These Kids Go to the Best Public High School in Houston

The Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions is this area's best public high school. It produces studious, high-achieving, self-assured brainiacs. The student body is a model of diversity: half the kids come from poor families, and students are evenly divided among African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics.

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
(Houston ISD)

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
Demographic Breakdown:
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.

Other DeBakey students followed cardiologists, health care administrators, medical examiners, occupational therapists, pathologists, scientists and surgeons for the school's mandatory preceptorship program.

Most high schoolers with dreams of entering the medical field say they want to be a doctor. Or they want to attend college and major in chemistry or biology or whatever science class they enjoyed during high school.

DeBakey graduates, meanwhile, already know the lingo. They've learned the options for careers in medicine, the approximate salaries each profession yields and the years of education required.

Ask 17-year-old Mackenzi what she wants to be when she grows up and she'll tell you, precisely, "I love chemistry and I love kids, so I want to be a pediatric anesthesiologist."

Mackenzi hopes to be accepted into the Houston Premedical Academy, a partnership among DeBakey, the University of Houston and Baylor College of Medicine. Every year as many as ten DeBakey students earn eight-year, full-tuition scholarships to study medicine at the two institutions.

DeBakey's innovative magnet program has won state, national and international acclaim.

In 1998 and 2003 the U.S. Department of Education designated DeBakey a Blue Ribbon School. In 2004 the National Association of Secondary School Principals recognized it as a "Breakthrough High School," and the International Center for Leadership in Education named it a "National Model School."

The Texas Education Agency has designated it an Exemplary school every year since 1994. DeBakey consistently produces the highest attendance rates and SAT scores in Houston ISD. The school has three sister campuses in Texas: in Corpus Christi, Laredo and Mercedes.

DeBakey accepts students from middle schools throughout Houston. Selection is based on interest in health sciences, previous academic performance and standardized test scores. Each year the school receives 1,200 applications and accepts 250.

The school also reserves a few spots for kids living outside Houston. Affluent families from Clear Lake, Pasadena, Pearland and Sugar Land have proved eager to fork over the $7,300 out-of-district tuition fee.

"A lot of parents would rather pay tuition for their children to come to DeBakey than for private school," says principal Dr. Charlesetta Deason.

The school, named for the pioneer heart surgeon, who is 97 and lives in Houston, has had just two principals since it opened in 1972. Deason has served in the top post for 16 years.

The school boasts a diverse student body, half of whom come from poor households. The more than 50 flags hanging in the first-floor hallway represent the nationalities of its students. Though there are more than 50 clubs, kids who want to compete in athletics must go to their zoned schools.

Of course, DeBakey's program isn't for everyone. Some students can't handle the pressure, while others find it all-consuming.

"About 30 kids left my first week of school," Mackenzi recalls.

But Deason says DeBakey grads are receiving elite preparation to compete in the new global economy. She plans to introduce higher-level science classes such as nanotechnology and bioengineering, and to fill classrooms with state-of-the-art equipment.

"Kids working in the 21st century are so technology-based," Deason says. "Public schools have not kept up to maximize their abilities.

"I irritate my faculty by saying we're not where we want to be" she adds. "But we cannot rest on our laurels."

2. The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
(Houston ISD)

Total Enrollment: 671
TEA Self-Reported Graduation Rate: 97.8 percent
Freshman-Senior Graduation Rate: 89 percent
Average SAT Score: 1139 (out of 1600)
Economically Disadvantaged: 12.7 percent
Demographic Breakdown:
21.9 percent African-American
4.2 percent Asian
17.4 percent Hispanic
0.1 percent Native American
56.3 percent white

Tassity Johnson, take a bow.

The 17-year-old high school senior was recently named among the top 160 artists in the United States by the prestigious National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, which also nominated her for its 2006 Presidential Scholar in the Arts award.

This fall Tassity hopes to begin studying psychiatry and visual arts at Duke University.

But four years ago, when Tassity compiled all her canvases and stood fidgeting before a panel of judges, she was just another anxious teen praying to be accepted into The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

"I felt horrible about my first audition," Tassity recalls. "Everybody else's drawings looked better than mine."

At this moment, hundreds of teenagers throughout Houston are on pins and needles hoping to receive callbacks from HSPVA, which each year auditions some 800 kids and accepts 175.

The process can be grueling. Parents aren't allowed inside to watch as their kids dance, paint, deliver monologues or showcase their musical talents in a setting reminiscent of the film Fame.

The high-pressure environment doesn't end with an acceptance letter, either. Every semester HSPVA students must withstand a portfolio review in which they lay out what they've produced, how they've improved, why they attend the school and what they hope to accomplish in their high school careers.

The result is a mature, independent and self-possessed student body.

"Our kids want to be here," says 11-year principal Dr. Herbert Karpicke. "They want to be here very badly."

Started in 1971, HSPVA is one of Houston's oldest magnet schools and has served as a model for other similarly specialized programs throughout the country.

The teachers are professional artists who not only inspire students with their own works but offer practical advice on interviewing techniques, creating portfolios, marketing their work and how to survive in big cities as the archetypal starving artist.

HSPVA's graduates include Mark Seliger, chief photographer for Rolling Stone and Us magazines; Kendrick Scott, a professional drummer whose music was featured in the 2004 Spike Lee film She Hate Me; Renee O'Connor, an actress with a role on Xena: Warrior Princess; and of course singer-actress-diva Beyonc Knowles.

The Montrose-based school is also getting it done academically, an impressive feat since students are screened solely on artistic talent and training. Last September the U.S. Department of Education named HSPVA a No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon School for academic excellence.

"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."

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.

"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."

Celebrity alumni include computer entrepreneur Michael Dell and local TV broadcaster Dominique Sachse. Pitching ace Roger Clemens sends his kids to Memorial.

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.

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Todd Spivak