George Lucas Educational Foundation

Yes Prep North Central

Grades 6-12 | Houston, TX

On a Mission to Send Every Student to College

Enroll students from working-class homes in a school with extraordinary teachers and administrators. Give them all a mission that will transform their lives. Then discover the astonishing success of Houston's Yes Prep North Central.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Close-up of students listening
Students wait for School Director Mark DiBella to announce their results on the state test. Their scores earned the school the "Exemplary" distinction.

Editor's Note: Mark DiBella is now Vice President of Operations for YES Prep Public Schools. Bryan Reed is now Director of YES Prep North Central.

When Mayra Valle entered YES Prep North Central in the public charter school's first sixth-grade class six years ago, it was a shock to her system. Though she was naturally bright, her teachers in other schools hadn't pushed her to do much schoolwork. Now she was staying up late finishing assignments, helping friends with theirs, and missing her extended family's Friday-afternoon gatherings. It felt like a lot to sacrifice, just to attend a charter school.

The following spring, she attended a ceremony where seniors at YES Prep Southeast, the oldest of seven YES Prep campuses in Houston, signed their matriculation letters to college on a stage in front of hundreds of family members amid applause and tears. "I was like, 'That could be me,'" Mayra recalls. "No one in my family has ever gone to college or graduated high school. If I could do that, I could accomplish something for me and my family. I want to be on that stage."

This type of transformation is YES Prep North Central's entire reason for being. Located seven miles from Mayra's modest home on Houston's north side, the school spans grades 6-12 and serves a predominantly Hispanic and poor community.

Everyone here -- students, teachers, parents, and administrators -- is galvanized by one goal: Every single student will go to college, succeed there, and come back to break her family's and community's cycle of poverty. To make this happen, teachers, students, and parents commit themselves to an exceptionally demanding education with unwavering standards for academic work and discipline. If they have to trade sleep, exercise, and family time to achieve this, that's a sacrifice they're willing to make.

"You're not coming here for a job or even simply to learn," explains School Director Mark DiBella. "You're coming to school every day to be a part of a mission that is greater than yourself."

The results speak for themselves: For six years in a row -- ever year of the school's existence -- more than 90 percent of YES Prep North Central's students have passed the state exam in every subject at every grade, earning the school the rare "Exemplary" state designation. At the YES flagship campus, in southeast Houston (and probably soon at North Central, which will graduate its first seniors next spring), 100 percent of graduates have been accepted to a four-year college. And more than 90 percent of them are the first in their families to go.

"We put in a lot of work. Even when we go home at the end of the day, we're still thinking about YES," says ninth-grade English teacher Rachael Arthur. "But it's worth it, because we see the change that's happening, not only to individual students and their families, but even to our city, which is transforming itself. People realize we have a problem with the education system and are doing something to change it."

YES Prep, now a network of seven Houston charter schools, was born more than a decade ago when Chris Barbic and fellow teachers at Houston's Rusk Elementary School got tired of hearing about countless low-income children -- their former students -- dropping out of middle school and forfeiting their futures to drugs, crime, pregnancy, unemployment, low expectations, and general discouragement. In 1998, they secured a charter from the state of Texas, rallied underserved parents to their cause, and erected modular classrooms in a parking lot to launch their own college-prep school.

Five years later, YES Prep North Central, the group's second campus, opened its doors in a windowless renovated warehouse before moving to its current location, a swampy section of North Houston, dotted with small homes, auto-repair shops, taco stands, and churches. Signs on local businesses are mostly in Spanish. Approximately 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the population is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

To move their 765-plus students onto a more promising track, like their counterparts at other YES Prep campuses, educators at North Central run the school day from 7:30 to 4:30, Monday through Friday, and hold sessions on certain Saturdays for community service and extra instruction. Every teacher has a school-issued cell phone, allowing students to call for help (often academic, but sometimes personal) after hours. College posters and banners hang from almost every wall, and each teacher makes a point of touting his or her alma mater. The school motto says it succinctly: "Whatever it takes."

VIDEO: YES Prep's Blueprint for Success
Even the physical space reflects the premium that YES Prep places on what's most relevant: relationships and teaching. The building is clean but spare, with two computer labs but not many other bells and whistles. Basic art and PE classes and after-school sports programs are available, but the school doesn't intend to excel at these things.

DiBella pours most of his time and resources into a strong support system for teachers. The YES Prep organization gets $8,980 per pupil in state and federal money, and combines that figure with private donations to spend $9,571 per student. In comparison, the Houston Independent School District spends slightly more: $9,728.

