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Best Public High Schools 2006

Want to know how well-prepared your kids are for college? Using achievement in AP and IB as our guide, we rank the top 109 public high schools in Dallas. PLUS: how to save a year’s worth of college tuition and decoding the school finance debate.
By D Magazine |

WE’RE NO. 1: (left to right) Graciela Villatoro, Alex Nash, Abdul Dosunmu, Ivana Metters, Laura Montalvo, Temple Shipley, and Amanda Spolec with human geography teacher Richard Giddens.

The Top 10

 1. Talented & Gifted (DISD)
 2. Science & Engineering (DISD)
 3. Highland Park (HPISD)
 4. Booker T. Washington (DISD)
 5. Colleyville Heritage (Grapevine/Colleyville ISD)
 6. Flower Mound (Lewisville ISD)
 7. Plano West (Plano ISD)
 8. Grapevine (Grapevine/Colleyville ISD)
 9. Coppell (Coppell ISD)
 10. Carroll Senior (Carroll ISD)

You won’t be surprised to learn that seven of the worst 10 schools in the area are in the Dallas Independent School District.

But just as DISD darkens the bottom of the list, the school district shines at the top, with three of the top five schools. In fact, Nos. 1 and 2 are not just outpacing their peers in Dallas. The School for the Talented & Gifted and the Science & Engineering Magnet are beating the pants off other schools in the country—and around the world.

But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Frankly, the rankings (click HERE to see our list in PDF format) aren’t that different from the last time we did this in November 2003. Back then, the top five were TAG, Science & Engineering, Highland Park, Booker T. Washington, and Plano West. Only No. 5 has changed, as Colleyville Heritage High School (No. 7 last time around) trades places with Plano West. Flower Mound stays at No. 6, just like in 2003. Coppell is new to the top 10, jumping from No. 12 to No. 9. Plano Senior High slid out of the top 10 all together, tumbling to No. 16.

PRETTY IN THE PARK CITIES: (left to right) Marilyn Mootz, Blair Strong, Maggie Deichert, and Mary Burford in art class at No. 3 Highland Park.

We base our rankings on achievement in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs—essentially college-level classes in a high school setting for which a student can earn college credits. Why? One, because we had to pick a method, and we thought it should require math. Two, because college admissions offices look at AP and IB involvement as an indication of how well-prepared a high school student is for college.

“There is, of course, no one and only way to rank schools,” according to Trevor Packer, executive director of the New York City-based AP Program. “If someone is going to use AP to do that, we encourage whatever measure they’re using that includes AP to look at performance on the exam within the greater context of the overall school enrollment.”

Well, A+ for us. Because that’s exactly how we did it.

Here are the details: AP and IB courses and exams are the same worldwide, giving college admissions offices a way to compare students from different schools. For our ranking, we considered AP/IB involvement and scores. Fifty percent of a school’s score comes from the breadth of a school’s AP/IB program (dividing the number of students taking at least one exam by the junior and senior enrollment at the school), and 50 percent comes from the strength of a school’s AP/IB program (dividing the number of exams passed by the exams taken).

Giving equal weight to each side of the equation, we multiplied those numbers by each other, creating a scale of 1 to 100. We call it the “AP factor.”

We know this isn’t the only judge of a school, but it gives us a statistical measure of important college-prep programs within our local schools. The college admissions offices think this stuff is important, so we thought you would, too.

In May 2005, DISD gave 1,000 more AP exams than any other district in the state. Which brings us back to our top two schools. They have much to brag about.

REASON TO SMILE: Coppell is new to the top 10 this year. (back row, left to right) Sam Wang, Michael Buckley, Brittany Bradford, Shaiyan Keshvari, and Steven Cain. (front row, left to right) Michelle Higgins, Rachna Patel, and Scott Horton.

