The Best Public High Schools in Dallas-Ft. Worth

The word is out: a challenging curriculum is the best way to prepare for college. And we believe what’s best for students determines which high schools are best. We spoke to admissions officers and educators, and they agree that AP is the curriculum of ch

For the high school student beginning the stomach-churning process of applying to college, we have some insider advice.

SAT scores and grade-point averages aren’t as important as they used to be. College admissions officers are putting out the word: the strength of your high school curriculum is quickly becoming the number one factor in deciding if you’re in or out. Whether this is good news or bad news for you, of course, depends on your SAT scores, your grade-point average, and how many advanced or honors courses you’ve taken. For freshmen and sophomores, we have a simple message: take as many as you can.

The most common program is Advanced Placement (AP). While private and public schools teach an endless assortment of school-specific programs that can often be very challenging, AP gives admissions officers a national standard by which to judge the quality of students’ college preparation. A four on the AP Calculus test is a four in Plano or Portland. As admissions offices have come to rely more on AP, the number of students enrolling in AP classes has increased dramatically. In the last five years, the number of AP exams taken in Texas high schools has more than doubled from 52,156 in 1996 to 125,785 exams given last May.

D’s ranking of the best high schools is based on this theory: if you consider the breadth of a school’s AP program (we did it by dividing the junior and senior enrollment at the school by the number of students taking at least one exam) and the strength of a school’s AP program (we divided the number of AP exams passed by the AP exams taken), you get a fair look at each school’s program.

We call it the “AP Factor.” We, as well as the educators we consulted, feel that this number is a good judge of a school’s AP program, which, in turn, is a good judge of a high school.

Based on this theory, the top high school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is the School for the Talented and Gifted, part of DISD. The number two school is also a DISD magnet school, the School of Science & Engineering. Many of the schools that follow are no surprise: Highland Park High School, Plano West, Plano Senior High, Colleyville Heritage, Carroll High School. Worth noting, however, is that almost 82 percent of Plano Senior High students taking AP exams passed (scored 3, 4, or 5), the highest of all schools surveyed.

Our theory has its flaws, we admit. First, we know that much more goes into a school than its AP program. We picked this criteria knowing it is one—but certainly not the only—important judge of a school’s success. You can’t statistically analyze that inspiring senior English Lit teacher, how the home life of students plays into the atmosphere, or things such as extracurricular activities, school spirit, and parental involvement.

Also, some educators warn not to judge a program simply by the number of exams passed. Students who take rigorous AP courses may not pass the exams, but they are still better prepared than your average student for their college careers.

All that said, we feel that better than any other measurement we can think of, or any educator has been able to give us, the AP Factor tells us how the top public schools perform based on how successful their AP programs are.

We’re not advising students to pin all of their college hopes on AP. The weight given to AP courses will vary from university to university. But the handwriting is on the wall. “We expect the students to take the most rigorous curriculum,” says Ann Wright, vice president for enrollment at Rice University. “We’d much rather see a B in an AP course than an A in a ‘pud’ course. We give the benefit of the doubt to a student who hasn’t had opportunities but reward students who have.”

Stanford recruiters spend a lot of time assessing each high school individually in an attempt to compare, as fairly as possible, one student who may have attended an inner-city public high school to another who attended a well-known private school. The important thing, says Marcela Muniz, Stanford’s associate director of undergraduate admissions, is that students have gone as far as they can go within the realm of their schools. “We definitely like to see students who have challenged themselves,” Muniz says. “If you have one student with a 3.8 grade point average who has not taken AP but had them available and another student with a 3.8 who did take AP, those are two different students.” In other words, if advanced courses are offered, students who want to get into elite colleges had better take them. Augustine Garza, deputy director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin agrees. “Are students who take AP better prepared for college than students who don’t?” he asks. “Of course they are.”

Interviews with other recruiters confirm that colleges are looking for exposure to difficult material. In some cases, a student who takes five AP courses—even if he doesn’t pass the AP exams—may have an edge on a student who takes only one AP course but passes the test.

