Andrew Campanella: What makes your school unique and what is the primary reason that families choose DeBakey High School for Health Professions?
Raul Saldivar, assistant principal: We are a magnet school here in the Houston Independent School District. It’s one of the largest districts in the country, and we’re trying to bring in students from across the area into our magnet school. We expose them to health professions, but there’s also a math and science focus too. We’re a midsize high school. We’re not a large, comprehensive neighborhood school that has thousands of students. So our small student enrollment gives us a unique, close way to work with students, especially in the classroom. There are smaller classrooms and teachers have that way to connect with students early on.
Agnes Perry, principal: What’s really unique about our school is our curriculum. The school started off as a vocational program in 1972. In the late ’80s, the Baylor College of Medicine, which was our partner, had a discussion with the Houston Independent School District about revamping our curriculum. So in the ‘80s we added on a college preparatory program. At this point, for the last 35 years, all the students have to take five years of math, including calculus, five years of science, four years of health science, and three years of a language other than English.
Andrew: You’re one of the top high schools in America. What are some of the ingredients of your success?
Raul: The people that we bring in. We instill high expectations with our staff, with our teachers, and then that trickles down to our students. So it’s that culture of high expectations that’s one piece of the formula.
Agnes: I think that we’ve tried to formulate a team environment. I, as an administrator, want to get input from the staff. I’m not a dictator-type leader. I want participation, collaboration. Even if we don’t agree, I still want to hear the opinions of my staff and parents. I keep an open-door policy. We have great parent involvement. I welcome that. I want the parents involved. That’s not the case in all high schools. Usually, parents kind of back off in high school, but I encourage it.
Andrew: Tell me how you find teachers who thrive in an environment that has such high expectations and unique focus.
Agnes: Because of our reputation, many people would like to teach here at DeBakey. Since we’re in the Texas Medical Center, very often we recruit people in the Texas Medical Center who are looking to change their career. Maybe they’ve been a nurse and they don’t want to have those long hours, or they just want a change. We do have job fairs that are available to the Houston Independent School District. But, because we’re so specialized, we’ve found that a lot of our recruiting has been by word-of-mouth: people recommending someone who is ready to make a change. Also, we have a partnership with Baylor College of Medicine. When the school was initially initiated in 1972, it was a partnership between Baylor College of Medicine and the Houston Independent School District, so Baylor is also an asset when it comes to getting referrals for people who would like to make a change in their career.
Andrew: What are some of the extracurricular activities you have at DeBakey?
Raul: It seems like every year we have a growing network of clubs and organizations on campus. We have those communities for our students here. If students are interested in forming a club or being part of a national organization, they can provide that input. Obviously, there’s a process where we review it, but we’ve often had social clubs being formed from student leaders.
Agnes: For all of our students, part of the graduation requirement is that they must complete 100 volunteer hours. When they first come in, they sign an interest agreement, and that’s one of the areas they understand that they must do that before they get their distinguished diploma as a senior. It could be through a hospital. It could be through a community organization. It could be through their church.
Andrew: Why do you think school choice and parents having the ability to choose schools for their kids is so important?
Agnes: Many of us go to college and we don’t really know what we want to do; we may change our major two or three times. Sometimes having a choice in high school, even elementary school, clarifies that for students. Or, it just exposes them to another area they otherwise wouldn’t see in a traditional school.
I think that no matter what students’ interests are, schools of choice help clarify what those interests may be or what they may pursue as a career in the future.
Raul: One of my previous experiences was working at a neighborhood middle school. Many families did not know that there were options in the district and that they could apply and choose to go to a different high school like DeBakey. Or, maybe if they excelled at that middle school’s mariachi program, maybe they could excel at a performing arts school too. They had no idea. That’s how I got involved with promoting the idea that you have choices when it comes to your child’s high school curriculum.
Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.
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