Students are admitted into YES Prep schools by random lottery from the neighborhood. Being accepted to a four-year college is a graduation requirement -- one that almost every senior at the original YES campus has met. Mayra Valle hopes to go to Columbia University. When she first enrolled here, she recalls, friends at other schools made fun of her, saying, "'Ha! You go to YES college prep. We go to No college prep.' Now they're like, 'Oh, that's my friend Mayra -- she's going to college.' They say it as a positive thing."

What YES Prep has accomplished requires faith and sweat and love, and the breaking of traditional boundaries between the professional and the personal. Few educators and students would be willing to take it on. But the team at YES is proving that it can be done, and they are developing smart, effective strategies that others can follow or adapt. In fact, two struggling public schools in Houston have started reinventing themselves, using YES as a model.

In my travels for Edutopia, I have visited many schools -- some good, some great, but none with the kind of electricity I found here. In this unusual school setting -- a former church -- unusual things happen: Teachers work evenings and weekends to help students; administrators reach out to teachers for their advice on running the school; students keep working when the teacher leaves the room.

Changing public education is messy and hard. But those who really want to see what success looks like have only to open their minds, believe in the possible, and step into the classrooms of schools like YES Prep. What follows will give you a taste of what it takes.

Teachers: Growing Great Educators

Ask anyone at YES Prep North Central about the key ingredient of the school's success, and he or she will say, "People, people, people." And it's true -- the passion and determination among the adults infects the students. Kids can hardly complain about the long hours or heavy workload, because their teachers -- 60 of them, mostly in their 20s or early 30s -- work just as hard, or harder. Bryan Reed, who became high school principal this year while continuing to teach social studies and coach basketball, even has his mail delivered to the school.

Maintaining this level of teacher performance isn't as simple as plucking already-stellar educators from the top of the talent pool. "We realize we're going to have to go out and find great people and teach them how to be great teachers," explains YES Prep founder Chris Barbic.

Nurturing a culture of respect and collaboration among administrators and teachers (many of whom come from Teach for America) has been essential in building the YES Prep teacher corps. Forgoing traditional notions of hierarchy, staff members rely on each other for ideas and constructive criticism. They even stage an annual "observation challenge," in which teachers pop into each other's classrooms to observe and offer feedback. Everyone on staff is working toward one thing -- ever-better teaching -- and no one is working alone.

When Reed first arrived, the cohesion seemed almost unnatural. The Florida native was a Teach for America veteran from New Orleans's Ninth Ward, where one of his colleagues routinely slept through class and a student showed up at school with an AK-47 under his arm. "I came from my own little island in a sea of incompetence and burnout. Teaching had been a battle in the trenches fighting for my kids. YES Prep didn't seem real," he says. "How could all these people be on the same page and getting results?"

Part of the success comes from the fact that no teacher at YES Prep is ever left on her own. Dean of Instruction Michelle LaFlure, herself a former YES Prep teacher, visits every classroom at least every other week. As she sits down with first-year Spanish teacher Andria Groover, there is no hint of tutor-pupil hierarchy. It's two creative people fine-tuning their best ideas. LaFlure's rubrics measuring teacher performance are just as detailed as those used for students. Following up on Groover's recent lesson on the Incas, LaFlure praises her efforts to create a student-centered classroom where the students share with and learn from one another, as well as their teacher. "You talked to them for only seven minutes. That is awesome, especially for a first-year teacher," LaFlure says.

Though it's unusual for an aggressive, college-prep school, LaFlure, Reed, and colleagues push each other toward project learning. Craig Brandenburg was a YES Prep math teacher until he tapped into his passion for video production and created a multimedia class and student-run production company. His video-production students make audio slide shows of their favorite children's books and donate them to their former elementary schools. In Katie Norwood's seventh-grade English class, students joined an international program called Books of Hope to create class-worthy textbooks for students in Uganda on topics like the solar system and baseball.

But for all their enthusiasm, even YES Prep teachers occasionally get the blues. "Already, still early in the year, we've lost a couple of kids to other schools," Reed says. "There are days that can be really horrible and frustrating."

What keeps Norwood going is this: "I love working with the kids. I love the freedom that I'm given here. I love the fact that the sky's the limit. There are leadership opportunities for me. There's support. There's people I love. I'm exhausted all the time. It's a really, really hard job. But I'm always driven to do more."

Students and Parents: School on a Mission

"Our students are here because they're on a mission," says teacher Craig Brandenburg. They dig deep and recover from setbacks, he adds, because "they know their ultimate goal is to prepare themselves for college. And not just going to college, but completing it."

This was not always the plan for most YES Prep kids -- and that's the whole point.

Mayra Valle is a warm, bubbly leader in the school's performing arts group. When she graduates this spring, she will be the first in her extended family to complete high school. Her mother came to Texas as a girl from Mexico. Her father drives a landscaping truck between Houston and Austin, which means he doesn't see his children as much as he would like. Mayra's aunts and uncles toil as housekeepers and construction workers.

