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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Yes Prep North Central

Grades 6-12 | Houston, TX

10 Takeaway Tips for a College-Bound School Culture

Bold ideas from YES Prep North Central, a successful Houston charter school.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Credit: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

At YES Prep North Central, the college-bound culture, high-octane teaching practices, and strong relationships -- among students, among teachers, and among teachers and students -- all fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But each approach, taken on its own, represents a powerful way of thinking about education. As a handful of Houston schools begin to borrow from YES Prep's model, they are finding that key reforms can work on an incremental basis. Here are some of the most effective strategies for success:

Institute a Strong Discipline Policy

Staff members emphasize that students are responsible for themselves and their school community at YES Prep, and they work proactively with kids to build good behavioral skills, which include appearance as well as demeanor. (Shirts must be tucked in at YES Prep.) The policy is working: There were only two fights on campus last year.

Infuse the School with a College-Bound Culture

Pennants, posters, and slogans on almost every wall of the school broadcast the ultimate goal of getting into college. Members of the school faculty insist that every student will go to college, and they take students to university campuses to give them a flavor of the experience.

Be Available to Students After Hours

YES Prep provides each teacher with a cell phone, which students know they can call in the evenings if they don't understand their homework. This strategy eliminates excuses for not getting the work done.

Create Advisory Periods to Strengthen Relationships

Every day after lunch, each YES Prep staff member meets with the same group of students to discuss current challenges, academic or personal. Advisory groups are designed to serve as supportive families within the school.

Learn from Each Other's Expertise

Even great athletes need coaches, and the same goes for teachers. At YES Prep, teachers take a lead in supporting and coaching each other at weekly grade-level meetings. The school also stages an annual "observation challenge," when teachers pop into each other's classrooms to observe and give feedback.

Extend the Learning Time

The YES school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., five days a week, with sessions every sixth Saturday morning for extra instruction such as SAT practice, and community service. School leaders explain that the extra time is necessary to give students thorough preparation for college and accustom them to a rigorous professional work schedule. Just having great teachers isn't enough, says YES Prep founder Chris Barbic. Students also need added time with those teachers.

Try Team Teaching to Support Vulnerable Students

Educators at YES Prep, which serves students in grades 6-12, say the first year or two at the school, as students adjust to high expectations and long hours, can be a struggle. To help with the transition, teachers in sixth and seventh grades teach in pairs, sharing a classroom and handling larger numbers of students at once. This strategy enables them to get to know kids better, address problems with individual students, and create lessons that integrate various subjects, a step that makes the lessons more realistic and engaging.

Build the Meaning of Education Through Community Service

An additional goal at YES Prep, besides getting kids into and through college, is to ensure that graduates return to Houston and use their education to better the community. At North Central, students spend every sixth Wednesday doing community service. Each grade level chooses a theme for the year; this year's seniors, for instance, are focusing on local elementary schools. Student leaders choose projects on the selected theme. Every sixth Saturday, the teens help teachers organize community events and outreach activities for the neighborhoods around the school. Teacher Craig Brandenburg explains that by making community service a regular practice, "that just becomes who you are."

Set the Tone With a Student-Parent Contract

Before each student starts at YES Prep, a staff member visits his or her home to collect signatures on the family contract. "YES Prep is not just a school. YES Prep is a way of life," begins the document, which details the rigorous requirements of a college-prep program. Educators use the contract as a way to engage with parents, and to emphasize that success is possible only when students, parents, and teachers work together. Later, if the student's commitment slips, they can use the contract as a teaching tool to help get the student back on track.

Give Teachers Input and Shared Responsibility for Excellence

School Director Mark DiBella regularly seeks ideas and feedback from his staff, and intentionally recruits teachers who are different from him, to ensure a diversity of perspectives at the school. Grade-level chairs lead their colleagues through weekly shared planning sessions, and teams of teachers learn by observing each other in sessions modeled on medical-student rounds. Brandenburg says, "I feel really valued here."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.


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Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jill Kelsey's picture

While I expect the average teacher to be turned off by the idea of having students contact them after hours, let's not forget that this is a school with a supportive community.

I would be happy to have a cell phone just for students and I would also set guidelines for using it and expect them to follow it. You have to remember that there are some teachers that don't put a price on their time; they do what it takes.

Lisa Neal's picture

I do like how innovative charter schools can be. However, when students must meet criteria to be accepted and can be expelled when rules are not followed, it changes the entire structure of the school. What works when parents are involved and students are forced to "follow or leave" does not always work in a public school.

Sharon Bulger's picture
Sharon Bulger
Elementary Library Media Specialist

With the students completeing 45 hours every week, why is homework still necessary, and how much time do students spend on homework? I have concerns, even for my school district, regarding the place of homework in our society.

Parents and students arrive home around 5:30 or 6:00. If they take the time that a family should to prepare and eat supper together, then they are finished by 7:00. Elementary students now have 60 minutes to do homework, bathe, read, and go to bed by 8:00. In my district, students are expected to have 5 minutes of homework per grade level. Assuming the homework fits the guidelines, 3rd through 5th graders will have 30 to 50 minutes of homework to complete in their hour before being in the bed. Middle school students should be in bed by 9:00, giving them 2 hours to complete their homework. High school students have at least 3 hours.

