Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
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.

What do you think of Schools that Work?
Tweet your answer to @edutopia or post your comment below.

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

Blanco's picture
Technology Instructional Specialist

"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."

YUCK! YUCK YUCK! This is really too much! As if teachers do not work enough already. What is the pay scale like? I doubt it can be enough for that.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Blanco raises an interesting point. How exactly do YES teachers handle this additional requirement? Do you ever get sick of it? How often do students actually call?

Erica Weybright's picture

It is definitely an additional expectation that we have at YES that I did not have at my previous school. However, I would much rather my students get what they need and be able to practice the material on their homework rather than coming into class unprepared and unpracticed the next day. The amount of calls typically depends on the grade level, with 6th graders calling the most frequently and high schoolers calling significantly less. Though there are always outliers to this generalization. The phone calls I have received have lasted, on average, about 3 minutes. I usually don't get anymore than 3 phone calls in one night. Usually, it is fewer than that. I don't feel like this expectation inhibits my ability to have a normal life outside of school. I can easily excuse myself for a few minutes to answer a student's question on the homework and then get back to whatever I was doing. I can definitely see how it could seem an unreasonable expectation, but it really doesn't feel like it in the end.

Jacob Blair's picture
Jacob Blair
Algebra 2 Instructor


I have not viewed the cell phone contact as any sort of excessive burden. In fact, I find it to be an extremely useful teaching tool.

As part of the process of getting my students to succeed in college, they need experience with properly making calls and leaving messages for people in professional situations. I have no control over any teaching of cultural norms outside of school, so having the cell phone as a teaching piece in school is a powerful way to support students understanding of and ability to navigate professional cultural norms.

Another benefit is the immediate feedback on the success of a lesson. If half of my class is making phone calls (this happened during my first year teaching 6th grade), I know that I did not adequately teach the material or that my homework was not aligned with what I taught. As a result of getting this feedback in the evening as opposed to in class the following day, I was able to adjust the next day's lesson BEFORE going to school.

As for the potential drawbacks: at the beginning of the year students are told to write phone numbers for 4 other students in their classes. If they have a question, students are expected to call all 4 of the other students before calling a teacher. This lowers the demand on teacher time, and allows simple questions to be answered by peers. Also, each teacher makes their "hours of operation" clear at the beginning of the year. I have never had a student call me outside of these hours.

Kate Cottrell's picture
Kate Cottrell
District Geometry Course Leader

Yes, "Call three before me" is an important rule. Additionally, as students get older I have found it's very important to teach them what calls are appropriate and which calls are inappropriate. For example, don't call your teacher to ask him or her what the homework is - you should know and by asking your teacher you are just highlighting your disorganization or that you were not listening and this is definitely not something you would want to do with a professor. Friends are perfect for that situation. If you cannot figure out the next step in a problem - call with a question. but not with "I don't get it", you need to identify where you are getting tripped up. If you are going to miss class - call to let your teacher know so that they can prepare the work for you ahead of time.

Like Erica and Jacob said, the cell phone expectation really is not a burden. It ensures that the students have no excuses and that they have everything they need to be successful and that we are prepared in class the next day with what additional support they may need.

MaryJac Reed's picture
MaryJac Reed
11th grade Chemistry teacher, Fairfield CT

I don't have cell phones but I have email contact with my students.

The students who email me when they are home sick don't get behind. Those students who email me projects and homework succeed (and don't waste paper).

And I can also add comments about proper email netiquette - like add a message to the email that has your attachment, get a professional email address and forward that email to your casual email address (i.e., mary.smith@hotmail.com forwarded to the more casual sexyislandprincess@gmail.com)

Teachers, like it or not, should be more like a personal trainer, mentoring students in all sorts of ways.

I like what I read about YES Prep.

Marc Ybarsabal's picture
Marc Ybarsabal
11th Grade Math & Physics Teacher, YES Prep North Central, Houston TX

I don't mind it. Unfortunately, helping 1 student on the phone is not very efficient. They've conference-called me before which is a good idea. I also use www.edmodo.com and encourage them to ask questions there so their questions and my answers can be seen by all, and other students can answer questions if they know it. But the phone calls are pretty short, and definitely worth the time. It's also a good opportunity to address any concerns you might have with the student.

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

MaryJac...good point about e-mail. I think that is something I want to start encouraging more with my students. The idea of a personal training is awesome. I definitely think e-mail etiquette is very important. I'm working on encouraging my students to professionalize their e-mail address...steering them away from sexyislandprincess@gmail.com (hilarious by the way)

Also, another comment I get when I tell teachers about giving out my cell phone number is "I bet students prank call you a lot." In the six years I've worked at YES Prep, I have received ONE prank call. A few students called me on speaker phone and talked about playing Mario Kart and they were going to drink a lot of beer. Lots of laughter and giggling in the background. Was that the best they could do? Come on, my friends and I would have schooled them (pun intended). I just sat there and smiled...if I had been thinking, I would have reminded them not to drink and drive Mario Kart. Always a teacher...But I was too tired and hung up.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.