Ludvinia Valle drives her daughter back and forth to YES Prep, leaving at 7 in the morning and returning at 7 at night to pick her up, after theater rehearsal. "Having a YES student requires a lot of support from the parents," she says. "They really need a good breakfast in the morning, dinner at night, fruit, so they can keep going."

Mayra has sacrificed valuable time with family to spend long days at school and late nights doing homework. While away on a school field trip far from home last April, she missed a last visit with her grandmother on her deathbed. Now she's driven by what her grandmother used to tell her: "Look at your parents, your aunts and uncles. I don't want you cleaning toilets when you grow up. They're doing it because they don't have a choice. You have a choice. There's a reason we came to America."

Despite the often rocky transition to YES Prep's sixth grade, most students learn to manage and ultimately welcome the rigor of tailoring their work to the teachers' tough rubrics, doing multiple revisions, and supplying their own analysis and argument on each topic. By the time they hit the upper grades, they're reading existentialist literature and debating the nature of society.

Teacher and principal Bryan Reed knows Mayra, along with many other students, very well -- the relationships are part of how YES Prep helps kids meet the sometimes overwhelming demands on them. Reed has, for instance, met Mayra on weekends to help her with a paper, and when her grandmother died, Reed told her to call him if she needed anything, even someone to walk her dog. "And I believe it," Mayra says. "If I had called him, he would have been there. And that's true of all the other teachers and all the other students."

With money earned from fundraisers, the school sends teachers and students to visit colleges -- some local, some as far away as Colorado and Illinois. "The kids see what the end goal is. They know what they're working toward," says English teacher Emily Shisler, who took a group of students to her alma mater, Northwestern University. In their seven years at North Central, students will visit as many as 20 colleges, both local and out of state.

Parents make their contributions, too, though some are considerably less active than others. Almost all must find a way to shuttle their kids to school at odd hours and help manage their stress at home. (Teachers frequently serve as chauffeurs to kids whose parents are unable to help out.) "Parents have to be that support system," says Elia Torres, a mom who also works in the school's office. "Kids are here long hours of the day and on Saturdays. They're required to do more than in a regular school, and they get tired." The payoff, she says, "is the gleam in their eye."

Yet just about every student has had a moment of self-doubt, when the work, the hours, and the expectations were all too much. About 5 percent of students transfer out of YES Prep schools each year, though virtually none of them drops out entirely. Torres remembers when her daughter Norma, after two months, wanted to transfer schools. "I said, 'Remember, we signed a contract,'" Torres recalls, referencing the document all students and parents sign upon enrollment. "I signed a contract saying I was committed to your education, and we're not breaking that."

Ultimately, the powerful prospect of a better life (and for some, the exhortations of their parents) keeps most of them marching on. Watching kids at soccer practice, taking turns on the sidelines tutoring teammates whose low grades have disqualified them, sometimes working by flashlight as dusk falls -- there's no disputing their commitment to their mission.

Administrators: Tough Love

It's hard to tell School Director Mark DiBella and his fellow administrators from the teachers at YES Prep North Central. They all teach classes and supervise students in the cafeteria, and teachers can get elbow deep in traditionally administrative duties like discipline, coaching fellow educators, and creating new ways to improve the school. That's by design.

DiBella, a Virginia native who started out as a teacher at YES, compares his impact on the school to that of oxygen. "If things are going well, I sort of fade into the background," he says. "If teachers start suffocating, I'm not doing my job."

DiBella sets the tone and cultivates systems that sustain it. Teachers and students get loads of appreciation and public shout-outs for what they do well, but everyone knows there's always something they could do better.

"In my previous school, if there was a problem, it would get swept under the rug," English teacher Emily Shisler recalls. Here, teachers are allowed, even encouraged, to disagree. The agenda for one staff meeting was titled "Killing Sacred Cows."

The staff members' fixation with constant improvement makes YES Prep unusually nimble. A couple years ago, DiBella and another teacher visited a school in Boston that did great work with team teaching. When they told their colleagues about it, the sixth-grade teachers put in a few extra days over winter break, implemented some plans on the fly, and reopened in January with team teaching in place. In the education world, schools simply don't adapt that fast.

Just as they challenge and support each other, DiBella, teacher Craig Brandenburg, and colleagues show both toughness and love to students. "Our best teachers are like alchemists," says YES Prep founder Chris Barbic. "They can put those two things together. They know when to put their arm around a kid and give him a pep talk, and they know when to raise their voice and get a kid's attention."

On Message:

Educators at YES Prep North Central cover the campus with axioms about hard work and community service.

Credit: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Slogans posted on just about every wall communicate to students that they are accountable to themselves and the whole school community: "We are all here to make a difference"; "We give 100 percent every day"; "Our responsibilities never end."