It sounds all right until you remember to add in activities such as scouts, dance, sports, church, and music lessons.

Children need time with their families, time to relax alone or with friends, and they need their other activities to make them healthy, well-rounded humans.

To recap my question, how does homework fit into our society, especially as instructional hours are increased? Is homework a tradition whose time has passed?

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

Hey Lisa,

Thanks for posting. At YES Prep, students do not have to meet criteria to be accepted. We are an open-enrollment public charter school. We have close to 2,000 students waiting to get in. It's purely luck and, for some, it's a game changer. I think that is the thing that continues to drive us to open more YES Prep campuses in Houston.

In terms of students being expelled, this does not happen very often. We never ask students to leave if they are not keeping up with the work, or meeting our expectations. Students who are behavior issues are also supported. If a student were to bring drugs or alcohol to campus, they would be asked to leave. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm guessing that would be the same in most public schools.

However, when we ask a student to leave for a major offense, we always give them a chance to return. Usually, they are expected to spend a semester away. While they are gone, they are expected to stay in touch with their teachers from YES. The teacher checks in on their behavior and grades to make sure they are on track to come back. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I would guess close to 80% of the students who are asked to leave choose to come back. When they return, they are often our biggest supporters.

When a student makes a poor decision, we want to concentrate on making it a learning experience and chance for the student to improve. Just like in real life, there are consequences and we stick to those. However, we support a student even when they are not attending our school with the hope that they will return and continue their journey with us.

Alan Patterson's picture

I am currently thinking of working for YES, but I have some questions concerning pay. I work in a district in Houston and I get paid a decent amount of money. I also work the after school program at my school and teach summer school which pays me an extra 4,000 to 6,000 a year. I've currently been teaching for 7 years and have my masters degree. With the long hours required from YES, I am really wondering does the pay align with the expectations?

kathleen Maltese's picture
kathleen Maltese
high school art teacher, urban school in Chicago area

I encourage students to email me if they have questions about an assignment, however I put a deadline (9 pm) on when I will check my email and respond to them.

Blanco does bring up a big dilemma that I and many teachers struggle with all the time. I'm a relatively new teacher (6 years) love my job and my students; I usually take work home AND I have a family with a young child. I'm already gone from 6:00 am to 6 pm, trying to do all I can to be there for my students, and family/personal time gets shortchanged, to everyone's detriment. The longer school hours and every 6th Saturday are wonderful for those who can give that kind of time, but is this the ONLY way our kids can succeed? I have to believe otherwise, but haven't seen that model yet. .....Maybe I have to be the model? : - ))

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

Hi Kathleen,

Hope all is well. My name is Craig and this is my 10th year teaching and my 7th year at YES Prep North Central. It is definitely a huge time commitment to work at YES Prep. The one thing the school is working to improve this year is helping teachers find a balance between work and family. We have a few teachers this year who have just started a family. Our school director, Mark DiBella, has worked out a schedule with them where they have all their classes in the morning and are able to leave school earlier. Additionally, our student support counselor arrives later in the morning. Mark has arranged her schedule so she is on in the afternoons. It's not a perfect system, but it is something we are trying this year to help our teachers who have families.

We are also moving away from Saturday schools. We now hold two Saturday sessions. The first one is a Parent Open House. This happens in the Fall. In the Spring, we will hold the first ever YES Prep Public Schools 5K (this is in the works...so don't quote me). All 8 YES Prep campuses will be a part of this event. It potentially could be a district wide community service day if the 5K doesn't pan out.

I hope this answers some of your concerns. It has been a blessing to work for a school which is willing to try new systems to help teachers feel valued and allow them time to balance work and personal life. Let me know if you have any other questions.

Ellen LaBruce's picture

I'd like to second Lisa's question. YES Charter schools have the luxury of requiring a high level of discipline and commitment - which is, I'm sure a great way to create a learning environment. But how can regular public schools realistically establish the same expectations?

Elizabeth Woodfield's picture

I work at a public elementary school in Anaheim, California. I've been giving my students my cell phone number for about five years so that they can call me with questions about the homework or questions about anything else they might have. I've had perhaps two or three crank calls that amounted to nothing more than giggling or a hang-up. It's been a great way to build relationships and help students who otherwise probably would not have completed their homework. It hardly takes any time and I probably don't get more than two phone calls a month. Overall I wouldn't have it any other way!

Science Teacher's picture

In addition to these 10 things that make YES reasonably successful, it is important not to forget the things they are able to do that public schools can't, which certainly makes it hard to compare them to public schools.

1. Their students are not a random sample of students from a district. They are students whose parents or guardians were involved enough in their education to want something better for them and to put in the extra time and money YES involves.

2. They have a strict discipline system that they can enforce by kicking students out, which public schools cannot do the same way, sending the kids who are hardest to deal with back to those schools.

3. Kids who are asked to stay back a grade often just leave and go back to their public school.

4. YES teachers do put in a lot of hours! More than is realistic for many teachers with families.

YES has a lot of great things going on, but it's important to realize that, as a charter school, they also have a lot of cards stacked in their favor that help them out which public schools do not have!

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