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From old-money districts to up-and-coming standouts, the 10 best local high schools may surprise you.

FACE IT. The final four years of school are the only ones that matter to colleges. High school is a student’s last stand, and it may be a parent’s last chance to choose excellence for their child. But determining the best public high school can be confusing-not only do you have to translate TA AS scores into meaningful information, analyze AP opportunities, and consider the college placement of graduates, you also have to understand the things that can’t be reduced to statistics. We took test scores into consideration when determining the best high schools in Dallas-Fort Worth, but we also looked behind the numbers at the culture of each school, by talking to parents, teachers, and yes, even students. Here-in order-are the top 10.

no. 1 Highland Park High School Still Committed to Excellence?

Is Highland Park about to throw it all away? Ranked in the top 10 in some national studies and in the recent Newsweek rating as the No. 1 public high school in Texas, HPHS has depended on community support that may be flagging. Not only was a recent bond proposition defeated, but upcoming school board elections feature candidates eager to continue stinting on spending. A tradition of generously supporting education seems to be in jeopardy.

The decline won’t happen without a right, parents say. The school’s exacting standards have made it prime recruiting ground for top-flight universities. The credit goes to HPIS superintendent John Connolly and principal Jean Rutherford, who doubles as assistant superintendent for curriculum.

Rutherford is a one-of-a-kind leader-during her first two years, she me) with every student and parent-but she doesn’t stand for pointless complaining. “1 am a systems thinker, so if someone can’t show me a demonstrated need and how it will improve student learning, then I’m not interested,” she says. In the round-table student discussions Rutherford calls “think tanks,” kids affectionately quote Rutherford as saying bluntly, “Spit it out. What is the one point you are trying to make?”

Highland Park wants students to make decisions (and some mistakes) with a safety net-it is the only school in our top 10 with an open-building policy, allowing students to move freely about the school without a hall pass. To promote independent learning, the building is open before and after school so students can use the computer/writing labs, the math/science learning center, the English/social studies learning center, and the ACAT (Academic Center for Applications of Technology), each staffed with teachers to provide individual help.

In early March, HPHS’s perfectly manicured lawn was a deep green, dotted with tulips and daffodils. Flowering trees decorated with soft yellow ribbons signifying student victories lined the walk. The HPHS dress code: dress to kill. A sophomore with perfectly streaked hair and mocha lips sported baby blue stretch pants, high-heeled loafers with thick soles, and a thigh-length velvet jacket. One apparently casually dressed student was wearing Chanel flip-flops. The sign in the art room says it all: “Clean up after yourself. Your maid is not taking this class.”

What Parents Say

Parents praise teachers (of 114 teachers, 93 hold master’s degrees and nine have doctorates) for incorporating relevant current events into their class rooms. Many worry that some Park Cities voters don’t understand the competitive demands of modem education, or even what excellence in the classroom is, “This community is facing a critical moment,” says one, “when we have to say yes or no to being the best.” If the answer is no, can HP’s soaring property values hold up? “This community is committed,” says another. “We know good is a step below excellent.” As for the high school itself, another parent says, “We call it a small town experience in a big city, but you have to be aware that it is not the real world.”

What Students Say

Ask a group of HP sophomore boys why their school is so successful and the first answer is, “Because we have more money.” But then they add: “The curriculum is tough” and “Education is a priority in our community.” What would they change about their school? “I would change the stereotype that we are all snobs, that we use our money to buy our success.” Transferring in can be hellish because of the tight-knit friendships forged in elementary school, but according to one: ’LIt is easier if you have good hair, good clothes, and good looks.” It might also help if you can bring some talent to any of HPHS’s competitive teams-from debate to football-because the emphasis here is on being No. 1.

What Teachers Say

Teachers were disappointed by the failure of the $76 million bond issue but insist that morale has never been higher. They do feel limited by overcrowding and also say there are special challenges in working with affluent students. Tolly Patterson, who grew up in HP and now teaches there, says, “I wan! my kids to earn respect for their minds instead of attention for what they are wearing. I want their brains to hurt when they leave my class and for them to feel good about it.”

no. 2 J.J. Pearce High School College is Easy After Pearce

The walls at J.J. Pearce have poster-size pictures of cute kids that look more like the cast of “Friends” than adolescents. But it’s not just their appearances that Pearce kids are prepping for college.

