Even we were surprised by some of the well-regarded schools that didn't crack the top ten in our survey. After all, some of these have the kind of reputations that cause people to sell their homes and move so they can be zoned for these schools.
Other top high schools
But great classes for the extraordinary students didn't always translate into effective measures for the more challenged kids. In many cases, graduation rates tripped up what would otherwise be considered an absolute top school.
Bellaire High in Houston ISD has long been considered an elite urban school. It boasts strong, consistent leadership and a diverse student population. But the school's rating suffered in our survey due to its surprisingly high dropout rate. By our measure, Bellaire graduates just two-thirds of its students. Similarly, well-regarded Lamar High in Houston ISD also has a 66 percent graduation rate.
A significant gap exists between these schools' best- and worst-performing students, according to Dr. Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk.
Even more disappointing, Sanborn says, has been the slow progress at Westside High in Houston ISD. Founded in 2000, Westside had hoped to compete with Bellaire and Lamar as a premier school. Initially, it had a reputation as a facility that could pull private school students back into the public sector.
All three schools draw kids from relatively affluent urban areas. Bellaire pools from the West University area, Lamar from Montrose and River Oaks, and Westside from the Galleria area.
But Westside has yet to meet expectations, posting slightly lower SAT scores and graduation rates. According to our survey, Westside is a Tier Two school.
Several other Houston-area high schools should be doing better but aren't. In some cases, entire school districts are grossly underperforming.
North Forest ISD is a prime example of how inconsistency can wreak havoc on schools. The predominantly poor and minority district, located in northeast Houston, has had four superintendents in the last five years. The Texas Education Agency red-flagged the district several times in recent years for financial and governance issues.
This is inexcusable, Sanborn says, since the district oversees just two high schools, Forest Brook and Smiley, both of which post abysmal state test scores and some of the lowest SAT scores in the Houston area.
Spring ISD, in the north suburbs, and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state's third-largest, are also lagging. In his analysis, Sanborn found that most Cy-Fair schools are enrolling just half of their students in the State Recommended High School Plan. "In other words," he says, "these kids are taking the easy classes."
Spring ISD, meanwhile, is too big for its britches. The district has two mammoth high schools, Spring High and Westfield High, with a combined enrollment of 7,500. Both are Tier Two schools. Based on a demographic breakdown, Sanborn says, Spring and Westfield should be performing as well as schools in Humble ISD and Spring Branch ISD, both of which have schools in the top ten.
Perhaps not surprisingly, charter schools collectively represent the worst of the worst. An enormous chasm separates the quality of local charter schools. They're either exemplary -- as in the case of YES College Prep, which ranked third in our survey -- or they're the pits.
Indeed, charter schools comprise more than half of the bottom tier of schools examined in our survey. These schools graduate less than 40 percent of their students, and even the few students who earn diplomas post miserable statewide test and SAT scores, making college enrollment unlikely.
In some cases, experts say, public high schools use charter schools as dumping grounds to improve their own test scores, which are tied to government funding.
Houston is home to more than a quarter of all charter schools in the state, according to Patsy O'Neill, executive director of the Resource Center for Charter Schools in San Antonio.
The Texas Legislature greenlighted the creation of charter schools about a decade ago as a way for administrators to cut through bureaucracy and accommodate the unique needs of students. But dozens have been shuttered for not meeting minimum statewide standards and, according to Sanborn, many more should be.
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Charter schools combine the risk of any start-up business with the challenges of educating kids from low-income backgrounds. Making matters worse, they receive less state and federal funding than traditional public schools and get no government funding for facilities. Many are started by well-intentioned educators, but close due to financial mismanagement.
Christopher Barbic, founder of YES, says he relies on philanthropic and corporate donations for 20 percent of his school's annual budget.
A charter school's success, O'Neill says, often depends on the strength of its leader. Barbic has proved an excellent motivator. Even the rewards he dangles before students are designed to help them keep their eyes on the prize.
"He's not taking them on field trips to Sea World," O'Neill says. "He's taking them to Harvard and Yale and all the best colleges."