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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

December 10 Webinar: "Creating a Strong School Culture: Inspiration from Houston's Successful YES Prep Schools"

December 10, 2009, at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST

Host: Grace Rubenstein, senior producer, Edutopia

Presenters: Chris Barbic, founder of the YES Prep Public Schools, Mark DiBella, school director at YES Prep North Central, and Mayra Valle, a senior at YES Prep North Central

Target audience: Ideal for teachers and administrators interested in strengthening the culture at their schools

Anyone who has worked in public education knows that school culture can make or break the experience. Great teachers, programs, and practices succeed best only with a culture that supports them. In Houston's YES Prep Public Schools, educators put culture front and center, and it's a major force behind their success. Teachers support each other and constantly seek to help their colleagues improve. They build relationships with students to help them thrive even under the schools' rigorous demands.

The end result: happy teachers, and hundreds of low-income students becoming the first in their families to attend college. There's no magic involved -- just good ideas, dedicated people, and deft execution. In this session, YES Prep leaders explain what they do, how they do it, and how you can put some of these ideas in action at your school, too.

Webinar Resources

About the Host

Grace Rubenstein

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer with Edutopia magazine and Edutopia.org. Prior to joining The George Lucas Educational Foundation in 2005, she was an education reporter at the Lawrence, Massachusetts, Eagle-Tribune and a Boston Globe correspondent. She has won awards from the New England Press Association and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association.

About the Panelists

Chris Barbic

Chris Barbic opened the first YES Prep charter school in Houston in 1998 to help students from low-income families go to college and break generational cycles of poverty. Previously, he taught elementary school for six years in the Houston Independent School District and participated in Teach for America. In 1995, he earned the HISD's Outstanding Young Educator award.

Because YES Prep -- now a network of seven schools for grades 6-12 in Houston -- was launched by teachers, Barbic and his colleagues are determined to make it a place where teachers can thrive and succeed. He firmly believes that the strategies they use to build this strong, supportive culture can work in other schools, regualr or charter, and he relishes the hard work -- and answering the hard questions -- that will help make that happen.

Mark DiBella

Mark DiBella joined Houston's YES Prep Public Schools in 2001 as an algebra teacher. Two years later, he and two colleagues opened a new campus, YES Prep North Central, where he became school director in 2005. The school now serves 750 students in grades 6-12 and aims to send every one of them -- almost all from underprivileged backgrounds -- to college and ultimately postcollege careers.

YES Prep North Central is an authorized International Baccalaureate school and, based on its standardized test scores, has earned the rare state-designated "Exemplary" rating for all six years of its existence. DiBella believes in cultivating a culture of constant improvement, where everyone has something to contribute, regardless of rank or tenure, and diverse opinions are welcome. He intentionally hires people who are different from him.

Mayra Valle

Mayra Valle was in the first class of sixth graders to enter YES Prep North Central when the campus opened in 2003. Valle, the older of two siblings, is determined to graduate from college and enter a career, as no one in her extended family has done so before. Her mother immigrated to Texas from Mexico as a girl, with her own mother and 11 siblings, and worked at McDonald's and as a grocery-store cashier, though she dreamed of a career in fashion or cooking. Her father drives a truck for a landscaping company.

Valle's extended family is very close knit and supports her in her studies, even though the intense demands of YES Prep have caused her to sacrifice a lot of family time. The strong support of her teachers is a key ingredient in Valle's success, as well. She is a leader in the school's student theater club and hopes to attend Columbia University or New York University to become a social worker.

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Jay Cherin's picture

I think what YES does is great. However, at the charter school where I work, we serve the same demographic and face challenges that YES does not take on. YES has a rigorous admissions policy, and not every applicant is accepted. At my school, Sanchez Charter, we have an open admissions policy, and also strive to break the generational cycle of dropping out or not going on to higher ed. I think YES does a fine job and is to be commended, but let's not overlook the fact that YES is designed to NOT fail by not taking on the most challenging situations, those students who fall through the cracks, have discipline problems, child-care issues, and others of the pernicious problems facing the inner-city at-risk youths in Houston. By only accepting students who are likely to succeed if given the right environment and support, YESdoes not serve a substantial part of the economically disadvantaged community of students. Kudos to YES for what they do with the cream of the crop. Honestly, I'd be surprised if they did anything less than exemplary performance. However, I'd like to see how YES would do if they had an open admissions policy. I'm sure there'd be sucess, but I wonder how much. We at Sanchez have succeeded, but not in the sAme way as YES, mainly because we do not screen our applicants for existing achievement. We take whomever wants to attend school, unless they would pose a threat to the safety or well being of our students.

Iris Wells's picture

Yes Jay, you are absolutely right. Unlike YES' wonderfully successful program, most inner-city schools are faced with other challenging variables that come with giving the real "disadvantaged" a chance to succeed with better quality education.
My daughter is a successful product of Achievement First Charter - They admit through lottery and had to deal with the challenges of environmental and family issues affecting the the success of students - This doesnt look as good when compared to a program such as YES, but if you take into account the ""unscreened" successes, they would rank just as high...
Thank you for your comments very good points. And congratulations YES - on your successful program making a difference in the lives of our future leaders.

Yvonne Beaudry's picture

In the YES Prep video I have watched, most of the teachers seem very young. Is this intentional? Could a teacher with several decades experience fit into the YES culture?

Craig Brandenburg's picture
Craig Brandenburg
Technology Teacher, yBlazer Studios Founder @ YES Prep North Central

Hey Jay and Iris,

I wanted to clear up something both of you mentioned in your posts above. YES Prep North Central is an OPEN-ENROLLMENT PUBLIC SCHOOL. There are no requirements a student must meet in order to attend YES Prep. We use a lottery system as well. Students just fill out the paperwork and are put in a lottery. We have close to 2,000 students on the waiting list. This is our drive to open more YES Prep schools around Houston.

So, just to make sure everyone has the same information, we are an open-enrollment public school. We deal with the same family issues that any urban city school deals with. Hope this helps.

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