Pearce is known for its academic prowess- this school has won five Academic Decathlon national championships, more than any school in the country. Students study three or more hours a night, more than any other students interviewed. After Pearce, graduates say, college is easy.

And academics aren’t everything. Principal Chuck Carona taught math at Pearce in the ’70s, and when he returned two years ago, he met with every student organization and encouraged each one to find a community outreach activity. In 1997, more than 66,000 community service hours were completed by parents and students in the name of Pearce. The Student Athletic Council won a Dallas County award for service in the 1996-97 school year, and the Student Council has adopted nearby Dover Elementary School.

Most schools would envy Pearce’s main problem: too much space. Only 1,400 students attend the school built for 2,200 students. There are fewer families in Richardson with school-age children than in the ’80s, when Pearce’s enrollment hovered at 2,000. Parents worry more about the value of their real estate than they do about the schools. The homes around Pearce are older, dating from the ’60s and ’70s, and many families prefer Piano’s newer homes and nationally recognized schools.

What Parents Say

Personal involvement is the key-it is not unusual to see 10 parent volunteers a day at Pearce, working the switchboard and picking up attendance sheets. Carona sends handwritten congratulations to students for academic and athletic achievements. Parents say the focus at Pearce is academic-not social, not athletic-with emphasis on self-responsibility and accountability. On the other hand, they know that drug dogs are brought into randomly selected classrooms every six weeks. {Only once in the last two years have officials found drugs-some marijuana in a backpack.) Kids are expected to anonymously report suspected drug abuse among peers. And Carona cal Is parents himself if there is suspicion of drug use or rumors of a party at their house.

What Students Say

We received more positive comments about teachers from students at Pearce than any other school: “The teachers are incredible. They have master’s and doctorates and make the classes really interesting”; “My physics teacher works at Stanford in the summer”; “Some teachers have a reputation for being hard but not for not caring.” Comments such as, “I put more pressure on myself for grades than my parents put on me,” are common. One student who made a 1270 on the SAT said she felt like an under-achiever because most of her friends scored in the 1400s.

What Teachers Say

New teachers at Pearce report that colleagues with 20 and 30 years of experience are the ones who care the most, still attending seminars and conferences to refine their programs. Teachers constantly see Carona out in the halls and in the classrooms, which proves, one said, how much he cares about what is being taught and how. Negative traditions at Pearce involving junior ushers and hazing were addressed and ended by Carona. They all say that teaching is made easier by the students’ strong work ethic.

no.3 Plano East Senior High School Enjoying the Competition

If Archie McAfee sees a couple kissing in the school hall, he says. “I’ll walk up and say, ’This isn’t the same guy I saw you kissing yesterday,’ which makes them laugh. And stop kissing.” McAfee, principal at Piano East, believes teaching positive social behavior is as important as academics. The slogan “Winning with Class” is posted on school walls and emphasized with every school victory. Another Piano East buzzword is “respect.” McAfee insists on it. Instead of jumping all over a kid who is misbehaving or is out in the hall during class, teachers are taught to engage in conversation with the student. “1 would be highly surprised to hear yelling on this campus,” says McAfee. “In 17 years, I’ve done it once.”

Piano East will always be compared to Piano Senior High, long considered the benchmark of PISD. But Piano East has some titles (and challenges) that Piano Senior High can’t claim: an Academic Decathlon national championship in 1993 and Redbook’s “Best School in Texas” award in 1994 and 1996. With just 2,037 students compared to Piano Senior High’s 3,160, Piano East has a smaller pool of talent and a much more diverse student body: Twenty-four percent are minority students and 10.2 percent are on a free lunch program. Piano East is an orderly campus, made up of four separate, office-like buildings around two ponds populated by ducks and Canada geese. When we commented on the school’s cleanliness, McAfee proudly steered us into the closest boys’ bathroom to show it off.