Combined with the school's outright obsession with higher education, and the college pennants hanging from almost every wall, it can seem a little Orwellian. Barbic explains, "When they're not here, they're bombarded with a whole other set of messages. There really has to be a marketing campaign every day around why college is important and the kind of kids we want our kids to be."

Next to the boosterism, a strict discipline system at North Central is in place, which prohibits even untucked shirts or talking out of turn. The business of getting prepared for college is too serious for such distractions. Five marks for misbehavior in a week puts a middle school student "on the RISE" (Restoring Individual Student Excellence), which entails wearing the equivalent of a scarlet letter, a white T-shirt instead of the uniform polo. For five days, a student must wear the shirt, eat lunch alone, and speak only to teachers, while earning points for positive participation in class. Each day of missing these targets means another day on the RISE.

The stigmatizing may seem harsh, but the kids who have been through RISE agree it's fair. Most have to do it only once or twice before they step into line. (North Central had only two fistfights last year.) When they complete their week of penance, students read an apology letter aloud to their classmates, who then grill them -- vigorously -- on what they did wrong and how they plan to change.

"This is a family," says Reed. "We couldn't fake what happens here."

But what happens when some in the family, teachers especially, start to run out of gas? How is this level of effort sustainable? At 7:30 p.m. on a recent evening at his office, Reed said, "Inspiration only lasts so long when you don't see your spouse and kids more than an hour a day."

Barbic acknowledges that most teachers will stay at YES Prep only five to seven years. He says the days of the 30-year career doing the same job "are over in every other industry, and to expect teachers to be different is unrealistic." Still, he says the school is taking active steps to keep teachers interested and the environment vibrant enough so they'll want to stay on longer.

DiBella resists the notion that teachers will move on and wants to make YES Prep North Central a place where they build a career. So he's creating more personalized professional development and working with the main YES Prep office to offer hefty salary bumps to master teachers. "It's an enormous challenge, because ultimately, when people ask me what it takes to make North Central great, it truly is the people," says DiBella.

What are his chances of retaining teachers for a decade or more? "Not good," he says. "But for a lot of things we've achieved, the chances weren't good. That doesn't mean we don't try."

Replication: A Drop or A Bucket?

For all of YES Prep's accomplishments, another test -- perhaps the ultimate one -- is just beginning: spreading its success throughout Houston and beyond. For many charter schools, the development of good practices that can flow to regular public schools is the truest measure of achievement. Today, North Central and the other YES Prep schools are islands of promise that serve only a fraction of the families that live all around them. The seven campuses, which have 3,500 students total, have 6,000 kids on the waiting list.

"We don't win by getting to be the darlings of the media because we've gotten great results," YES Prep founder Chris Barbic says. "We win if more schools become great because of what we're doing. It's time to get this out of the petri dish and take it to scale."

The effort has started. Nearby Hogg Middle School and the new Ninth Grade College Preparatory Academy have been working to remake themselves with guidance from YES Prep. And the YES Prep organization itself plans to open six more schools within the next seven years.

Hogg is a cavernous old school in a lush, gentrified Houston neighborhood called the Heights, where many of the local children go to private or magnet middle schools. Many lower-income kids from other neighborhoods attend the school. Local parents of elementary-age kids have set out to make Hogg a school they and their neighbors want to send their kids to, which means higher test scores, tighter discipline, and a college-prep curriculum-changes they believe will benefit all children, not just their own. The former principal and several teachers have visited YES Prep North Central to glean ideas, and they’re laying out a plan for change.

The Ninth Grade College Preparatory Academy is a state-ordered spin-off of Sam Houston High School, whose test scores have historically been so low that the state labeled the school "academically unacceptable" for six straight years. (Last spring, however, its scores shot up dramatically). Founding principal Rolando "Rudy" Trevino, now principal at another Houston high school, who built, planned, and designed the Academy in 40 days in summer 2008, relied heavily on advice from his friends in the YES Prep schools. The reformers at the Academy and Hogg don't intend for either school to look exactly like YES Prep, but they want to borrow certain key ideas, like the college-bound culture and RISE.

For their part, Barbic and North Central school director Mark DiBella are eager to provide these schools advice and potentially a temporary teacher exchange. Some YES Prep teachers, like Reed, want someday to go back to traditional public schools. But YES Prep enjoys advantages that Hogg and the Academy don't. As a charter school, it can fire underperforming teachers more easily -- though DiBella emphasizes that he rarely uses this option. It can expel students more easily, though again, that's rare (North Central expelled four last year). Even the biggest champions of YES Prep say it's not for everyone. DiBella's own wife left the school after having children in order to spend more time with them.

