch together, and kids are free to strum guitars in the halls, play soccer in a grassy plot across the street or just slouch against their lockers and page through paperbacks.
Lopez del Bosque describes it as a refuge for shy, introspective children who would be eaten alive at Texas-sized public schools such as Austin High, located less than a half-mile down the road.
"We still pick on freshman," says 18-year-old senior Arely Cervantes, "but it's never mean."
Lopez del Bosque has worked hard to involve parents by offering adult-learning classes and keeping the school library open three evenings a week. Parents show their appreciation by volunteering at the school and treating faculty members to their home cooking.
"It's not unusual for a dozen tamales to appear in the morning, a tray of pupusas in the afternoon," says Lopez del Bosque, who keeps mariachi music playing at a low volume inside his office.
To continue as one of Houston's elite schools, Eastwood faces many challenges. Because of recent cuts in small-school subsidies, Lopez del Bosque complains, budgetary constraints force him to rely heavily on corporate donations and grants in order to bring new technologies into the school.
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
James McDonald, building principal at Taylor High School, never met an aphorism he didn't like.
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.
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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."