There are blemishes-Piano East is working hard to lower its Hispanic dropout rate of 7.4 percent. Every week the Campus Assessment Team (made up of a counselor, an education diagnostician, a learning specialist, and an associate principal) pores over grade reports looking for at-risk students. Such students have the opportunity to be paired with a mentor from EDS or TI who visits the campus weekly at lunch. Spanish-speaking parents of successful Hispanic students call parents of at-risk Hispanic students to answer questions and stress the importance of a high school diploma.

The new International Baccalaureate degree program allows high school students to earn a year of internationally recognized college credit. Piano East was certified as an IB school in 1995, and students who want to take IB classes must go to Piano East, even if they live in West Piano-a definite coup for the east side.

What Parents Say

Parents called the Piano East vs. Piano Senior High rivalry “extremely negative” and expressed frustration with the stereotype that Piano East is somehow second-rate. Competition is admittedly worse among parents than children. Several said, “We have Realtors who don’t show houses on the east side.” Parents are worried about the recent heroin epidemic but are satisfied with the school’s responsiveness in the form of parent meetings and student-organized drug education programs. They rely on each other, a “network of shared information,” to confirm supervision at parties. And they love the principal: When Ormie Melton’s son received an academic award at a ceremony in downtown Dallas, she got a call from McAfee offering to drive them there himself.

What Students Say

Students in Advanced Placement (AP) and IB classes were insightful enough to say that Piano East has perfected the honors curriculum and should pay more attention to kids in regular classes who get overlooked. They are aware of diversity and view it positively: “Everyone thinks Piano is rich. My mom put me in PESH because she did not want to shield me from the real world, and I have so much respect for her for doing that. Everybody I know works to make car payments and pay insurance. When we cross paths with Piano Senior High students at lunch, it’s like my ’95 Dodge Neon being parked next to a ’98 Tahoe.”

What Teachers Say

Any sentence or topic about Piano East that begins positively, and most do, ends with Archie McAfee. He makes his expectations known and trains his department chairs to train kids. The subschool principals know the kids’ names and are always checking on the teachers and asking how they can help. Teachers say, “We determine our program based on what students want and what students need. Students drive the program. The program doesn’t drive the students.” Be they Neon or Tahoe.

no. 4 Plano Senior 4t High School Good, But Not As Good As Its Reputation

Principal Dr. Doyle Dean has been in P1SD for 33 years and said that just in the last five years, his students have, unbelievably, become even more intense. Dean’s goals are also pretty intense: He wants every student at Piano Senior High to attend a four-year college, having taken at least one AP course. In 1997, PSH had 867 students taking 1,970 AP exams. (Comparably sized Martin High in Arlington had 143 students take 268 exams.)

“History of success” is a key phrase among administrators and students and with good reason: Piano Senior High is a two-time Blue Ribbon School; they have won seven state football championships, most recently in I994;anddur-ing this school year, the girls’ swimming and soccer teams won state championships. Last year, eight students made the all-state choir, more than any school in Texas. Ten years ago, Tim Hunt started the AP art program with six students. Now the program has 130 students, the largest number of students taking AP studio art exams, with the highest grades on the exams, in the country. There are so many schools-Chicago Art Institute. Kansas City Art Institute, and Parsons among them-clamoring for Piano students that they are limiting the colleges who can recruit on campus.

PSH’s biggest problem, overcrowding, should be relieved when the new Piano West High School opens in the fall of 1999. Meanwhile, for the first time in PISD history, PSH had to add portable classrooms. Dean, who expects his teachers to come to school well-prepared and enthusiastic and to go home tired, says it is difficult to find enough quality teachers to teach 3,200 students. But Dean says, ’’History has a lot to do with our current success. Success builds on itself.”

What Parents Say

Most parents work in Dallas and moved to Piano because of PISD. When touring colleges, admissions officers perk up when they hear the students are graduating from PSH; parents say the main problem with such a strong AP program and academic focus is that average kids can fall through the cracks. Parents are impressed with Dean’s reserved, refined, and well-mannered style, which still makes it clear he’s the man in charge. And Dean is responsive: When the National Honor Society was going to kick out some kids for being late with a point sheet showing credit hours. Dean conferred with the sponsor and solved the problem.

