Charter High Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
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YES College Preparatory School, Southeast Campus
Houston, Texas


School Profile: Selected Variables
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1998, state
Grades and Enrollment 6–12 and 665
Student Ethnicity 5% African-American
1% Asian American
92% Hispanic
2% white
Special Education 2%
Free and Reduced-price Lunch 78%
Graduation Rate 100%
Annual Cost per Student $7,205

Source: School records data from 2005–06

Just off a busy main highway, along what was until recently a country road, now dotted with small business-industrial parks and new housing, three neat rows of portable-like structures house YES College Preparatory School, Southeast Campus (YES Prep). Along these rows, flapping in the Gulf Coast breeze, inspirational banners proclaim the school's philosophy: "Excellence is a Habit," "The Students of Today Are the Leaders of Tomorrow," "The Only Way to Lose Is to Quit Trying." One banner, declaring "Whatever It Takes," holds special meaning for students, families, and teachers as YES Prep's recipe for success. For Keith Desrosiers, the school's third principal and former YES Prep teacher, "whatever it takes" means "not letting obstacles prevent us from reaching our goal." And the goal is ambitious: matriculation from high school as well as acceptance to and success at a four-year college.

YES Prep's mission is "to provide a rigorous and comprehensive educational program that prepares low-income students for success in a four-year college or university," which is interpreted as "pursuing excellence, building positive relationships, serving and improving communities, and creating new opportunities and experiences." The school's structure includes an integrated sixth through 12th-grade academic and developmental program, a longer school day, monthly service learning (i.e., community service) experiences on Saturdays, annual three-week summer sessions and summer enrichment opportunities, and classwide spring trips to colleges and universities.

The idea for YES College Preparatory School was born when Chris Barbic, a dedicated and visionary Teach for America corps member at Houston's Rusk Elementary School, and a small group of parents saw Rusk's graduating students slip academically and disengage from learning while attending their neighborhood middle and high schools. "High rates of illiteracy, truancy, and juvenile crime were consuming students in the East End," says Barbie. The impetus for a new schooling model, says one board member, was seeing "good work being lost" as students entered the large and low-performing local schools where there was "no one to catch them when they fell."

In 1995, through a charter with the Houston Independent School District, Barbie and others opened YES Preparatory school, a middle school program for students at Rusk. By the time the first cohort of sixth-graders graduated in 1998 the vision for an integrated sixth through 12th grade program had evolved and a new charter was obtained to open the state's only chartered public middle and high school district. The first school in the YES system, YES College Preparatory School, Southeast campus, opened that same year. Since then the YES system, still headed by Barbic, has opened two other campuses, with another campus opening this fall.* Currently, the southeast campus is the only one fully integrating all middle and high school grade levels. Desrosiers says the "plan is to operate 13 campuses in Houston neighborhoods within the next 10 years."

"Our intent is to change the face of public education," he says, "by making sure that all kids in Houston, regardless of where they live, get the best education and by changing their expectations along the way." The ultimate goal, he adds, is "to create a critical mass of college educated students who can then return to Houston and bring real change to our underserved neighborhoods and communities."

School Operations and Educational Program

YES Prep offers its students, selected by lottery, an award-winning rigorous college preparatory curriculum and enriching social experience. The curriculum is a content-based detailed scripted sequence of instruction—developed by YES Prep faculty and based on Pre-AP and AP course outlines—specifying student outcomes for each nine-week grading period. AP work is offered in every subject area. Students also report a thriving social experience at YES, talking of dances, community service projects, sports competitions, summer enrichment activities, and more than 30 mixed-grade clubs from which to choose.

The YES Prep course of study is aligned to state standards and has augmented requirements. To qualify for a diploma, students are required to earn 22 credits, including 4 in English, 4 in mathematics, 3 in foreign language, 4 in science, 4 in the social sciences, 1-1/2 in physical education and health, 1 in both fine arts and technology, and 1-1/2 in electives ranging from painting, video production, and photography, to psychology, yearbook, and robotics.

Trusting relations between caring adults and students are promoted through the structure of the school. All students participate in the APSD (Academic, Personal, and Social Development) program, which addresses nonacademic issues relevant to their lives. During APSD time, students receive counseling and support and discuss tragedies like the death of a classmate and information about puberty, dating, health, body image, and sexuality. Students also learn about career and academic planning, money and time management, and how to study. By their junior year, APSD becomes a twice weekly seminar, and by senior year a daily seminar, to address issues about the transition from home and family to roommates and college, and facilitate the college search, application, and acceptance process.

YES Prep students report high satisfaction with their school experience, crediting good teaching and caring adults for their successes. Teachers give one-to-one time in class, out of class, after class, through e-mails or cell phone calls. Issued cell phones, all teachers are on call to students until 9 p.m. each school night and on weekends. "Teachers want you to understand information, not memorize it, and make us redo work until we get it right," says one student. They "find new ways to teach until you understand." Another student declares, "Knowing they honestly care is my safety net."