TAG is one of only 137 schools in the United States (there are 23,000 schools in this comparison pool) that can claim that all 2005 graduating seniors passed an AP exam at some point during their high school years. Just so you know, most schools on that list are elite private schools. Compare that 100 percent rate to the national average of 14.1 and the Texas average of 13.7. Science & Engineering scored 78.6 percent, Highland Park 52.4 percent, Booker T. Washington 60.3 percent, and Colleyville Heritage 46.7 percent.

Second awesome TAG fact: it had the highest percentage in the world of kids passing the exam in AP human geography and AP computer science. (AP is in 100 countries.) In case you aren’t impressed, these are freshman-level courses at TAG.

Science & Engineering tops the statistics in AP calculus, with the highest number of African-American and Latin-American freshmen and sophomores passing their AP calculus exams. The school ranks No. 5 in the nation for students passing their AP calculus exams. In addition, Science & Engineering had more Latin-American students passing AP human geography than any other school in the world.

Principal Richard White, of Science & Engineering, is accustomed to being topped by his TAG neighbor at Townview. But he never loses faith. He plans to set world records with his students’ AP calculus performance again this year. “We’re small, but we’re pretty powerful,” he says.

TAG Principal Mike Satarino is humble about his school’s success: “Our teachers work very hard. Our students work very hard. Our parents support us. With all that, you can’t do too bad.”

How To Save a Year’s Worth of College Tuition
IB gives your kids an edge when applying for college—and can save you thousands. Read on.

You’ve probably heard of International Baccalaureate (IB). But have you heard of Senate Bill 111? The new legislation says that as of the 2006-07 school year, universities must give 24 hours of college credit to students who pass their IB exams and graduate with an IB diploma. That could be worth almost $4,000 at Texas Tech, more than $4,000 at Texas A&M, and $6,000 at UT in tuition alone.

The worldwide IB program started in 1968. While students may just dabble in IB—much like they do in AP, taking classes here and there if they want—schools must offer the IB diploma before they can offer even one IB class, making it an expensive and lengthy proposition. An IB diploma consists of six IB courses and six exams in six disciplines: English, foreign language, social science, experimental science, mathematics, and the arts. Students must also complete a 4,000-word extended essay and document 150 hours of creativity, action, and service.

IB Schools
Allen High School, Allen
Plano East Senior High School, Plano
Trinity High School, HEB
L.D. Bell High School, HEB
Garland High School, Garland
The North Hills School (charter
school), Irving

Applicant IB Schools
(They’ve completed the application and are just awaiting authorization.)
Arlington High School, Arlington
James Bowie High School, Arlington
Dallas International School, Dallas
The Westwood School, Dallas
Westlake Academy, Westlake

Twenty-eight high schools in Texas offer IB right now, including six locally, and another five are awaiting authorization (see lists at right). Two schools, St. Ignatius Prep in Arlington and Lancaster Elise Robertson in Lancaster, have completed part of the IB application, and we’ve heard that Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Highland Park, and Denton ISDs have expressed interest in the program.

So should you choose IB over AP? Not necessarily. The two overlap often and fit together well. While AP is nicely done piecemeal, IB was created to be an intertwined curriculum, challenging a student’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s a total curriculum to build a well-rounded student,” says Karen Phillips, executive director of Texas IB Schools.

Like AP, IB gives students a boost during the college application process. At Cornell, for example, 28.5 percent of all applicants were accepted last year, compared to 51 percent of all applicants with an IB diploma. At Brown, 17 percent of all applicants were accepted, while 21.6 percent of all IB graduates were.

“AP and IB are both designed to help you get into college,” says Grant Clayton, AP/IB coordinator at Allen High School and a key player with Phillips in getting Senate Bill 111 passed. “Students need to be able to demonstrate that they took the most rigorous courses available. If you’re at Marathon High School and one AP class is available, take it. If you’re at Allen High School and an IB diploma is available, take it.”

And take a load off that college bill.

Why You Should Care About Texas School Finance
This issue is a hot button with educators, legislators, and parents. We’ve decoded the debate.