By now the advantages of taking AP courses are becoming better known. Even parents who grew up in an age of high grades and SAT scores are catching on.

The Rules
We requested that each school district in our readership area provide us with their report from the College Board, listing the number of students who took AP exams the first two weeks of May 2001, the number of exams taken (many students take more than one exam), the number of AP exams passed, as well as a breakdown showing how many tests scored three, four, or five (all are passing grades). The number of AP exams with scores of five was used as the tiebreaker in the rankings.

From the Texas Education Agency, we compiled the junior and senior enrollment for the 2000-2001 school year and the percent of economically disadvantaged students from the 1999-2000 year, the most recent available.

The district’s percentage of economically disadvantaged students gives some understanding of the composition of the student body (this statistic was figured for the entire high school, not just juniors and seniors). Frankly, a high school with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students that is aggressive in AP is a very impressive school. Its principals and teachers deserve a lot of credit.

Mike Satarino, principal at Dallas’ TAG magnet, wasn’t surprised to find his school at the top of our list. Part of the reason TAG ranked so high is because most (all starting this year) students take AP courses and all but one junior and one senior took the AP exams in May—with almost 61 percent of them passing. On our chart, the percentage of students taking the exam compared to the junior/senior enrollment is 142 percent because a significant number of sophomores also take the exams, unlike most schools where only a handful might.

“Our goal is to prepare kids for college,” says Satarino, the school’s principal for the last five years. “To get the first taste of college tests early allows them to do much better when they’re juniors and seniors.”

Dallas’ magnet schools differ from the norm because they are by court mandate racially diverse, which often means economically diverse. At TAG, that means 16 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged; at the School for Science & Engineering, our second-ranked school, almost 30 percent of students fall in that category. Compare that environment to some of the other top high schools: Highland Park (0.2 percent economically disadvantaged), Plano West (2.1 percent), and Carroll High School (0.5 percent). DISD’s Booker T. Washington School for Performing and Visual Arts, another magnet school, also did well, ranking ninth on the list.

DISD students must apply for the magnet schools. Acceptance is based on a behavioral rating scale; recommendations by students, teachers, and parents; GPA and test scores; an application, including an essay; and portfolio of previous work. At the TAG magnet, which was created in the late ’70s, about 100 students usually apply and 45 are accepted. Satarino said he wishes more would apply but thinks they are intimidated by the process.

Seventh on the list is well-to-do Southlake, home for Carroll High, which has accomplished the nearly impossible task of one-upping the Highland Park Scots in another measure of academic excellence. After the Scots’ three-year reign as the Class 4A University Interscholastic League Lone Star Cup defending champs, the Carroll Dragons took the state trophy for 2001.
The cup honors schools for academic and athletic excellence. Points are earned for the state academic meet, a one-act play competition, and 19 UIL-sanctioned sports. Carroll’s victory—136 points—beat Highland Park by 46 points, setting a new record. “We expect to be the best and we usually are,” says Principal Daniel Presley.

Much of that success has come from Carroll High’s push for more and more AP classes. As a result, the 2001 senior class doubled its scholarship dollars to $7 million, sealing Carroll’s reputation for all-around excellence. Another example of the AP Factor at work: a GPA of 82 (Carroll measures out of 100)—once considered average—landed students in the bottom quarter of this year’s graduating class. Long noted as monsters of the gridiron, the new goal at Carroll High is to increase AP enrollment 10 percent each year.

Creekview High School—Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s newest campus—graduated its first senior class in May. Already, the school is ranked 16th on our list, despite a diverse population that includes more economically disadvantaged students than schools such as Highland Park and Plano’s three high schools. The first senior class was awarded $1.9 million in academic scholarships to universities such as Brown, Boston University, Stanford, and Wellesley. From the beginning, Creekview has placed special emphasis on its college-level courses.

