George Lucas Educational Foundation

Chris Barbic Shares His Vision for Reform

The visionary leader behind the YES Prep family of schools discusses the organization's origins and philosophy.
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Chris Barbic: You know it's funny 'cause if you talk at reform circles now, I mean, the big buzz word is "human capital." You know? This is all about human capital. And you know, we've been doing this for ten years now, and I think we knew from day one that that was the key. I mean you got to have a great teacher in every classroom and, you know, the rest of the stuff's great. You know? Computers and stuff, and things-- that's all dandy, but if you don't have a great teacher in the classroom, it doesn't really matter.

At a lot of places, everyone sort of writes off the first few years as well. You know, that's when you learn how to be a great teacher. And you're not really a good teacher until, like, your third or fourth year. Well, like, that's great for the teacher, but they got three years of kids that are going through their classroom, and you know, that's two or three years of bad instruction. I mean that sets kids back forever. It's about discipline, and teaching our kids how to make good decisions, and be disciplined people, and it's about love, you know? And I think it's that balance of, you know, tough and love. And I think our best teachers-- they're like alchemists, you know? They can put those two things together, and they know when to put their arm around a kid and, you know, give them the pep talk and show some love, and they know when to, you know, I won't say get in a kid's face, but you know, they know when to raise their voice and get a kid's attention. And I think, you know, our best teachers can bring those two things together, and I think that's really the culture of this place is that we want to hold each other accountable. We want to push each other to be great, but we want to do it in a loving way.

And so from there, we've tried to set up systems that, you know, allow us to do that. I mean, the basic one's just the size of the school and making sure that this isn't, you know, a school with 3,000 kids where, you know, students go from classroom to classroom and maybe, you know, once a week someone calls them by their first name. That's not this place.

I love doing the home visits. So the home visits are when, you know, after a kid's, you know, name's been picked in a lottery, go and visit their house and we go through the contract with them and their parents, and we talk about this is what it means to be a student at YES. And you know, the reason I love this is, you know, we have 4,000 kids on our waitlist, so when you go to those, when you go to a house, I mean that family really has won the lottery. I mean that kid's-- this is going to be his legitimate pathway, or her legitimate pathway to go to college, and really change the dynamics of that entire family. So it's fun to be there because, you know, they're excited. And the contract, I think, it's symbolic. It's -- you know, what we want parents to understand is that this has got to be a team effort, you know? If it's just us wanting this thing and them not really caring, and the kid really not wanting to be here, this isn't going to work. And if it's just the kid wanting to be here and we're not doing our job, and the parents aren't supporting them, it's not going to work. So part of it is just saying look, this is a three-legged stool. It's us, it's your kid, and it's you, and if we work together for the next seven years, your kid's going to be able to go to any college they want to. The signage and the messaging and, you know, when you walk into a classroom, I mean there's stuff up all over the walls. You know, all that's intentional. [applause]

When I was a teacher, I mean my goal was even if the kids aren't paying attention to me and they're looking around the room or daydreaming, I want them learning something, right? But there really has to be kind of a marketing campaign every day around why are you here, what this is going to lead to, and why college is really important, and the kind of people that we want our kids to be. The part of it is just making sure that kids are getting the right messages because when they're not here, they're bombarded with a whole other set of them. You know, whether it's on TV, or from their, you know, peers, or just being in the neighborhood. And so if we're not aware of that and trying to, you know, fight that with positive messaging here, we're fooling ourselves.

So student council basically came up with these things, you know, and you know, we tweaked it a little bit, and so when we looked at it we said, "Well look, you know, some of these are behaviors and some of these are values." So we kind of divided them up into what we call the YES prep, "Thinks and Acts." And so this, along with the core values, have really become kind of the, like, the cornerstone for the culture of the school. And so I feel like, you know, one of my jobs and the jobs of the leaderships across this organization is to make sure that we're living those signs, we're living those values, and that we are walking, breathing examples of the kind of people we want our kids to be.

There was a time when, you know, the post office swore they could not deliver a package overnight. Next-day air was impossible. And, you know, FedEx got to a certain size, and UPS came along and they started to grow, and guess what happened? You know, FedEx figured out-- or the post office figured out how to do next-day air, and that's what we're going to do to the district. We're not going to replace the district, but we're going to get to a certain size where we're going to force HISD and other districts in Houston to improve. They're going to have to figure out how to deliver a package over night, and what delivering a package overnight means, not making any excuses why kids who live in certain neighborhoods can't all be prepared to go to college.

It's kind of human nature. Like when the first thing you want to do is kind of, you know-- I call it picking up the magnifying glass before you pick up the mirror, and you know, instead of picking up the mirror and saying, "Okay. What are we doing wrong?" You know, you pick up the magnifying glass and you're trying to figure out all the reasons why this thing's not really working or it's smoke and mirrors, or you know, they can do things that we can't. And, you know, I get that. I mean it's human nature. And it does create some tension, and I think what we've tried to do by opening up the doors and saying, "Look, here it is." You know, it goes back to the transparency thing we talked about a little while ago. I mean this is who we are. Like we're not going to apologize for it, and if there's things that we can do that you can't, I mean my question is well how come? I mean we're a public school too, you're a public school. Like why can't you do those things? And no one's really ever been able to give me a really good answer for that, and you know, we want to share. I mean it's in our best interest for all the schools in Houston to be great.

And you know, we don't win by getting to be the darlings, you know, of the media or whatever because we've gotten great results. We win if more schools are great because of what we're doing. And if we can be the proof point or the experiment, or the Petri dish, or the R and D lab, or whatever it is you want to call it for the larger system, I mean that's the role we welcome. And I think now because we've been doing this for 10 years, in my mind, it's time to get this out of the Petri dish and out of the R and D lab, and it's time to take this to scale.

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Video Credits

Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Thomas Waldron
  • Mark Angelo

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Click on any of the titles below to download a PDF of one of YES Prep's many resources:

School Culture

YES Core Values 58K
Five core values shared by all the YES Prep schools

Family Contract: English 567K
Commitment to college completion signed by parents and students upon enrollment

Family Contract: Spanish 535K
Commitment to college completion signed by parents and students upon enrollment

Thinks & Acts 783K
Key "Thinks &Acts" for students and educators, developed by YES Prep students

More at How YOU Can Do It: YES Prep Resources and Downloads

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