What Students Say

Sheer size and the strenuous academic requirements make transferring into the school difficult, but organizations like WHO (Wildcats Helping Others) make the transition easier. More than 83 percent of Wildcats are involved in at least one extracurricular activity-when student Stephen Smith started a community service club called GSI (Getting Students Involved) this year, more than 700 students joined. Students participate in school decision-making, mentioning that the Improvement Council (made up of principal, department heads, parents, and four students) recently discussed block scheduling but decided against it because it would be too hard on students. One AfricanAmerican student said he had seen racial graffiti in the bathrooms on more than 10 occasions. “The administration paints over it but it always comes back. But it is no big deal because Piano Senior High prepared me for college.”

What Teachers Say

If we need something, say teachers, “Dr. Dean makes it happen.” His attitude is ’”Go for it,” and he only asks, “What do you want me to do. and how can I support you?” Teachers say they can tempt students with the success of past students: “We’ve proven that if you do this, you’ll make a high score, not you might make a high score.” One teacher who had worked in an inner-city school told us. “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

no. 5 Carroll High School The Old School Made New Again

Although Carroll High School opened in 1957, the new school building is only six years old and is situated amid big, new houses ranging in price from $275,000 to $1 million. Real estate agents are a regular fixture on the Carroll campus as they tempt prospective homebuyers with the school; the growth in Southlake is attributed to the success of Carroll ISD. Three years ago, only 900 students attended CHS; now enrollment is up to 1,458. In just five more years, CHS will be a senior high school with 2,000 juniors and seniors only. The school is doubling the size of its library and student activities center and adding space for a counseling/guidance center.

Despite growing pains, CHS is succeeding. Last year, CHS received its first exemplary rating from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Graduates from the class of 1997 went to Stanford, Duke, MIT, Notre Dame, and Georgetown. CHS has also enjoyed athletic success: They were state 3-A football and basketball champions in 1993. In 1996, CHS was designated as a National Blue Ribbon School.

In addition to government employees who shopped schools before relocating to Southlake, many professional athletes and executives of GTE, Dr Pepper, and Coca-Cola send their kids to Carroll. About 80 percent of the newcomers are from out of state and they don’t care about TAAS scores as much as SAT and ACT averages. Carroll delivers-93.6 percent take the SAT or ACT with average scores of 1072 and 23 respectively.

Every year, CHS adds new classes (forensic science, aerospace aviation, and claymation. for instance) based on student interest surveys and parents’ requests. Japanese via interactive satellite television started with only five interested students but was canceled after one year due to lack of interest.

Only 4 percent of CHS’s student body is minority, and one student’s racial slur at an athletic event last year attracted negative media attention, prompting Carroll officials to found PRIDE, to promote respect for individuals.

Dr. Daniel Presley, the mustachioed principal (note: the school dress code doesn’t allow facial hair), calls the school “a throwback to the 1950s because doing the right thing is the popular thing to do.”

What Parents Say

The school’s excellence itself causes some problems. Parents choose to live in Southlake and commute to Dallas, Fort Worth, or Las Colinas because of CISD, so there are a lot of newcomers, people moving from out of state who want schools in Carroll to be like the ones back home. Parents do appreciate that there’s plenty of research behind school changes; they staff the college and career center and say that there are so many willing, at-home mothers that more want to help than get called.

What Students Say

They say their friends who made C’s at CHS make A’s when they move no other districts and think regular classes at CHS would be considered honors at other schools, so some students express concern that college admissions boards won’t realize the value of ail A at CHS. Students give Dr. Presley high marks for emphasizing the band’s importance, for going to drill team camp competitions, and for attending sporting events. They mention Presley’s celebration breakfasts for academic and sports teams victories. Students claim they are too scared to drink because of the zero-tolerance policy and because other students are tattletales. They say thai the 100 service hours needed for the Success Scholars Seal are hard to fit in. And when asked if they considered their community to be goal-oriented, the response was, “Duh.”

What Teachers Say

Mostly, say teachers, “The bigger we get as a school, the better we get. We receive as many positive calls as negative and a number of parents just call to say thanks.” As good as CHS is, everyone wants it to be better; scores are high but teachers want them even higher: opportunities are good when these kids graduate, but they want them better. No one is satisfied-and that’s a good thing.

no. 6 Marcus High School Highland Park West?

