Best High Schools 2016

The No. 1 Public High School in Texas Is in Houston

DeBakey turns out math and science whiz kids who head to top colleges. But with high expectations comes high pressure.

By Roxanna Asgarian September 19, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Omar Bustos, 15, observes an experiment to separate salt from sand.

Image: Eric Kayne

India Crook tightens the straps of her backpack as she enters through the front doors of Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions for her second week of school. As the bell rings and a voice on the intercom reminds students to check in at their homerooms for potential schedule changes, Crook, a 15-year-old freshman, looks a bit overwhelmed. She applied to attend the magnet school—ranked, this year and last, as the No. 1 school in the entire state of Texas by Houston-based educational non-profit Children at Risk—while she was a middle schooler at Pin Oak Middle School, because, she says, “I always was interested in the medical field, and looking at how the human body works.”

“It was scary because I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” she says of the application process. DeBakey, located in the Third Ward, accepts only entering freshmen, and of the 1,200 students who typically apply, only about 250 make the cut. Crook also applied to Carnegie Vanguard, among a few others, but luckily, got accepted into her first choice. “DeBakey is focused on what I like,” she says. She’s known since eighth grade that she wants to get a “PhD at least, and then step it up with an MD.”

In her blue polo shirt, Crook blends into the sea of similarly uniformed kids in the hallway—in blue hooded sweatshirts and windbreakers with the DeBakey logo emblazoned on them, wearing their new-school-year sneakers and clutching laptop bags. The other students also share her lofty aspirations—it’s not uncommon for students’ top college choices to be in the Ivy Leagues, and a select group of six students each year earns automatic admission into UH and then Baylor Medical School, provided their grades and test scores stay high.

Dr. Michael DeBakey himself envisioned nothing less when he helped found the school in 1972, in a partnership with HISD and Baylor College of Medicine, where he was president. His main goal was to help more minority children go after careers in medicine; today, the school is 90 percent minority, with 47 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. A world-famous heart surgeon whose medical inventions revolutionized the field, DeBakey considered the school one of his greatest accomplishments. He led students on hospital tours through the Medical Center until shortly before he died in 2008.

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Dr. Marie Bielamowicz, DeBakey’s CTE Health Science teacher, holds a poster created by students, who invented imaginary life forms that might live on other planets, theorizing about the organs, morphology and other features the creatures might need to survive.

Image: Eric Kayne

At the time of his death, one of his goals for the school had not yet been realized: He’d envisioned a new, state-of-the-art campus, one that would match its top-ranked students. In 2012, a vote for a $65 million bond for a new DeBakey campus on Holcombe and Main passed. The school, which will accommodate up to 1,000 students on five floors, should be ready at the end of this semester, says principal Agnes Perry. “The leadership at the Texas Medical Center knew that’s what Dr. DeBakey wanted,” she says. “The new building is more centered within the Med Center, with easier access.”

And the kids need that access. In addition to hospital tours, classes make rounds at hospitals and even apply to intern with doctors in their fields of interest, such as neurosurgery or physical therapy. “There are different reasons students end up here,” Perry says. “Some parents heard about the program and want their kids here. But many kids grew up seeing their pediatrician or watching the veterinarian care for their pets, and they’ve wanted to do that since they were little. This is a way to clarify if the medical field is what they want to do.”

Perry says 60 to 70 percent of students who graduate from DeBakey choose a science major in college, and while some go into medicine, many also go into other science, technology, engineering or math fields. Perry’s fine with that; she says the goal is to produce top students with a strong math and science background, who can get into top colleges. “They all finish with at least calculus and at least one AP science, and three years of a language,” Perry says. “So they have a leg up.”

Not everyone can make it through the school’s rigorous program—of the 250 students who get accepted as freshmen each year, about 190 end up graduating from DeBakey; the rest return to their neighborhood schools or move to a different district. But the school boasts a perfect 100 percent graduation rate, which is nearly unheard of. “We don’t have kids that flunk out,” she says. By way of explanation, she adds, “Kids here are more focused, we don’t have a high mobility rate. Attendance rate is about 98 percent—kids don’t want to miss.”

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Chemistry teacher Dina Adam leads an experiment, teaching students principles of the scientific method, measurement and safety.

Image: Eric Kayne

The downside to the high expectations, Perry says, is high pressure. But DeBakey has a system set up for students who are falling behind or struggling to keep up: Those students are expected to attend tutorials four days a week, and to attend summer school at DeBakey if they need to retake a class. There’s also a counselor on call, and Perry is in talks with Baylor to start a weekly group therapy session for stressed-out kids.

Many students, especially those who have a year or two under their belts, have come up with their own time-management systems and are already in possession of an enviable amount of organization and focus. “Moving through it, you’ve got to make a support network with your friends and you get through it with them,” says 15-year-old junior Alfredo Moreno.

Moreno says he’s looking forward to this, his junior, year, when he’ll receive his coveted scrubs and lab coat. In a school with no varsity sports teams, cachet is given to juniors and seniors who are able to strut the halls in scrubs, which they wear during their internships, labs and hospital rotations. “I’m super, super excited about it,” he says. “Getting your scrubs and lab coat...once you do, you have a status. You’ve left your mark here at DeBakey.”

Moreno entered the school wanting to be a scientist or a chemical engineer, but he’s now taken to health science and patient care. “Now I’m not sure, I’m torn. I can definitely see myself in a hospital,” he says.

“It hasn’t been easy, it’s very rigorous,” Moreno says. “But it’s worth it when you look back and see what you’ve accomplished.”

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