And walking the halls and grounds of Hogg last spring with then-principal Imelda Medrano, I could sense, without anyone having to explain, what her reform effort was up against. As she walked, Medrano picked up litter from the playground and had to field question after question radioed in by walkie-talkie from her office on the floor below. Compared with YES Prep, the school felt massive, old, and unwieldy, with scarcely contained chaos bubbling right below the surface.

Mayra Valle and her North Central classmates are already talking about how, when they cross the commencement stage in May, the raw emotions of the moment will bring them, their families, and their teachers to tears. Their lives are changed. Yet the enduring value of YES Prep and charter school efforts like it may ultimately be measured in outcomes elsewhere: Will they effectively feed the reform efforts at struggling schools like Hogg and the Academy? Will those schools, in turn, ultimately succeed?

From what I've seen, I doubt every school could -- or should -- be just like YES Prep. But very few would not be better off for adopting some of YES Prep's ideas. What the school does best, besides get kids to college, is push the envelope. Its success sends the message: No excuses. This can be done.

The parting words to DiBella from the first group that came to visit YES Prep from Hogg were, "We can do this." DiBella now adds, "I believe that."

If we want to change education in the U.S. -- more profoundly than we can by reforming curricula or standardized tests or teacher-certification policies -- we have to believe, too.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.


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Bonnie's picture
former HS teacher, MEd, Education Administration, mom of 2

Years ago, as a relatively young teacher I was given the opportunity to teach Advanced Placement History. One part of the AP exam is a "document based question" essay or dbq. I prepared my classes during the first quarter and gave them a practice DBQ to write. I spent hours critiquing each essay to the best of my abilities and handed them back. The parents of one of my students asked to see me the Wednesday before Thanksgiving holiday. Their daughter received a B on the practice DBQ and was questioning whether she should drop out of my class. It wasn't just the B but all my remarks on her paper that gave her pause. After an hour and a half of discussion, I finally got it.

The next Monday, I apologized to all of my students. My intent to give them the best I could got lost in the method of delivery. Even though they had all of the outward signs of being successful students, they were still growing, fragile human beings.

The next year one of my students plagiarized a major paper. I gave that student a 0 on the assignment (that was the harshest punishment allowed) and spoke to all the classes about cheating. One girl said to me that they all cheated, they had to because they had more homework than time to do it. "Take less AP classes", "Can't, either because of parental pressure or the fear of not getting into the "best college"." (What is even worse, the father of the child caught cheating called me late one night and asked me to give his child another chance. He also pressured the principal into trying to make me change my mind. I told him I thought he was teaching the wrong message. The next year, this same student was caught cheating in AP Physics! David Callahan in The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead outlines the societal consequences of this mentality.)

I am now trying to help my own children find a balance. I fear in our quest for "success" in school we're forgetting that they are growing individuals with differing stress points. I'm not alone. Dr. Madeline Levine in The Price of Privilege, outlines the new "at risk" child of the privileged suburbs as she writes, "In spite of parental concern and economic advantage, many of my adolescent patients suffer from readily apparent emotional disorders: addictions, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and assorted self-destructive behaviors." Stephen Hinshaw, PhD, concurs in his research stating that "societal expectations, cultural trends and competing messages are creating a "Triple Bind" - girls are now expected to excel at "girl skills", achieve "boy skills" and be models of female perfection. . .putting more and more girls at risk for aggression, eating disorders, depression and even suicide.

I worry that we're still mixing up the message with the delivery. I applaud the success of the YES program highlighted above but the article raises some concerns. First, the seeming imbalance between school and family or work and family. Is this truly the message we want to send our young? They must give up time with family and time to be kids to have a shot at college? Also, mentioned was that for those who teach under this kind of intensity, burn out is considered collateral damage. Who bestows the wisdom that only age and experience provides?

I have to take issue with Mr. Barbic with this comment. "Barbic acknowledges that most teachers will stay at YES Prep only five to seven years. He says the days of the 30-year career doing the same job "are over in every other industry, and to expect teachers to be different is unrealistic." In industries that don't respect loyalty or honor experience, that may be true. But, do we really want doctors or lawyers, for example, to leave their profession in 5-7 years? In many law firms, partnership is not offered until after 7 or more years. One education researcher stated that expertise takes 10 years of continued effort. Do we want our schools potentially run by well intentioned amateurs?

Finally, is a school considered a "success" by the number of children accepted into college? Then we need to provide better funding and access to these institutions. Do we believe that all kids can and should be ready for college by 18 no matter what? This educational paradigm is too narrow for all our children.