Some call Lewisville’s Marcus High School “Highland Park West” because of its high scores and high-income, homogeneous student body. We visited Marcus in early March and noticed two things right away: The kids looked like white Gup models who responded with “Yes ma’am” and “Yes sir.” and the halls were covered with TAAS posters.

TAAS math scores soared in 1997, the same year Marcus started the Math Sprint program, which required every sophomore class, every period of the day, to begin with 10 minutes of math during the two weeks prior to TAAS. Kids also got popcorn and cookies when they did well on TAAS practice tests. In addition to outrageously high TAAS scores, Marcus has a long line of impressive achievements: In 1995. 21 students at the Air Force Academy were Marcus graduates; Marcus is a National Blue Ribbon School; and the Marcus drum line has won four national championships. By Texas standards, the school came of age this fall when it won its first 5-A Division II stale football title.

Marcus’ hip principal Larry Sigler came to Marcus when it opened in 1981; the kids love him for leading the “Boom-Ba-Hey” cheer during pep rallies. When we visited, a song by Madonna was playing in his office. Sigler estimates that more than 80 percent of kids are involved in extracurricular activities and his goal is to have an organization for every kind of kid. Marcus has more than doubled in size since it opened: by next fall, enrollment should be 3,067. The houses within Marcus’ borders range in price from about S150.000 to $1 million. More than half the homes are less than five years old.

Sigler cites Marcus’ 40 booster clubs as one secret of the school’s success. Consider the percussion drum line booster club: It raised $7,000 last year to buy steel drums. Most high schools don’t have steel drums.

What Parents Say

The parent section at Marcus’ pep rallies is filled by stay-at-home moms, airline pilots, and parents who work at GTE and EDS. Parents of kids who don’t play varsity sports talk about the intense competition for positions on the team, Likewise, kids seem obsessed with their class ranks. But one parent summed up what many said: “We feel so blessed to be in this community: the academic level is so high that my son is a 4.0 student but he is still 100 out of 700.”

Some parents say they hear racial jokes while carpooling and wonder where the kids hear them. Many Marcus students arc active in church. Church youth directors go to the sporting events and even eat lunch at school. David Darns, a foster parent who has sent 13 kids, most with learning disabilities, to Marcus over the last eight years, says that Marcus has “bent over backward” to help them, even knowing that they may leave in a few months.

What Students Say

Students say some of their peers are open-minded and others keep to themselves to avoid social conflict. One Hispanic student said that some of her friends admit they thought she was a “gangster” when they first met. But, she adds, “We don’t have gangs here. New kids who move here will try to act like they did in gangs, but it is not tolerated by anyone.”

Like their parents, students mentioned a problem with “people telling racial jokes.” “Goth” (short for Gothic) is a social designation among high schoolers for kids who wear black and listen to Marilyn Manson sing about self-mutilation. There are more National Merit Scholars at Marcus than Goth kids, but some kids were frustrated that members of the spirit organization. RAM, weren’t allowed to wear shirts that said, “This RAM is for you” when the Goth kids can wear Marilyn Manson shirts that say “I am Satan*’ or “Beware: Death is Coming.”

What Teachers Say

Teachers regret the loss of the state-recognized mentoring program for new teachers, but LISD administrators didn’t think it was cost-effective. “Sigler doesn’t hire people who settle for the minimum, but those who try to pull the best out of kids.” The open atmosphere encourages innovation and creativity.

no. 7 Grapevine High School From Skinheads to Scripture

A quick walk through the hallways of Grapevine High School, covered with posters of prayer and Young Life meetings, indicates the religious focus of the student body. Many teams and groups have their own prayer meetings and Bible studies. For a school burdened with an unpleasant recent past, that’s not a bad thing.

Principal John Bailey walked into a difficult situation when he came to GHS m 1994. There had been seven principals in 11 years, morale was low, and everyone was trying to move on from a skinhead incident that had attracted national media attention the year before, “I saw tremendous potential because of the high-achieving kids and a strong academic culture, but the faculty was defensive,” says Bailey. “We had to find solutions and start promoting what was going right.”