I write a big check every year to Hockaday. Why should I care how public schools are funded?
Selfishly, because you also write a big check to the public school system every year in the form of your property taxes. But if you look at the bigger picture, 90 percent of children are educated in public schools, meaning we all have a stake in what happens to these kids for the good of our society.

Remind me again how this all happened?
More than 300 school districts—including Dallas, Allen, Argyle, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Coppell, Grapevine-Colleyville, Highland Park, Lewisville, Northwest, Plano, and Richardson ISDs—joined a lawsuit initially filed by West Orange-Cove school district against the state of Texas back in 2001. The lawsuit claimed, among other things, that the way the state funds schools is unconstitutional, basically amounting to a state income tax because schools had no discretion regarding funds. Most of a school’s budget comes from property taxes, which could be lowered because of this. They are capped at $1.50 per $100 value of your home. What if the school needs more money? Sorry, the tap is capped. And about half of our schools are at this cap.

As background, in 1993, legislators passed the state’s Robin Hood plan, which forced property-wealthy districts to help support property-poor districts (property-wealthy districts being those that reached a certain level of tax income versus students). Robin Hood was passed as a result of another string of lawsuits in the late ’80s based on the inequities between rich districts and poor districts.

Back to the present, 16 property-poor districts have gotten in on the West Orange-Cove lawsuit, bringing their own set of concerns about equity to the judicial table. Local districts that joined in include Mesquite and Alvarado.

The case went to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled 7-1 last November that we did, indeed, have an unconstitutional funding system. The court gave legislators until June 1 to fix that.

Why can’t we just keep financing schools the way we’ve been doing it for years?
Mainly because the Texas Supreme Court said so. But more practically, if you consider the total amount school districts can earn through taxes, districts are already spending 97 percent of it. For the 1993-94 school year, they were spending just 83 percent of it.

What to do about that was the question put before state legislators during their regular session and two special sessions in 2005. Still, nothing.

Local property taxes foot about 60 percent of the public school bill, while the state kicks in 38 percent, lower than ever before. Comptroller John Sharp is heading a commission to determine how to shift that tax burden from property owners to businesses. The House and Senate can’t agree on exactly how that will work.

Currently, one out of 16 businesses in Texas pays taxes that go toward education (in the form of property taxes). Sharp’s proposal is to have every business pay .5 to 1 percent in taxes on their gross receipts, taking out either spending on personnel or the cost of their goods sold. That should raise $4 billion, leaving another $1.8 billion that needs to be raised to make up for taking the tax cap down to $1 per $100 valuation. The thought is that maybe $1 billion will come from sin taxes and the other $800 million out of the state’s surplus.

What does the superintendent in a wealthy district, like Highland Park, think of all this?
In the past 12 years, Highland Park ISD has sent $600 million of local property tax money to other schools. HPISD gets no federal money, supporting its schools primarily on its property taxes alone, which make up 80 percent of its budget.

Superintendent Cathy Bryce thinks the business community must step up to the plate—whether out of the goodness of their hearts or the practicality of their future workforce.

“I think our current taxing structure is very out of sync with our economy,” Bryce says. “My hope is that the business community will rally around a solution for a tax system that is more aligned with the current and future economy so there’s a capacity in the taxes raised to support publicly funded processes like public education. We can’t hammer on property taxes any more than we already are.”

What about a less wealthy district, like Lancaster?
Fresh from a meeting led by Comptroller Sharp, Lancaster superintendent Larry Lewis was feeling hopeful. Approximately 50 percent of his budget comes from local property taxes. He gets $69,000 in Robin Hood money, and the rest comes from the state and federal governments. “If they do what John Sharp proposes, we’re probably guaranteed to get whatever money we’re getting now,” Lewis says. “If they don’t do it that way, it could help us or kill us.”

Will all of this be over on June 1?
Yes and no. Those in the know predict it will be a last-minute move that repairs the situation for the short-term. They also predict—or at least hope—legislators will dig deep into this and other public school issues during their regular session next January.