John Ramirez's picture
John Ramirez
Girls Varsity Basketball Coach

Hi, this is John Ramirez from YES Prep North Central. I teach athletics and weight training. And I coach the girls varsity basketball and the girls middle school volleyball teams. First of all, I think this is an excellent article explaining the goals and function of our great school, and what it means to have a overacheiving student body, faculty and staff. I believe that the whole point of our school is to allow our students to have the opportunity to succeed in the classroom, relationships and life in general. We want our students to give their best efforts. That's the goal of our school,(in a nutshell). We provide the environment for that. The grades, well, that's the by-product. The grades are going to be what they are going to be. On our girls basketball team, we have established a system of student on student tutoring. We share with each other how classes are going, "does anyone need help?" I'll ask the team in our locker room. Someone always needs a little help. And so I'll allow study time for those students while the rest of the team practices individual skills. Then we get together for our team practice. My hope is that since this a college prep school, if any of our girls have the opportunity to get an athletic scholarship to play college sports, they'll be prepared to go the full 4 years and graduate. I've been coaching for a long time and have seen many kids get athletic scholarships only to drop out because they were not prepared for the demands of both school and sports. When I arrived at YES North Central, it seemed that sports was an afterthought. But, I take issue that "the school doesn't intend to excel at these things." I want our girls to excel at every endeavor they choose. Why? Because excelling is now becoming a way of life at YES Prep. We are not going to settle for anything less than our best effort. That doesn't mean we're going to win every game. Some school teams play better than us. Come to our basketball games and you will see our girls give their best effort on the court. Win or lose, their best has been given, their families are proud of them and they are proud of themselves because they have nothing to be ashamed of. They left everything on the court. The 3 main concepts I teach these girls and any other student who is within earshot is give 100% attention, give 100% effort and have 100% desire to get better than yesterday. I explain that those concepts are valuable in the field of battle, on the basketball/volleyball court, relationships, classroom and anything else that requires work (marriage?), yes, even that. One of these days, our girls are going to be parents and they can't teach their kids what they don't know. I make it a point to teach them the concepts that have stood the test of time. And yes, I do allow them time for family obligations such as babysitting and working. Sacrifices are made all the time. Life is a sacrifice. Success is about what you can give. And effort is what we, at YES Prep, want the most. And that's what we're getting from the students, teachers and staff. Honest effort!!!

Erin Palkot's picture
Erin Palkot
Tenth grade history teacher at YES Prep NC

Bonnie, I think when you said, "My intent to give them the best I could got lost in the method of delivery", that was the most critical part of your learning curve as a new teacher. At YES we spend a lot of time working with students to improve both their academic ability but also their self-confidence in their work. As an AP World History teacher, I know it can be easy to overwhelm students with too much advice. In general on all essays, including the DBQ, research papers, and in-class timed writings in both my AP and regular classes, I tend to focus narrowly on either what was taught the past week (for example, for the DBQ I might only focus on grouping) for my feedback. I then expect my students to improve on that skill for their next paper and the cycle of feedback continues. This allows students to focus on one or possibly two areas that they need to improve upon and doesn't overwhelm them. I couldn't imagine if someone spent literally hours on just one of my lesson plans giving feedback--that would be frustrating and overwhelming to me as an adult.

The other part of your post that most stood out to me was this, "Do we believe that all kids can and should be ready for college by 18 no matter what?" Yes we believe that. And we believe that absolutely. We are 100% upfront and honest about our mission--we get students to college, they are successful once they get there, and they return to their communities to improve them. With all due respect, I don't think you understand how underserved our students are in general. For the vast majority of them, their teachers at YES are the first teachers to ever tell them that they can go to college. I doubt that you can say the same about your children. Our students are taught in an environment before they come to us that tells them they can't succeed. They see their older cousins, brothers, and sisters dropping out and following unsuccessful and potentially illegal paths. They are surrounded every day by a reality that most of us reading this article never have to face. We believe that these students can and should go to college. We strongly believe at YES that an education is absolutely essential to break the cycle of poverty, and we believe that our students deserve the exact same education and high expectations that students in the suburbs or private schools receive.

Kate Cottrell's picture
Kate Cottrell
District Geometry Course Leader

Bonnie, I wanted to touch on some of your main points. I am no expert, just a "well-intentioned amateur" :) but I hope some of my comments will answer some of your concerns

-One of the key components of our school is building positive relationships with students and one of our Thinks and Acts is "we are a family-oriented school". Anyone who comes onto our campus can see and feel that this is true. Teachers push students to work to the best of their abilities but we also work hard to get to know students, their families, so that we are able to support them in more ways than just academics. You will regularly see teachers and students eating lunch together, students staying after school just to spend time with and help a teacher, we have community nights in the younger grades for parents and students and teachers to play games after school. We have "lock-ins" (only until 10 or 11 at night) where a grade level will stay at school and play sports, video games, bake, listen to music and just have fun together (non-academic fun) allowing the teacher/student bonds to grow. We have advisory once or twice a week. This is a chance for a small group of students to be paired with one teacher and to have a chance in the week to just talk about what's going on in their lives, to relax and to check in with everyone in their group to see how they are doing. These are just a few of the ways that we work to ensure that the students are not just a brain that we are trying to fill but a growing human beings with individual stories and situations.