Bailey has worked hard to open the lines of communication with parents, teachers, and students while creating a warm-and-fuzzy atmosphere. He begins each faculty meeting with what teachers call “célébrat ions,” a time to stand up and share successes. For parents. Bailey hosts coffees even’ six weeks, providing an opportunity to update the parents about what has happened since they last met and answer questions, address concerns, or dispel a rumor. For students, Bailey or an assistant principal visits every English class to go over the student code of conduct and tell the students face to lace what their expectations are. “I tell them that their job is lobe professional students,” says Bailey.

Also new is the Presidents’ Council, made up of student presidents from every organization on campus, which meets with the principal to address student needs and concerns. Within this forum, students told the administration that since an AP class was more difficult than a Pre-AP (regular honors) class, an A in the AP class should carry more weight than the Pre-AP class on the grading scale. The administration agreed and changed the policy. Grapevine High School has always looked successful from the outside due to high scores on the TAAS, low dropout, and high attendance, but now it is a happier place with a better reputation. When asked why Grapevine is such a strong school, Bailey didn’t hesitate to credit his faculty; “The politically correct answer is the kids, but I think faculty has the most impact on a school’s successor failure.”

What Parents Say

Parents see football games (Grapevine won the 4-Asiate championship in 1996) as a social outlet and like being involved in booster clubs. They feel good about the religious focus at the school and appreciate that Young Life sponsors and youth ministers are welcome on campus.

What Students Say

Last year, students at Grapevine participated in voluntary drug testing, but there is a movement among students for mandatory drug testing for anyone in an extracurricular activity because “leaders need to be drug-free.” The Campus Excellence Committee is working on cutting down the bad language and trash in the halls. A sophomore called his peers “’down to earth”’ and said that: their talkativeness makes it easy to know people. A football player who had just moved from Mississippi said he couldn’t believe how nice and involved his peers’ parents are saying that they always have friends of their children over for dinner. It is norma] for kids to get a $30,000 car when they turn 16. They say a Jeep Cherokee is ’just average” but insist money isn’t a big deal among peers.

What Teachers Say

Teachers appreciate the high standards Bailey has set for them and love his positive outlook, especially at faculty meetings when they share each other’s successes. They have been focused on vertical teaming of grades K-12 for years. To become a 9th grader, students must complete a writing sample that begins their personal writing file, kept until they graduate. Team projects and learning styles make school more fun than it used to be. With a computer program that automatically averages grades, teachers can keep students updated on a daily basis and make a call home If a student risks failing that six weeks.

no. 8 Berkner High School High-Tech Has Its Advantages

Some people in Richardson have nicknamed Berkner “the music magnet” and for good reason: Twenty-seven percent of the 2,040 students aie in band, choir, or orchestra. The starting quarterback plays piano; die homecoming queen was a band member. Parents praise the extra efforts of teachers and coaches who encourage students to play both sports and an instrument.

Berkner has that classic high school feel: tiled floors, long lockers and hallways, showcases of trophies and student artwork. The school’s mascot, a stuffed rani encased in glass in front of a roped-off crest in the floor, was stolen in 1996 by rival school Richardson High but was returned unharmed after a few days. The neighborhoods around the school range in cost from about $80,000 to $300,000, Berkner serves a diverse student population (34 percent minority, 8.1 percent economically disadvantaged) that pulls from Dallas and Garland in addition to Richardson. Students and parents, when asked for the school’s greatest strength, mention diversity along with academics. And music.

Being in the telecommunication corridor has its advantages for R1SD; every teacher at each of Richardson’s high schools got a new Compaq presentation station with a computer and monitor connected to a television. Now that they have the hardware, principal Don Skaggs has made additional technology training for his staff a top priority.

Berkner began an Advisor Conferencing program this year, pairing one faculty member with up to four sophomores to discuss how each can be successful at Berkner. At-risk students are flagged so advisors can provide necessary resources, like tutoring for the TAAS. And because the staff at Berkner believes that every academically successful kid is also successful in extracurricular activities, these meetings are also a time for teachers to encourage students to become involved right away.

Every year the students at Berkner create a new motto and display it in the hallway. This year it reads, “Building a Higher Standard.”