Class sizes are small, typically one teacher for every 13 students, the largest class sizes not exceeding 28 students. Having time to work individually with students is key to the school's success. As described by one veteran YES Prep teacher, the school is committed to moving beyond "book knowledge and taking thinking to the next level, to interpreting, analyzing, challenging children." A new teacher talks about "making material relevant" and "keeping content exciting," explaining that he teaches mathematics by using examples and by inviting guest speakers from applied fields, like meteorology and psychology, and from the computer industry. "Ask anyone, even the custodian," urges Desrosiers. "Every single person knows why they are here—to get our kids into college and ensure that they are successful when they are there."

Assessment is integrated into the YES Prep instructional program and is used to develop tutorials, to target individualized instruction and remediation, and to designate time for pullouts or enrichments for students below grade level or struggling to master content, especially in reading and mathematics. Teachers report routinely working in teams and departments to disaggregate data in order to make sense of them and understand what they suggest for subsequent teaching.

Family Involvement and Partnerships

Parents' belief in the YES Prep mission and involvement in bringing it to fruition are central to the school's success. Parents sign a "contract of commitment" to affirm their role in the "Whatever It Takes" approach. Desrosiers explains that while working multiple jobs prevents most parents from spending time in the classroom, they are active in many other ways. A Parent Advisory Association provides a range of needed support services, such as fund-raising, special events planning, office assistance, monitoring the cafeteria, and helping to supervise Saturday service activities. According to parents, communication with teachers and the administrative staff is routine, and they feel the school is open to ideas, suggestions, and concerns. Communication is generally maintained through e-mail and telephone contact.

"We will work with anyone who wants to work with us," declares Desrosiers. The YES Prep model relies on long-term partnerships from an expanding pool of community organizations and businesses that support the school's mission. Many are contracted to provide fee-for-service enrichment opportunities and clubs for the students. All students participate in service-learning projects and interface with the greater Houston community through their stewardship efforts. Examples of such projects include building paddocks at a humane horse ranch, cleaning beaches and parks, and tutoring elementary school students. During summer, many students are placed at university summer school programs or in volunteer internships or real work experiences or work shadowing opportunities at local businesses.

YES Prep maintains an extensive network of relations with college recruiters, frequently hosts college and university representatives and alumni to meet with students, and takes students to visit campuses across the nation. A partnership with Houston Community College allows YES Prep students to take dual enrollment courses in pre-calculus, calculus, and literature and composition, as well as to make up course work during summer sessions.

Since acceptance to a four-year college is a graduation requirement, and since many students are first-generation college bound, the school works directly with parents to support them through the "letting go" process. A designated full-time faculty works with each student and family to identify colleges and universities, apply, select "the best fit" from among the offers, secure financial aid or scholarships, prepare for the transitions, and provide alumni support once they are enrolled.

Governing for Accountability

A board and site-based leadership team govern YES Prep. The board, comprising a group of 21 business and community leaders, sees chartering as an innovative tool that can be used well or poorly. YES, says one board member, is using the tool effectively to "create a different culture in education—a culture of success." The on-site management team, consisting of the principal, the middle and high school deans, and the director of college counseling, meet weekly to address operational and other "hot topic" issues. Together with some of the department heads and nominated teachers and staff, they form the campus-based leadership team, who addresses budget, personnel, and student affairs.

As a charter school, YES Prep has the flexibility and autonomy to innovate, solve problems, and do "whatever it takes" to meet the academic, behavioral, social, and developmental needs of students so that each graduate succeeds at a four-year college or university. Desrosiers says, "Now that we have an 'army' of alumni in four-year colleges and universities, it is easier for our students and families to see that they are capable of achieving the same results. Success breeds success."

Since 2001, 86 percent of YES Prep first generation college-bound students were accepted to 170 colleges and matriculated from 56 campuses nationwide. Among the students graduating since 2001, there have been three AP scholars with distinction, three AP scholars with honors, 25 AP scholars, four honorable mentions from the National Hispanic Recognition program, two Gates Millennium scholars, ten Vanguard scholars, and one Jackie Robinson Foundation scholar. YES Prep also has a college application rate of 100 percent, with 100 percent of its students being accepted to one or more four-year colleges or universities each year since 2001.

Out of nearly 200 charter schools in Texas, YES Prep is the only school to receive the Texas Education Agency ratings of "exemplary" or "recognized" every year of operation. In 2002, it was one of nine schools nationwide to receive the Hewlett-Packard High Achieving Schools award. In 2003, it was one of 20 schools to receive the Education Trust's Dispelling the Myth award for educational excellence in low-income communities.

YES Prep: Evidence of Closing the Achievement Gap

Outperforming the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on the 2005 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exams in reading and math, 98 percent of YES Prep students passed the English language arts exam and 95 percent passed the math exam compared with 74 percent of HISD students passing reading and 52 percent passing math.

Ninety-nine percent of 11th-grade YES Prep students passed the TAKS English exam and 100 percent passed the math exam compared with the Texas state average of an 88 percent pass rate in English and a 77 percent pass rate in math.

In HISD, 30 percent of high school students take the SAT compared with 100 percent of YES seniors. The average YES score on the SAT was 1025 in 2005, higher than average for their local district in Texas (937) and higher than the national average for Hispanic students (937).

*YES grows each campus by one grade level each year until the campus has a complete middle and high school program.

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Last Modified: 11/18/2009