- We do encourage students to work hard and give 100% every day but I do not think that translates into students having a lack of balance. In fact, I would argue that in high school (I teach 9th and 10th) it is still a struggle in many cases to get a student to choose to do their homework over MySpace or the phone. In their Freshmen Seminar they are taught how to schedule their time learning that it is okay and important to make time for friends, family and relaxation but planning your time allows you to also figure out when the work is going to get done. We also set aside nights throughout the year that everyone agrees to not give homework so that children can spend time with their families - some teachers will send home fun activities for the families as well to encourage that the students actually spend time with their families as opposed to catching an extra 3 hours of television. Finally, I want to point out that the extended school day is not created as a way to keep students from their families at home, but actually serves as a way to keep students away from empty, unsupervised homes and neighborhoods that more often than not are unsafe, providing students with numerous ways to get into trouble and lose track of the importance of their education.

-Lastly, should all students be ready for college by 18? No. College is not for everyone but for the majority of people a college degree will be required to get a job in the next 5 or 10 years. There are always the exceptions but there are going to be a lot fewer exceptions to this rule than there were 10, 15 years ago. Additionally, not all of our students are ready by 18. Many of them have to repeat a grade level again and some repeat multiple grade levels throughout their time at YES. Students that come to our school are often years and years behind where they should be and it is our job to find those learning gaps and fill them. Sometimes that requires an extra year or two of school. I don't think "success" can be defined for every school by the number of students attending college, however, at our school where the majority of students will be the first person in their family to have this opportunity, where the majority of students are on free- or reduced- lunch, where 99% of students are Black or Hispanic and where the majority of students would have otherwise not had this opportunity I think 100% of students graduating and attending college is simply amazing (especially considering what statistics tell you to expect) and is certainly "success" for each and every one of those students.

Rachael Arthur's picture
Rachael Arthur
9th Grade ELA and Freshman Seminar

"First, the seeming imbalance between school and family or work and family. Is this truly the message we want to send our young? They must give up time with family and time to be kids to have a shot at college?"

Unfortunately, the answer is yes... at least at this current point in our society. We have to remember that this is not an ordinary school; we have a very targeted population. By the time we receive our students in 6th grade, they are several years behind grade level, so naturally they have to work twice as hard (and twice as long) to fill the gaps in their learning. Those extra hours mean sacrifices, but those sacrifices are worth it when we look at the enormity of the situation--we're trying to break the cycle of poverty. It has often been said that "education is the civil rights issue of our generation."

We have to remember the big picture. The amount of hours that our students have to put in is not ideal, but they are blazing a trail for the generations that follow them. The nation needs to see that low-income students and minorities are just as capable of being educated and going to college as their wealthier peers. Until everyone believes this, there will continue to be low-performing schools, setting low expectations, and further perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Although YES Prep is very demanding, success to us means more than just a banner in front of our school or our name in the newspaper. Success at YES proves to the rest of the nation that ALL students can be educated--regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. In doing this, it puts pressure on public schools and moves us closer to educational reform that ensures equal education is provided to all students. Furthermore, it opens the doors for future generations, which in all honesty, we will not see the true effects of our labors until our students have children and grandchildren of their own. Hopefully at that point, the playing field will be slightly more level and those students will not have to sacrifice so much just to get a fair shot at a good life, but until that day, the alternative is not an option, and we have to push for education to be at the forefront of our students' minds.

I also wanted to address your comments about teachers: "Also, mentioned was that for those who teach under this kind of intensity, burn out is considered collateral damage. Who bestows the wisdom that only age and experience provides?" You are right that age and experience is invaluable when talking about teachers. And to the credit of the YES Prep leadership, sustainability of teachers has been at the top of the list being addressed by school directors and Chris Barbic himself. Our leadership takes great measures to reduce the workload of teachers, offer competitive pay, and create a motivating work environment to keep teachers as long as possible. Furthermore, professional development is always a high-priority at YES schools, recognizing that most of us truly are "amateurs" in the classroom, and we have a small amount of time to "become experts" in our field.

But when it comes down to it, we can't forget the reality of what we're doing. We're fighting for social justice! Of course we have to work long hours and make sacrifices! History shows us that this is always the case when people are fighting for change. This job is not for the faint of heart.

We need teachers who are passionate and driven, who are willing to put in the extra hours and the extra energy, and who will not settle for anything less than excellence. With expectations this high, it is clear that working at YES is a challenge in itself, and it makes it difficult to keep a teacher for 30+ years like a traditional school, but (I'm sure you can finish my sentence)... we are not a traditional school. Considering the dismal statistics that our students are facing, we cannot afford to lower our expectations--even if that means we only keep teachers 5-7 years. Hopefully there will be an army of new recruits behind us ready to pick up where we left off and ready to do whatever it takes close the achievement gap in our nation.