What Parents Say

Parents appreciate Berkner’s diversity, saying race is such a non-issue mat when their kids talk about school friends they don’t even mention ethnicity. Faculty gets points for friendly, effective communication-each teacher has a school-issued cell phone with voice mail, which makes it even easier for parents to stay in touch. There is some frustration with one or two hangers-on faculty members who don’t have the students’ best interest in mind. Even the principal said he wished it were easier to fire teachers that don’t live up to the high expectations of today’s students.

What Students Say

According to students, resources-“we gel new computers all the time”-are the school’s greatest strength. Students reported a decline in school spirit, especially at pep rallies which seem to bring out the worst in some kids. Apparently, fights are most prevalent immediately following pep rallies, and students make fun of their peers who are performing at pep rallies. Students remember announcements pleading; “Let’s try to show positive spirit at the pep rally today.” This lack of enthusiasm may come from the top down: Some students say Skaggs could liven up his monotone announcements, especially the phrase, “Go Rams.”

What Teachers Say

Teachers praised their colleagues for high levels of professionalism and dedication to students and a strong curriculum, Teachers see Skaggs as a thinker whose instructional knowledge is sound but praise him mostly for allowing them to act autonomously in their classrooms.

no. 9 Martin High School, Arlington The Bigger, The Better

MARTTN is the school everyone loves to hate-the price, perhaps, of success. Students here have a reputation for being the rich kids with the high scores. The current enrollment of 3,529 students also makes Martin the “biggest high school under one roof in Texas,” a dubious honor. This year’s additional 1,000 students (9th grade was added) have caused growing pains from the lunch room to the parking lot but administrators seem to know where everyone is: Martin’s dropout rate is less than 1 percent, and attendance is 96.1 percent.

Arlington ISD gained national notoriety last year for its zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy, enforced at the prom by school officials using breathalyzer machines. Students in Arlington can be suspended from extracurricular activities for one year if they are caught drinking-that equals death to a high school kid. They didn’t catch anyone last year at prom, but to encourage more kids to attend this year’s prom, principal Steve Jacoby met face to face with every junior and senior to explain how the breath alcohol test is administered and to answer questions. Jacoby was principal at Martin from 1988 to 1994 and returned this fall in the heat of two lawsuits filed by students challenging the zero-tolerance policy. Some students blame the lawsuits for a lack of school spirit and unity, saying, “They wasted time and didn’t achieve anything except the school’s bad reputation.”

At Martin, students wear their success or failure around their necks on a picture ID badge: Those who pass TAAS get an M hole punch and those who fail do not. As incentive to pass TAAS the first time, Martin created the Gold Card, enabling students to cash in on discounts on yearbooks, parking, prom, and tickets to school events. It sounds gimmicky, but evidently it’s a language these kids understand: The first year of the Gold Card. TAAS ! reading scores went up seven percentage points.

What Parents Say

Parents view Martin’s size as a positive, mentioning that the diverse population prepares students for the reality of a large college. Parents are very pleased with the academic focus and the number of classes but are concerned about Martin’s undeserved reputation as a party school, saying, “Martin is the school everyone in Arlington loves to hate because of the actions of a few kids.” Most parents are in favor of the zero-tolerance policy, but some said that it should affect everyone, not just students in extracurricular activities.

What Students Say

Kids complain about tough competition for leadership roles and sports teams, crowded hallways, traffic jams in the parking lot, and the mess left after lunch when kids eat all over the hallways. But they call the environment “positive.” mentioning the advantages of a big school, like variety of classes. Many say that the answer to being overlooked in a big school is to get involved.

What Teachers Say

Steve Jacoby tells his teachers, “Be a risk-taker and be willing to make mistakes if there is potential for enhanced learning.” Teachers give their administration high marks for organization and for keeping them informed with the principal’s weekly newsletter. The only negatives mentioned by teachers are the air conditioning and heating systems, which they say never work.

no. 10. Lewisville High School The Comeback Kid

LHS BECAME A known entity across the state when it won the 1993 and 1996 football state championships and across the country when they were one of three high schools nationwide to be featured on a Team Cheerios box. But we give LHS the award for greatest overall improvement in the shortest period of time.

