Longform

These Kids Go to the Best Public High School in Houston

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"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.

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Todd Spivak