Top grades shift toward suburbs

Performance divide from urban districts concerns education experts


May 30, 2017 Updated: June 2, 2017 4:44pm

Every child in Christy Manchac’s second-grade English language arts class was glued to an iPad screen one morning in mid-May.

They tapped their tiny fingers on the screens and spoke softly into a headset attached to the device by long black cords. When they finished, they gave the machines to Manchac, who listened to their recorded voices describe what sets adverbs apart from verbs and adjectives. Later, Manchac uploaded the audio, along with her own audio commentary, to a website so attentive parents could track their child’s progress from home.


And virtually all of the parents of Buckalew Elementary school students are eager to check on their students, Manchac said, adding that they’re among the most involved group of caregivers she’s seen in her teaching career.

Buckalew Principal Jill Price said parent involvement, coupled with low teacher turnover and a culture of high expectations, sets her school apart and earned it the top spot for elementary schools on Children at Risk’s 2017 report card. The Houston-based nonprofit advocacy group ranks the state’s public schools based mostly on students’ performance on standardized exams, adjusting for schools’ poverty rates.

“We’re a family – that’s the bottom line,” Price said. “Kids are motivated by their relationships with their classmates and their teachers. Without that, it’s hard to keep them engaged.”

While some of the greater Houston metro area’s best schools are located in the heart of the city, results from the 2017 rankings show that high-performing schools are concentrated in the suburbs.

Outer suburban districts saw a much larger portion of schools earn top marks on the advocacy group’s report card than their more urban and more rural counterparts. Such rankings tend to favor schools in more affluent, suburban areas. Even though they are adjusted some to account for poverty rates, the rankings are calculated largely on student performance and growth on standardized tests.

Fewer than 40 percent of Houston ISD schools and fewer than 30 percent of schools that belong to districts within Houston’s Beltway 8 earned A or B grades on the rankings. By comparison, more than 60 percent of schools in districts located outside the Beltway and near the unfinished Grand Parkway earned A’s and B’s. Rural school districts located well outside the planned Grand Parkway, including Waller, Dickinson, Royal and Montgomery ISDs, saw about half of their schools earn A’s and B’s.

Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, said he expected to see a performance divide between urban and suburban districts. But he didn’t expect the gap to be as wide as it is.

“What’s amazing is even after we adjust for poverty, still we have these extraordinarily bad schools in some of our urban areas,” Sanborn said. “I thought there would be more high-performing high-poverty schools.”

Paul Hill, founder of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, said such results can be seen throughout the country.


“If you have suburbs that are wealthier and more college educated than the city, you’ll get those results,” Hill said. “Suburbs with similarly low incomes may look a lot different, but in general, there’s this suburban ring where children live in homes with lots of literature, where parents are constantly working to get them to think like college-bound kids.”

The top three elementary schools all came from districts outside of Beltway 8, including the No. 1-ranked Buckalew Elementary in Conroe ISD. Fort Settlement Middle in Fort Bend ISD was named the best middle school, followed by Lanier Middle in Houston ISD.

But Houston ISD dominated the rankings for top high schools, with the top five all hailing from the district. DeBakey High School for Health Professions was labeled as the best high school in the greater Houston area, followed by Challenge Early College High School, the High School for the Performing & Visual Arts, Eastwood Academy and Carnegie Vanguard High School.

Explore how schools performed in the Houston area

Outer suburban districts saw a much larger portion of schools earn top marks on the advocacy group’s report card than their more urban and more rural counterparts. Fewer than 40 percent of Houston ISD schools and fewer than 30 percent of schools that belong to districts within Houston’s Beltway 8 earned A or B grades on the rankings. Click here to explore the full database.

Source: Children at Risk | Created by Data Journalist Rachael Gleason

Hill said urban districts often have several flagship programs that enroll wealthier students who may otherwise go to a private or suburban school. But attracting those students can come at a cost to less affluent students who might have a more difficult time with the application process and getting to and from the school if it isn’t in their neighborhood.

“Big cities do try to keep the middle class in the schools,” Hill said. “They often have to offer something appealing to people who want their kids to get into good colleges. But often those schools’ admissions requirements and the difficulty to get to them puts burdens on parents and often leads the school to have a more privileged population than the city as a whole.”

The rankings did highlight schools that performed better than expected with economically disadvantaged students. Two KIPP Houston Public Schools were among the top five elementary schools where 75 percent or more of students are economically disadvantaged. Houston ISD’s Lyons Elementary was the only traditional public school highlighted for both serving a large majority of disadvantaged students while earning an A& in the Children at Risk rankings.

By contrast, only 1.8 percent of Buckalew Elementary’s students are economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. A little more than 67 percent of its students are white, and only 3.4 percent are enrolled as English as a second language learners, compared with 18 percent of students statewide.

When asked if Buckalew would be ranked as highly if more than 50 percent of its students came from economically disadvantaged households, Price replied, “I would hope so.”

“It’s difficult because you can’t change a student’s environment,” Price said. “You can do what you can during the school day, but they could be worried about food, their home life, whether the electricity will still be on tomorrow.”

Sanborn said state lawmakers – the majority of whom represent wealthier suburban districts – need to realize that more work must be done and more money must be spent to help students in urban areas.

“It’s important for the state to realize there’s a difference” between urban and suburban districts, Sanborn said. “It’s not the fault of teachers or students or parents who have to work two jobs – it’s a fault in the system where it’s not doing the right job.”