George Lucas Educational Foundation

A School Grows Great Educators

At YES Prep, grabbing top-notch talent isn't always an option. Out of necessity, they are developing their own.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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VIDEO: Hiring and Supporting Great Teachers

Full 8 min. video and three 2 min. chapters.

Editor's Note: Bryan Reed is now Director of YES Prep North Central.

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 Bryan 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," he says. "Teaching had been a battle in the trenches fighting for my kids. YES Prep didn't seem realHow could all these people be on the same page and getting results?"

Good Thinking:

Teacher Rachael Arthur, top, and teacher-principal Bryan Reed believe in helping each other -- not just students -- learn.

Credit: Craig Brandenburg

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 (a member of Edutopia's National Advisory Council) 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."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.


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Kate Klingensmith's picture

As a former teacher at YES Prep Southeast, I can say - it's all so very true. The YES community is made up of extremely hard-working and compassionate teachers, incredibly dedicated students, and parents that are willing to commit to high expectations. The extended school day and the strong focuses on virtue, service, and college create an almost magic environment for learning and, ultimately, an almost unbelievable success story. But it's not magic, and it's true, and YES should be a model for other open-enrollment, public schools. One of the original graduating classes came up with a set of beliefs that exemplify the culture of YES, called the "Thinks and Acts". Here are some highlights:
We Think:
- The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow
- The only way to lose is to quit trying
- We are all here to make a difference
- We give 100% every day
- We are ready and willing to work hard
- We give back to our community

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

From all accounts, the YES program is one to be celebrated. However, as we know in education, one size does not fit all. I live in Arlington, VA and the reason I moved here was because of a public alternative school created in the 70's. It is still thriving today and fortunately (or unfortunately) it is so popular, that it is very hard to get into. It is through a lottery system and neither of my boys was lucky enough to get in.

As you enter the school, there are kids everywhere. The school operates on one rule, "a word to the wise is sufficient." Like the YES program, it is for 6th-12th graders. The principal explains to all interested families the philosophy of the school and its limitations. The students take their own attendance; they call their teachers by their first names. It is an open campus and it is the student's responsibility not to leave (in the upper grades they can go off campus for lunch). The 6th grade classes don't look very different from 'traditional' schools, but as the students enter the high school grades they are given more and more freedom. A class may give an assignment and the rest of the week the students work alone or together to complete it with class time "advisory" for the students, not mandated to show up if not needed. The student body is governed by town hall meetings where the students' vote are the same as the teachers and principal!

Edutopia would see their core goals in evidence everywhere.

If the student can't handle the freedom, accept the level of personal responsibility, s/he can return to one of the other public schools. This is the crux of the alternative/charter/private (ACP) vs. traditional public school debate. If people willingly enter into a school it is much easier to get them to buy into its philosophy. ACPs can have a philosophy - and be rightfully proud of it! However traditional comprehensive high schools were designed to be just that, all things to all people at all time. The teaching staff accepts all comers and depending on the leadership of the school, is expected to be able to teach under any circumstance.

Today there are various political and economic agendas at play to pit the various educational options against each other. There are those who want to break up what they see is an education monopoly for differing political and economic reasons. In some cases, the local school district was under serving different groups and over 50 years after Brown v. Board, we still had way too many separate but unequal educational programs. However, there are also those who, since they cannot sift and sort students by race or sex anymore, want to continue an educational program that benefits some over the others. Additionally, there are those who want to transfer the moneys available either to the market place in competitive for profit ventures or to transfer funds in forms of tuition tax credits to private/parochial schools and home schoolers. (Or privatize everything to eliminate public funding of education.)

Fundamentally, the other seismic shift we are going through is options for post secondary education and employment. On line programs are going to continue to offer alternatives to traditional college options. Increasingly, schools are not producing workers just for their local markets. As we continue to see jobs being outsourced to other countries, we have to help identify where the US is going to maintain a competitive advantage to help our young make wise economic decisions. (I know this sounds in conflict with other posts. It's not. I believe we need to have as much information out there to help students find their passion within the economic realities beyond their locale.)

Gary Latman's picture
Gary Latman
English Teacher / Technology Coordinator / Instructional Technologist

Ms. Klingensmith says, "The YES community is made up of extremely hard-working and compassionate teachers, incredibly dedicated students, and parents that are willing to commit to high expectations." What approach to creating a successful learning climate would you suggest for a school that is made up of extremely hardworking and compassionate teachers, but missing the other two ingredients, and a Central Office that refused to provide the resources requested to fix some of the problems?

At the inner-city high school where I taught for 18 years, where we had many excellent hardworking teachers and some very innovative programs, Central Office kept interfering with our programs, sending in new administrators (6 in my 18 years), creating instability, scrapping our vocational programs and electives, and then when our standardized test scores remained low, the entire staff was displaced. Our school system's CEO called it "Turnaround".

If teachers were permitted to teach without having to respond to management's political agendas and excessive bureaucratic paperwork (it's what non-educators do to assess accountability) thrust into the limited time we have for planning, grading, and working with our students, there might be greater success. There might even be less reason to leave the profession.

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