Another school worth noting is Fort Worth’s Amon Carter-Riverside High School, which came in at number 30. It is the smallest high school in the district with 920 students right now, its most ever. Sixty-six percent of those students are Hispanic, 20 percent Caucasian, and the rest African-American, Principal Albert Gonzales says. Most are from low-income families.

“The challenge is trying to offer AP courses when we don’t have the staff,” he says. “Because we have fewer students, we have a smaller staff. We also don’t have very strong parental involvement, which goes along with the socio-economics. But the few who are involved are big advocates.”

Gonzales calls Carter-Riverside High School a “neighborhood school” because it has only one feeder middle school. “In the last five years,” he adds, “we’ve been trying to get the kids involved in honors programs as freshman and encouraging all kids in honors or AP courses to take the AP exams when they are juniors and seniors.”

Fort Worth schools operate differently than those within DISD. Dallas has entire magnet schools; Fort Worth has magnet-like programs called “special interest schools” within its normal schools. So students within those programs as well as the regular student body take part in the AP courses and exams. Those schools are Dunbar, Northside, Polytechnic, O.D. Wyatt, Trimble Technical, and Eastern Hills (which only had freshman and sophomores in its special interest program last year).

Gonzales, in a sense, competes with these special interest schools for his students.

“Our challenge is to keep our kids in our neighborhood school in a time when most students and parents are attracted to the special interest program,” he says. “We want to encourage more parents to believe in neighborhood schools and convince more gifted students to stay.”

How AP Works
In years past, AP classes were for gifted students who planned to attend college. The result: a very small percentage of students were exposed to the most challenging curriculum. But high schools now encourage all students who want to attend a competitive college to enroll in AP courses. From 1992 to 1997, the percentage of students entering UT Austin—a typically mid-level competitive school—who had taken an AP exam rose from 39 percent to 49 percent.

In 1951, the Ford Foundation asked Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and three private high schools to evaluate the curriculum of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. A simultaneous study at Kenyon College developed descriptions of freshman-level classes on which AP courses could be based. The AP program grew out of that research and was implemented in 1955. The College Board constructs the curriculum and oversees its administration. The Educational Testing Service administers AP exams.

Creekview High School—Carrollton-Farmers Branch’s newest campus—graduated its first senior class in May. Already, the school is ranked 16th on our list, despite a diverse population that includes more economically disadvantaged students than schools such as Highland Park and Plano’s three high schools. The first senior class was awarded $1.9 million in academic scholarships to universities such as Brown, Boston University, Stanford, and Wellesley. From the beginning, Creekview has placed special emphasis on its college-level courses.

Another school worth noting is Fort Worth’s Amon Carter-Riverside High School, which came in at number 30. It is the smallest high school in the district with 920 students right now, its most ever. Sixty-six percent of those students are Hispanic, 20 percent Caucasian, and the rest African-American, Principal Albert Gonzales says. Most are from low-income families.

“The challenge is trying to offer AP courses when we don’t have the staff,” he says. “Because we have fewer students, we have a smaller staff. We also don’t have very strong parental involvement, which goes along with the socio-economics. But the few who are involved are big advocates.”

Gonzales calls Carter-Riverside High School a “neighborhood school” because it has only one feeder middle school. “In the last five years,” he adds, “we’ve been trying to get the kids involved in honors programs as freshman and encouraging all kids in honors or AP courses to take the AP exams when they are juniors and seniors.”

Fort Worth schools operate differently than those within DISD. Dallas has entire magnet schools; Fort Worth has magnet-like programs called “special interest schools” within its normal schools. So students within those programs as well as the regular student body take part in the AP courses and exams. Those schools are Dunbar, Northside, Polytechnic, O.D. Wyatt, Trimble Technical, and Eastern Hills (which only had freshman and sophomores in its special interest program last year).

Gonzales, in a sense, competes with these special interest schools for his students.

“Our challenge is to keep our kids in our neighborhood school in a time when most students and parents are attracted to the special interest program,” he says. “We want to encourage more parents to believe in neighborhood schools and convince more gifted students to stay.”

