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Science classes make up a bulk of the curriculum at DeBakey High School, which Children at Risk ranked as the No. 1 public high school in Houston this year.

Image: Eric Kayne

As Houstonia put together this year's Best High Schools feature, we turned to the experts—specifically, Children at Risk, which has been compiling data on Houston schools for 11 years with the goal of bringing more information into the fight for better inner-city schools. The rankings have since expanded to include elementary, middle and high schools across the state.

In addition to listing Children at Risk's top public high schools in the Houston area, we chatted with Dr. Bob Sanborn, the organization’s president and CEO, about what makes a great school and how his agency's data helps get struggling schools up to par.

Houstonia: How did Children at Risk get started?

Dr. Sanborn: Children at Risk has been around for about 27 years. The idea behind it was that a group of social workers and pediatricians and funders decided that there wasn’t enough data around children’s issues in Houston. Ten years ago, we started to do this work around the state, including writing legislation to effect change. We use evidence to show what should be happening with our children, and try to figure out how we make sure that every child in the great state of Texas is able to be successful. We focus on education, health and nutrition, parenting, and child trafficking.

When I first came 11 years ago, my big passion was education. I had been at Rice for many years and then went to be a dean at a college in New England. I came back here to work on education. We thought there wasn’t a lot of data for parents on public schools in Houston. We decided to rank them so that parents could get a sense — 10 years ago people didn’t know what was a good school beyond guessing. Nobody had any information, so we wanted to put some data to it. Our thought was, if we could find a good high school that serves the inner city, we’d then figure out to replicate it. But we found that there were no good schools. The closest we could get to were charters and magnets. Houston has some of the best schools in the country, like Carnegie and DeBakey, but if you were just a parent of a student going to your local school, if you lived in the inner city, the chances of you going to a good school were zero. In Houston a lot of parents put forth effort, and these rankings became a tool for parental advocacy in public education. Parents began to say, “How do we make our schools better?” or “How do I get my kids into a better school?” That’s why we spread across the state and every single school, including elementary, middle and high schools.

So the lack of quality inner city public schools, has that changed in the past decade?

When schools hire reform-minded superintendents and principals ... leadership is key. And as early education and pre-k numbers have risen, we are seeing a lot of improvement. We have this thing we call Gold Ribbon Schools, which are zoned schools with over 75 percent low income students that are high-performing. Every year there are more and more Gold Ribbon schools. We’re really proud of Sharpstown High School this year. It’s probably around 95 percent low income, and they ended up getting a B ranking this year, so that was a big accomplishment to see that happen.

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Students take colorful, detailed notes at DeBakey.

Image: Eric Kayne

What goes into making a successful school?

Just like a successful business, it goes back to the leadership. Are they doing the things necessary to make the business successful. It starts with the superintendent. When we see a school that’s really good, we see one, a good principal, and two, great teachers working with that principal. We see that they’ve figured out a way to have rich after-school and before-school activities, and summer and Saturday activities, to extend that academic time. We see where they pay attention to the data. For instance, I went out to Cinco Ranch High School. And while they only had 5 percent economically disadvantaged kids, they tracked everyone so when they got a bad grade, they followed up with a student to figure out how to bring them up. Also, the creation of a school where there’s a culture of high expectations, which is directly related to leadership, you see the difference right away. You see the banners for colleges in the hallways, and part of that is to create high expectations — you will be successful and we’re going to get you there.

How do you compile the data for your annual rankings?

We try to use as much data as we find pertinent. We tweak it a lot. For high school, there are four baskets: 1) College readiness, which includes tests students take that are universal — AP, SAT, ACT, and graduation average scores. 2) Pure student achievement — we look at the STAAR tests in reading, math, and tally the advanced scores there. 3) Campus performance, which is demographically adjusted and compares schools with similar schools, so we make poverty adjustments. So if there is an outlier, you see how you perform against it. And 4), growth in a particular school. Growth is probably the most important, it’s a very important index. You want kids to show academic growth. This is where you see the rubber hit the road in how students in a school are doing. Are they learning, are they doing better? If a school isn’t doing well and they grow and get better, that benefits them. 

We hear sometimes from parents, “Our kid’s school didn’t do as well because we don’t have as many poor kids.” That’s one of the little myths around the rankings. What we're doing is comparing oranges and oranges. Still, the top schools, especially when you look at the top non-magnet or charters, are Clements High School and other affluent schools. So it is not disadvantaging schools. It’s giving us a more clear picture of the inner city and urban schools what’s really happening there.

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Principal Agnes Perry Bell walks the hallways at DeBakey.

Image: Eric Kayne

How does the data inform growth?

Nobody likes being told they could be better. Even if you know you could do better, you don’t want to be told. But parents want to be told, they want to know how their kids are doing and how they can make it better. With longevity, the schools know that we aren’t going away and that they’re being judged by this and over time this does become a motivator. I recently drove by West U elementary. They’re billboard says “Children at Risk ranks us No. 2 in the state of Texas.” On the mom listservs, they talk about the Children at Risk rankings — it becomes a universal measure, and we feel that responsibility. Our end goal is making all schools better and it’s really nice that parents can join us in that fight.

How do parents make a difference in the fight for better schools?

Well, we certainly love when parents are so motivated by the rankings that they move their kids to another school. The school we always liked was Law and Criminal Justice, it was always ranked high and was never full — there was room for more kids, and we like it when parents figure that out. But the thing we like even more is when a group of parents say, “How do I make my school better?” Take Briargrove Elementary. The parents there said, “We’re tired of our school getting a D or a C,” and they worked really hard to make that school better. It’s so much better when parents are able to have good data available to them so they can see changes year to year. 

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