4 schools on border among best in the U.S.

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

Four public schools in one of the poorest regions in the country have been named among the top 100 high schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

The schools, all in Hidalgo County on the Texas-Mexico border, were recognized for high test scores, their success with at-risk students and college-level course work.

Ten Texas schools made the top 100, including Highland Park High School, located in an affluent enclave of Dallas. But the South Texas schools face unique challenges: Nearly 90 percent of the roughly 363,000 school-age children in the region come from poor homes, and 40 percent come to school speaking little or no English. Just 52 percent of students graduate from high school in four years.

"The lesson seems to be that lots of schools can be great," said Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News & World Report.
Hidalgo Independent School District's lone high school was the highest-ranked Texas school on the list at No. 11.
"It's exciting," said Eduardo Cancino, Hidalgo's superintendent. "We work very hard every day to provide the best education for every single student, and it's nice to be recognized for that."

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The other three schools are all part of South Texas ISD, a magnet district that covers three counties in the Rio Grande Valley. Three of the district's four schools South Texas Business Education & Technology Academy in Edinburg; South Texas High School for Health Professionals; and the Science Academy of South Texas, both in Mercedes also made the list.

The magnet schools are open to students who live in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties and provide a focused and rigorous education. South Texas Superintendent Marla Guerra said some students ride a bus three hours a day to attend the schools.

"We've found that our students rise to the occasion," Guerra said. "Our expectations are high. Students take calculus. They take physics. The rigor is there."

No San Antonio schools made the top 100.
U.S. News & World Report is known for its annual college rankings, but this is the first time the magazine has published a list of high schools.

Newsweek magazine ranks high schools each year based on student performance on advance placement and International Baccalaureate tests. Critics say that method doesn't reflect the quality of education for every student at the school.

Kelly said U.S. News & World Report looked at the broad mission of public schools.
"They need to serve the top kids and the at-risk kids and the average kids," Kelly said. "You can have a very good, wealthy school that brings in pretty smart kids and turns out pretty smart kids. They're doing their jobs but they're not exceeding expectations. That's what we were looking for."

The magazine profiled four of the top 100 schools, including the No. 1 ranked Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, two schools in Boston and Hidalgo High School.

"It's truly important for us to make it known that every single child that enters our school has value and worth, and every single child has potential," said Edward Blaha, Hidalgo High's principal. "Our kids here are as capable as anyone else of success, given the opportunity."

Hidalgo has received national attention for its stellar test results and high college-going rates, despite the fact that it serves a mostly poor, minority population. Last year, H-E-B honored the district during the company's annual Excellence in Education awards, with a $100,000 prize.

The district, which serves roughly 3,200 students, is sandwiched between McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico. About seven out of 10 children begin school speaking no English and many walk to school from neighborhoods of shanty houses and camper trailers that hug the banks of the Rio Grande.

Still, district leaders have adopted a rigid "no excuses" mantra and accessed every resource possible to enhance their schools. Every 3-year-old in Hidalgo has access to free, full-day prekindergarten with a certified teacher.

Students leave elementary school fluent in two languages, and high school students earn up to 60 hours of college credit through a $1.2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start an early-college high school program.

South Texas ISD's schools also are unique to the Valley. The district is the only one of its kind in Texas and was created to give kids in the Valley an alternative to a traditional high school setting.

Guerra said South Texas limits its campuses to no more than 700 students. Students are already required to take four years of math and science something the Texas Legislature recently mandated for all students beginning with this year's freshmen and juniors and seniors have a chance to intern in professional settings, from engineering firms to hospitals.

"They get a lot out of their education," Guerra said. "It's truly college prep."


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