How AP Works
In years past, AP classes were for gifted students who planned to attend college. The result: a very small percentage of students were exposed to the most challenging curriculum. But high schools now encourage all students who want to attend a competitive college to enroll in AP courses. From 1992 to 1997, the percentage of students entering UT Austin—a typically mid-level competitive school—who had taken an AP exam rose from 39 percent to 49 percent.

In 1951, the Ford Foundation asked Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and three private high schools to evaluate the curriculum of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. A simultaneous study at Kenyon College developed descriptions of freshman-level classes on which AP courses could be based. The AP program grew out of that research and was implemented in 1955. The College Board constructs the curriculum and oversees its administration. The Educational Testing Service administers AP exams.

High school seniors can receive college credit for AP courses, which is a big plus and, in the days of $40,000 tuition bills, a big motivator. Most schools require scores of three, four, or five; the more competitive the college, the higher the exam score required for credit.

In 1989, Dallas philanthropists Peter and Edith O’Donnell, through their O’Donnell Foundation, decided to determine if AP classes gave students a competitive edge in earning a college degree. The results of a five-year study on incoming freshmen at UT show a significant disparity between the completion rates of students who took an AP course in high school and students who had no AP exposure. Graduation rates for AP students: 80 percent. Graduation rates for non-AP students: 62 percent.

The O’Donnell Foundation has formed a nonprofit company called AP Strategies, which currently manages AP incentive programs in math, science, and English for Dallas, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Amarillo, Tyler, and Wichita Falls ISDs, with expectations to add Abilene, Pflugerville, and San Antonio ISDs in 2002-2003. AP Strategies is also working in Grand Prairie, Fort Worth, Plano, Duncanville, Joshua, Dallas, and Farmers Branch ISDs for an AP incentive program in music theory.

It seems to be working. The total number of students passing AP exams in math, science, and English in the nine Dallas incentive schools from 1995 to 2001 has increased from 139 to 819—a 589 percent increase. The number of African-Americans and Hispanic students passing AP exams in these three subjects from 1995 to 2001 has increased from 26 to 306—a 1,176 percent increase. In addition, African-American and Hispanic students are passing the math, science, and English AP exams at a rate more than four times greater than Texas and at a rate more than nine times greater than the United States.

Following the O’Donnell Foundation initiative, the Texas Education Agency now pushes high schools to include Pre-AP and AP courses in their curricula, and the agency is putting money behind the effort. Teachers receive funds to attend AP workshops and higher salaries to teach AP classes. When a course is successful, the school receives more money to provide further training and to reward teachers whose students produce passing scores.

Although some schools still offer honors courses, the TEA now prefers accelerated and talented-and-gifted courses to follow a pre-AP format.

Building the AP Factor in a school takes time and requires its own education program. Principal Bob Caudle created Allen High School’s “Eagle Vision” program in 1999 to encourage students as young as the fifth and sixth grade to start thinking about more challenging coursework. He tells them about the AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) options and encourages them to be open to the idea of a rigorous academic program in high school.
IB is an alternate college-level curriculum considered by AP coordinators to be a companion program, more than competition. But from students who have taken both, the word is that IB is more rigorous. The program stresses critical thinking and intercultural understanding, accompanied by high academic standards. Like AP, IB courses are standardized and overseen by a governing body. The five Dallas-Fort Worth high schools with IB programs are Garland, Plano East, Allen, and L.D. Bell and Trinity, both in Hurst.

According to Rick Fernandez, IB director at Plano East, students with IB diplomas are almost guaranteed admission to the top universities worldwide. At Allen High School, Principal Bob Caudle will graduate his first IB diploma students in May 2002.

“This is when we have to start getting kids on track,” Caudle says. “By the time a student is a junior or senior, it’s too late to start planning. We have to start before high school.”

Valerie Douglas is a former D Magazine assistant editor. Dawn McMullan is a D Magazine contributing editor.

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