Just three years ago. TEA dubbed LHS a “lowperforming school. The problem wasn’t scores, but the high Hispanic dropout rate. In three years, that number has decreased to less than I percent. These are the changes that solved the problem: GED classes, taught by a bilingual teacher, are now held on campus: teachers receive training in Hispanic culture and learn how to identify and help at-risk students; every at-risk kid is adopted by a teacher for individual attention.

Of the lop 10 schools, LHS also showed the most improvement on TA AS scores from 1996 to 1997. Lewisville knows how to play football-two state championships in five years- and they got fired up for the TAAS as if it were a game. There were pep rallies stressing the importance of passing to graduate. The halls were plastered with posters of math problems and “Go TAAS” slogans. At-risk students were tutored. Students produced six 10-minute videos about reading, writing, and math TAAS objectives that were shown to every lest taker within minutes of starting the TAAS. On test days, students were served a free breakfast of eggs, bacon, and biscuits.

Lewisville High School turned 100 this year-many of its students go back three generations. LHS has almost eight times as many economically disadvantaged students and three times as many minority students as its rival, Marcus. Not every student has college on the horizon, but LHS prides itself at producing well-rounded kids. Principal Walt Davis wants to see an increase in the number of kids starting college but feels most passionately that “every kid who walks across the stage knows where they are going in life and have a sense of self-worth and accomplishment.” Some take AP Physics II and others take auto mechanics, but each is treated equally.

What Parents Say

Many parents said that they chose to buy homes within the borders of LHS because of the school’s ethnic and socio-economic diversity. One mother said that while many of her children’s classmates were not affluent, they were rich in “family, confidence, ability, friends, and faith.”

What Students Say

One student, taking all AP courses, had just been accepted at Rice, where he anticipated placing out of about 38 hours. Another works at Taco Cabana every night from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., studies till 3 a.m., is taking one AP class “for the challenge,” and has been accepted at Sam Houston State. And so on. Teachers and counselors and administrators are “willing to bend” and “work outside the box” to help students learn; the natural segregation of students is based on attitudes and intelligence, not class or color.

What Teachers Say

Walt Davis came to LHS last fall, replacing longtime principal Doug Killough. Teachers admit a reluctance to accept Davis, saying he had “big shoes to fill,” but appreciate that he did not come in with an agenda. He relieved their anxiety at the first faculty meeting when he said: “We’re a team; I’m here to help you.” Teachers express frustration with the school’s aging facility and lack of technology but acknowledge that the district is working to improve. Key words among faculty: family atmosphere, rich traditions, and pride. Said one longtime teacher: “We have kids from all segments of society so you get to see a lot of viewpoints. Each kid has something to offer.”


DISD does have success stories: Town-view Magnet Center’s TAG program has TAAS scores as high as any school In D’s top 10, and it was rated “exemplary” by the state. It didn’t make 0’s list because TAG gets to pick and choose: Students have to test to get in to TAG. So it’s not quite a public school, even though it uses public funds. The School of Science and Engineering at Townview, a special cluster for kids with aptitude or interest in these fields, also achieved “exemplary” status because of big numbers.

Sometimes It seems that the right numbers-TAAS scores, SAT scores, grade averages, a low dropout percentage, a high percentage taking AP classes-have become the yardstick of education. But there are other ways to measure success: Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts has produced two Grammy winners (Erykah Badu graduated In 1989 and Roy Hargrove graduated in ’88). Christian Schumann (class of ’88) was the youngest artist to exhibit in the prestigious 1995 Whitney Biennial. Colleges come to the Arts Magnet to recruit. More than half the kids win scholarships. There are no metal detectors at the Arts Magnet.

At most schools, the arts curriculum is considered a “frill.” At Booker T., a Blue Ribbon school in 1996-97, it’s the meat and potatoes. Principal Andre Hyne has only been at the school since last September, but he’s a passionate advocate of arts education. For everyone. He loves to point out that “students who come from arts-enriched environments have higher standardized test scores.” A professional musician himself, he’s a firm believer in the Mozart effect, the documented link between listening to classical music and achievement in mathematics. And when asked about his school’s TAAS scores, Hyne points out that they are figured by subject and subgroup. To be rated exemplary, a school has to score high across the board. Booker T.’s scores missed the exemplary rating in only one subgroup in one subject: math. A little more Mozart, please.

-Mary Brown Malouf