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The Best Public High Schools in Dallas

We’ve talked to admissions officers, school administrators, and educators, and they all agree: AP is the best way to prepare for college. Students are now enrolling at light speed. These are how the local schools stack up.
By D Magazine |

NO. 6—FLOWER MOUND: (left to right) Math teacher Carol Niccum, senior Julio Gonzales, senior class president Haley Plunk

Sitting at her school desk, Genevieve Lee exudes vibrancy like only a bright high-schooler can. The junior has long, light brown hair and a natural beauty that suggests homecoming queen. She’s written on the back of her hand that she “hearts” Michael Faraday. Ah, to be young and in “heart.”

The object of her affection would be a lucky boy indeed if he hadn’t died in 1867. Michael Faraday would be Michael Faraday, English scientist. He was the one who discovered that electricity could be generated by spinning a magnet inside a wire coil. He built the first electric motor, first generator, and first transformer.

And Genevieve adores him. That’s okay at DISD’s School of Science and Engineering, which is housed with five other magnet high schools in the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center. “We feel confident in our nerdiness,” she says. Genevieve is taking four foreign languages and her second year of AP calculus. She’s on the robotics team, loves German dancing, and is captain of the spelling team. She is one of hundreds of students within the walls of Townview who will amuse and amaze you.

As D Magazine set out to rank 105 of the area’s public high schools, it was really no surprise that the top two turned out to be Townview’s School for the Talented and Gifted and its School of Science and Engineering. We found the same results the last time we did this in 2001. (See our chart on p. 114 to see how other schools fared.)

How We Did It
We based our ranking of the schools on their Advanced Placement programs. Many public schools offer an array of challenging programs, but AP courses give university admissions offices a nationwide standard by which to judge applicants. A 4 in AP calculus is the same everywhere.

Administrators, teachers, and students know the drill. If you want your choice of a good university—and perhaps a little scholarship money—AP courses and exams are the way to go. In the last seven years, AP programs in Texas have exploded. In 1996, only 52,156 exams were given; last May, students took 164,804.

Statistics also show that Genevieve and her fellow AP exam-takers are more likely to graduate from college on time. Take the 197,000-plus Texas high school graduates in 1998 who went on to public universities in the state. Of the kids who passed just one AP test in either math, science, English, or social studies, 34.4 percent graduated in four years; of students who simply took an AP test in those four core subjects—but didn’t even pass it—18.2 percent graduated in four years; and of those student who never took an AP test in those subjects, only 6.7 percent graduated in four years.

That noted, our ranking of the best high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is based on AP involvement and scores—what we call the “AP factor.” The AP factor has two components. The first is the breadth of a school’s AP program, or the percentage of students who take AP exams (we started with the number of students taking at least one exam and divided it by the number of juniors and seniors in the school). The second part of the AP factor is the strength of a school’s program, or how well the students score on their tests (we took the number of AP exams passed and divided it by the number of exams taken). Giving equal importance to these two measures, we multiplied the “breadth number” by the “strength number” and created a scale of 1 to 100.

Our method prevents the school with the tiny AP Dream Team from shooting to the top of our list. For example, if a school let only its four geniuses take an AP exam (and pass), it would have a perfect “strength number” of 1 (4/4, or 100 percent). But if that school had, say, 320 juniors and seniors, its “breadth number” would be a miserable .0125 (4/320), which would drag down its final AP factor to 1.25 (1 x .0125, then converted to fit the 1 to 100 scale).

 Of course, AP exams are not the only judge of a good high school. Every school has a teacher who spends her own money on class supplies, a student who lives in a foster home, or a parent who volunteers to tutor every Tuesday afternoon. But the AP factor, unlike a school’s feel, is easily quantifiable. And many educators agree it’s a good measure of a school’s performance.

How DISD Magnet Schools Do It
Mike Satarino is principal at the School for the Talented and Gifted, known for having the brightest kids in the district. “The hardest part is not becoming exemplary,” he says. “It’s remaining exemplary.”

