Is the Answer YES?
Teacher Laureen Wimbley is walking around her classroom at YES Prep Southwest, giving her sixth-grade students instructions on how to complete their science lessons. They are learning about the composition, function and description of the Earth’s strata, layer by layer. On paper, this is a classroom that should be a recipe for disaster. Thirty-four Hispanic and black preteens, most of whom qualify for free/reduced-price lunch, are crammed together, seated shoulder-to-shoulder in a cramped modular building located in a low-income neighborhood in southwest Houston. As Wimbley energetically describes the assignment, the students bend forward intent on their work. There are no disruptions. No shouts or extraneous conversations. Only learning.
YES Prep Public Schools is a Houston-based charter school network begun by Chris Barbic, BS’92, in 1998. After he finished his teaching stint through Teach for America, Barbic grew frustrated when he realized that many of the sixth graders he’d worked so hard to boost over the achievement hump were flunking out and dropping out by the time they reached high school. Today seven YES Prep campuses are in operation, with a total enrollment of 3,500 students. Each school opens in the sixth grade and adds a grade a year until they include the full complement through 12th grade. Students do not have to meet any academic criteria to attend, and parents in an enrollment zone apply by blind lottery. Over the years, Barbic and his schools have received numerous awards and recognition for promoting academic excellence among at-risk students. Barbic won Peabody’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2006 for his work with YES Prep.
At the two six-year YES Prep campuses now in operation, 100 percent of the seniors not only apply to but also attend four-year colleges. By contrast, in the rest of the Houston public school system only one in 10 sixth graders finishes college and of the low-income students who do start college, only one in four graduates. By comparison, 84 percent of students who graduated from YES Prep are still enrolled in college or have already received their degrees—a number Barbic finds disappointing.
“We’re not where we want to be on that, even if we’re better than the average,” he says. “We’re looking at that right now—how can we get that 84 percent up to above 90 percent?”
Given their 100 percent graduation rate and “exemplary” status on the Texas state assessment exams, it would seem that the achievement gap is not an issue for YES Prep schools. In fact, it’s a constant issue. Barbic says that the typical sixth-grade student who enters YES Prep is about two years behind those attending the suburban Houston schools. In a push to make sure the gap is closed by the time students reach high school, YES Prep children are in school for longer days (classes end at 4:35 p.m.), and they are in school for an additional 10 days during the summer. They also have weekend community service and enrichment requirements during the school year, and their academic curriculum is uniformly rigorous.
“For a lot of these kids, the middle school years are where they start to fall off the track. The transitions from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school are hard ones. So we create an environment where that transition from middle school to high school doesn’t exist anymore, because they’re all under one roof,” Barbic says. “Secondly, we create classes with great teachers and lots of rigor in middle school so that kids are used to doing rigorous work at a fairly young age. If you wait until high school in the neighborhoods we’re in, too many kids will be so far behind at that point that college isn’t a reality for them.”
Barbic goes against conventional wisdom in addressing many of the issues thought to contribute to the achievement gap—class size, for example. “I think class size is overrated,” he states. “What’s more important than class size is grade size, or what I call ‘cohort size.’”
In other words, he caps each grade at around 150 students, and he caps each sixth- through 12th-grade school at around 800 students, unlike the 3,000-plus population of local comprehensive high schools. “At 800 kids it’s big enough so that you can have some extracurricular activities, but it’s also small enough so that no one feels like a number. Kids can build relationships with each other and with their teachers,” he says.
He also establishes an expectation from the beginning that each child is destined for success and sets academic standards at the same level as those of the wealthiest suburban schools. If necessary, children are asked to repeat a grade. About 10 to 15 percent of the younger children are held back each year, usually because of a deficiency in English language and literacy skills.
Most importantly, YES Prep administrators embark on intense searches for the best teachers they can find. Great teachers delivering a quality education, Barbic says, can ameliorate many of the peripheral problems—housing, poverty, crime—that keep these students from learning. The majority of the teachers at his academy are culled from the ranks of Teach for America. Beyond that, however, he and his colleagues have crafted a profile of common traits to identify the kind of teacher who will excel in this environment.
Barbic says, “First, our teachers have what we call a quick rebound time. They hit a skid in the road, an obstacle, and they bounce right back and figure out different solutions to problems. Second, they are not afraid of conflict and they’re not afraid to have a serious conversation with a kid or with a parent. Third, they have high energy and they enjoy being in a leadership position.
One of the most interesting things is that our highest performing teachers are pessimists. They know they are the difference-makers for our kids. If they don’t do their job and do it well, they know there isn’t a bright future for these kids.
“And, finally, one of the most interesting things is that our highest performing teachers are pessimists. It kind of makes sense. Pessimists can’t leave things to chance. They know they are the difference-makers for our kids. If they don’t do their job and do it well, they know there isn’t a bright future for these kids. They understand the gravity of the situation and the importance of education.” Once hired, YES Prep provides a program of training, collaboration and support to ensure its teachers will be successful.
Charter schools, some experts insist, are not the answer to closing the achievement gap, and Barbic agrees that not all charter schools are created equal. In fact, some are no better than the worst public schools. “What the charter school movement has brought to the table is pockets of excellence and proof points around the country for what is possible for low-income kids,” Barbic says. “I think prior to that people didn’t believe it was possible.”
Today, many more adults realize the opportunities that a solid education can provide to even the most disadvantaged child. As evidence, the parents of 5,000 Houston middle-schoolers, who were closed out in the lottery, put their children on the waiting list to get into YES Prep. Such is their faith in the power of possibility.
(See p. 31 for a profile of YES Prep graduate and Peabody undergraduate Stacy Flores.)