By Kenneth Terrell
September 3, 2010
U.S. News & World Report
When Hurricane Ike struck Houston in September 2008, it dropped another hurdle in Samantha Marquez’s path to college. Her mother lost her job at a storm-shuttered business, forcing Marquez to get a part-time job at Chuck E. Cheese’s to help the family’s finances. “We had to use the money we had been saving for college for just starting over,” she says.
The late hours at the pizza parlor ate away at her time to study for the three Advanced Placement courses she was taking at YES Prep, an innovative Houston free public charter school that requires students to attend longer school days (7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), take some Saturday classes, and do community service. Marquez could have gone to a less demanding school, but YES Prep’s track record made it worth the sweat. In the past 10 years, 100 percent of its graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. Marquez was not about to break that track record. “I’m going to college,” says the freshman at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. “A lot of my other friends can’t say that.”
The success rate would be remarkable for any public high school, but the composition of YES’s student body makes the achievement even more extraordinary. More than 80 percent of students at YES Prep schools are from economically disadvantaged households, 90 percent will be the first in their families to attend college, and 95 percent are Hispanic or African-American. By traditional expectations, these are the students least likely to succeed in the classroom, much less enroll in highly selective universities such as Stanford, Yale, and Wake Forest. But through a rigorous academic course load and a hands-on approach to the college admissions process, YES Prep—which operates eight campuses in the Houston area—has proved it possible for nontraditional students to march off to the nation’s elite college campuses.
After spending six years teaching in a Houston middle school (two through the Teach for America service program), Chris Barbic, YES Prep’s founder and CEO, realized that even the most dedicated teachers have a limited impact. Academic skills a child picks up one year can be lost the next school year if the next teacher is not just as dedicated. “Year after year, you’re by yourself working very hard just to have a great year for that kid,” Barbic says. “That just wasn’t enough to move the needle or give the kids what they needed.”
So Barbic decided to start a charter school with smaller classes that would permit teachers to build relationships with students. “It’s very small, so everybody knows each other and the teachers were available all of the time,” says graduate Sussy Aguirre, 18, a freshman at Rice University in Houston.
But perhaps the real revolution Barbic created was the promise his schools made to the state of Texas as a requirement of their operating agreement: Every student from YES Prep (for Youth Engaged in Service) will go to a four-year college. “That was the guarantee we needed to hold the kids and ourselves accountable,” Barbic says. A college acceptance letter is, in fact, a condition of graduation at YES Prep.
The charter’s first school, the Southeast campus—which Marquez attended—opened its doors in 1998. It graduated its first senior class in 2001 (and currently ranks No. 68 in U.S. News’s Best High Schools rankings).
Getting ready for college starts early at YES Prep. Sixth-graders (the schools include grades 6 through 12) are encouraged to start thinking about and identifying with colleges. For example, each homeroom is named after the alma mater of its assigned teacher. “Rather than 6A or 6B, it’s Vanderbilt or George Washington [University],” says Donald Kamentz, YES’s senior director of college initiatives. Students are pushed to start developing skills they will need for college regardless of the fact that the majority of them enter at least one grade level behind in math and English. By high school, all students are required to take at least one Advanced Placement course to get experience with college-level course work. “It was hell,” says Pablo Cruz, 18, who said he thought about quitting YES just two weeks after transferring in, thinking, “Man, I can’t do this no more. This is too hard.” Instead, Cruz heads to the University of Houston and its creative writing program this fall.
There is one course particular to YES Prep campuses that is perhaps most responsible for the schools’ success with admissions offices across the nation. During their junior and senior years, every student is required to take a course with one of the school’s college counselors. Teens at other high schools, public and private, are fortunate if they can meet with their college counselors for a few hours over the course of the semester. At YES, they’re face-to-face with a counselor for an hour each day for two years. During junior year, the college counseling course focuses on identifying colleges and preparation for the SAT and ACT exams. YES Prep counselors are trained in the Princeton Review test prep curriculum. Senior year, students work their way together through the application process. They discuss which schools might be the best fit for each other, pooling their knowledge from research and required college visits. They work on applications to six to eight colleges, refining their essays and gathering teacher recommendations.
By January, the curriculum shifts to introducing families to the intricacies of the financial aid process and to filing the FAFSA form.
Finally, students prepare for the difficult transition of leaving what for many are close-knit immigrant families. The separation anxiety has led some students to pick a college close by over one that might be a better academic fit. “I want to go to college, but I want to go to the college right down the street” is a refrain counselors frequently hear from students, Kamentz says. To counter the tendency, YES Prep requires students to enroll in one of the summer study programs that schools nationwide offer to give them a taste of college life. This summer, for instance, 24 YES Prep rising seniors attended a three-week program at Duke University. Others participate in programs at the University of Kansas, University of Georgia, and Texas A&M.
All of this college preparation has led to clear success for YES schools and their alumni (573 and counting). Not only do 100 percent enroll in college, but 80 percent have either earned a degree or are still working toward it, far above the national average of about 50 percent. Students who drop out of YES Prep usually do so when they can’t meet the college admission requirement for a YES diploma because of failed courses or college rejections, Kamentz says. Others stay at YES for additional help. “I’d rather a student stay behind and get their head on straight than go off to college and not be ready,” Kamentz says.
Of course, success breeds demand. More than 4,000 Houston students are on the YES Prep wait list. Currently, 4,200 students are admitted by lottery. Because the charter caps enrollment at 700 per campus, the only way to add students is to add campuses. In April, YES Prep borrowed $22.1 million in federal stimulus funds to build two campuses. The goal is to increase enrollment to 10,000 by 2020.
The key will be duplicating what has made the current campuses successful. “YES is like a community,” Aguirre says. “It’s not even about being in a classroom and them teaching you algebra. They’re teaching you life lessons.”