Bonnie's picture
former HS teacher, MEd, Education Administration, mom of 2

I apologize if you felt that I was criticizing what you are doing. Having grown up in a poor community with a single mom, I do know first hand how important college was to me. My thoughts were just looking at perhaps the necessary cons of your program for some. I have been studying education for over thirty years and one of the many flaws is our want to replicate what is successful without critical analysis and understanding.

Years ago I was reading about happiness as a goal and a parent of my son's friend replied, "If that's the goal, I've failed." He is an attorney with a profitable practice. He "has it all" financially but he sacrificed himself for that goal. Reading about the misery index in this country, he's not alone. For many in and out of education circles, there are fundamental disagreements on the role of schooling in society. There are those who believe schools should help their young maximize their profits under the current economic paradigm. What jobs are going to pay the best in the future? That's what you should major in. Economic success equals happiness. Then there are those who want schools to help the young change the focus from external (money) to internal satisfaction. Studies suggest that only the lucky ones find both.

Permit me to indulge in an analogy. At an inservice, the speaker tried to explain the way different students view school in a food analogy. Lower income families worry about having enough food to feed everyone. Middle class families know there will be enough food so they worry about the quality of the food. Higher income families know there will be enough and of very good quality, so they worry about presentation. With schooling, educationally impoverished families worry about getting a job. Having the opportunity to go to college and have a career is moving to the educational middle class. The educationally middle class assume their kids will have careers and hope they can have either more economically and/or personally fulfilling careers. The upper class worry about making sure their kids get into the right schools because it ultimately is not about education, but networking and being in charge.

And everyone longs to be the super rich (celebrities, athletes or negatively, drug lords) because they seems to be able to have it all.

I responded as a child of education impoverishment, now living in the educational middle class and worrying about my own children. I see in my community a bit of the fall out of the idea that you must do everything to get ahead. Here, the teaching staff doesn't put in the hours you all do nor feels the sense of mission,but the students still feel the pressure to succeed at all costs.

Happiness is doing what we Want to do, not Should Want. When we emphasize that everyone Should go to college, we may hinder that inner voice. Ironically, that was the whole idea of a liberal arts education. In many public schools I've researched or visited, when the outcome (passing a mandated test or getting into college) was more important than the process (learning different subjects, expanding student's horizons) some students didn't value what they were learning. Ask any high school or college teacher and they'll lament about the kids only wanting to know "what's on the test" if it's not on the test (or graded) it is not worth the student's efforts. (I'm not suggesting that this is happening at YES, but I do know it is happening in public (and private) schools around the country.)

Just as we adults are different and want different things out of life, so are our young. Some students thrive on and want the frenzy of a pressure cooker educational system. (Some love the discipline of the military, etc.) Just as we need to acknowledge their needs and rejoice if they've found a good fit for them, we must recognize it's not a good fit for all. We're still, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote, "Tinkering toward Utopia." Our construct is still, K-12 then lockstep into college. However, the last 100 years have seen such profound changes. The internet freed us from the knowledge gap. Colleges used to provide information not readily accessible to the general public, hence the reason for the enhanced salary and status. Today, free on-line courses and other information makes skills, attitudes, tenacity, imagination, etc. much more valuable commodities.

Sadly, we are doing a poor job trying to help students figure out, even if they know what they are interested in, how to pursue that interest as a career. Given all else that is asked from schools, perhaps it is not possible for them to tackle this vital question. But, students live in the myopic environment of their neighborhood or the illusionary one in their TV shows and internet. Neither provides good guidance. (Which is why so many young people falter at this stage.) Even those who go to college change majors more than once. In this uncertainty, there is a knee jerk reaction to tell them to go for the careers where we know there is job opportunity, at least in the short term. But then for some, the unhappiness cycle continues.

In Sara Lawrence Lightfoot's book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure the 25 years after 50, she chronicles how people, like herself (she's 62) are reinventing themselves. As we are living longer and can and want to be productive longer, we need to encourage and respect lifelong learning and learners. We should value human potential and efforts at all ages and encourage our young to see education as a not a short Herculean effort from 5-22 years of age, but one of continual renewal and reflection.

Amanda Villagomez's picture

Congratulations on all of your hard work. What an inspiring article! I was wondering if very many of your students are on IEPs. If so, what additional supports are required to help them successfully work toward the goal of being prepared for a four year college? Have you been successful in helping them keep up with the rigor of a college prep program? I know this would vary student to student, but I would love to hear what you have found to work well.

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