On our AP factor scale of 1 to 100, the TAG magnet scores a 113.6—way ahead of No. 2 Science and Engineering (62.1); and No. 3 Highland Park (48.2). Of TAG’s 157 students, 141 took AP exams last May. On our chart, the percentage of students taking the exam compared to the junior and senior enrollment is 191 percent at TAG because a significant number of sophomores and freshmen also took exams, unlike most schools, where only a handful might. Of the 384 AP exams taken by TAG kids, 229 (59.6 percent) received passing scores of 3, 4, or 5.

Downstairs from the TAG wing at Townview, you’ll find its closest academic rival, the School of Science and Engineering. Richard White, the magnet’s principal, has been known to spend Saturdays in his garage working with his students to compete in the American Computer Science League. Internationally, 80 schools get to compete. Two years ago, Science and Engineering students placed second in the world.

White can produce graph after graph illustrating his school’s AP successes. In 2002, his 390 students churned out 102 passing AP calculus exams. The rest of DISD’s 36,000 students passed 165 AP calculus exams that year. Even more striking, have a look at computer science: Science and Engineering students passed 28 AP computer science exams in 2002; all the other DISD schools combined passed 23.

Surprised that two DISD schools topped our list, beating schools in Highland Park, Plano, Colleyville, and Carrollton? Keep in mind that TAG and Science and Engineering are magnet schools, an entirely different breed from traditional DISD schools. Students must apply to magnets, and admission is based on varying factors, including a student’s portfolio, behavioral test scores, recommendations, an essay, academic record, and standardized test scores.

Dallas’ magnet schools are also unique in that they are—or were until this year—racially diverse by court mandate. That also means they’re economically diverse. At TAG, 28 percent of the students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” At Science and Engineering, that number is 30.4 percent. And at the Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts, which is No. 4 on our list, it’s 18.1 percent (see related story on p. 118).

Compare that to some of the other top high schools: Highland Park (0 percent economically disadvantaged), Flower Mound (1.1 percent), Plano West (3 percent), and Colleyville Heritage (4 percent).

Of course, there is a bit of competition between TAG and Science and Engineering. TAG has a bit of a leg up because its teacher-student ratio is almost half that of the other magnet schools. The school is also much smaller (157 students) than the other magnets. Officials at Science and Engineering say they would put their top 157 students against TAG’s any day. But that’s not how the AP factor works. Sorry, guys.

But Science and Engineering deserves kudos for more than coming in second place. For the past two years, the school ranked first in the nation for blacks and Hispanics passing the calculus exam. Principal White is proud of this achievement. “We’ve just put a bit of a hole in the theory that minorities can’t achieve. Seventy percent of this school is minority. Every minority here knows he or she can be valedictorian. Here, it’s neat to be smart. It’s neat to take an AP and pass. It’s not neat to take an AP and fail.”

How the Students Do It
Essey Bedilu, a junior at TAG, is taking seven AP classes this year. That’s tough, even by magnet standards. Her non-AP class? Pre-AP calculus. Essey would like to go to Baylor, SMU, or “anywhere in California” to study pre-med and political science.

In the hall at TAG hangs a board with sign-up sheets for students who want to talk to college recruiters from Columbia, Boston University, Notre Dame, New York University, and Vanderbilt. Names of students, all hopeful for their futures, fill the lists.

The students at DISD’s top two magnets are here because they have a need to learn and want to get into their chosen college. Many also need financial aid to do so. Two years ago, TAG’s graduating class of 52 was awarded a total of $15 million in scholarships and grants. Last year, its class of 41 received $8.8 million.

Marilyn Basanta and Clinton Blackburn, both seniors at Science and Engineering, have their hearts set on MIT. Clinton has cousins who attend Roosevelt High School (No. 96 on our list) and who come home without any books. He can’t even imagine.

Between classes, Marilyn reminds Clinton that the deadline for early application to MIT is November 1. “Oh,” he says, getting out his pen. Apparently at DISD’s top two schools, when it comes to the important stuff—crushes, life plans—skin is in. Across his forearm, Clinton scrawls: “Apply for college.”

Dawn McMullan is a D Magazine contributing editor.