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Twin Cities Daily Planet: A Really Successful Charter School

Leaders of a charter school in Houston, Texas, with a 100 percent graduation rate visit Minneapolis and explain how they do it. Vickie Evans-Nash reports for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. FROM THE TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET


On May 5 at Pillsbury House in South Minneapolis, the Hope Collaborative invited community members to a presentation by representatives from YES Prep Public School. The presentation is part of an ongoing effort to bring in schools to share their success stories working with students who have a history of educational difficulties.

YES is a sixth-12th grade public charter school in Houston, Texas, that boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. Melanie Singleton, a product of YES, is a Columbia graduate who has returned to teach. She and the school’s founder, Chris Barbic, explained how YES evolved.

Barbic, a Vanderbilt University graduate and a former Teach for America teacher, told how he became frustrated with the high dropout rate of Houston’s inner-city students. He and a fellow Teach for America colleague, along with 300 parents, took a teaching plan to address the needs of low-income students to a Houston Independent School District board meeting and refused to leave until the plan for the program was approved.

The process of becoming a YES student begins with heavy recruitment in low-income communities and among students of color. After meeting with each student at his or her home, an agreement between the child, the teacher and the parent(s) is signed that commits each party to the goal of high school graduation and post-secondary education.

Students who generally enter sixth grade one to two grade levels behind in reading, writing and math are touring colleges and preparing to take advance placement (AP) high school-level classes by eighth grade. Acceptance into a college is required in order to graduate.

After hearing stories of several schools across the nation, Sondra Samuels, a member of Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), part of the Hope Collaborative steering committee, said during an interview with MSR that some consistent themes emerged: autonomy to hire and fire teachers, longer school days, Saturday school, and a strong focus on college.

The typical school day at YES begins at 7:30 am and ends at 4:30 pm for students, while teachers are available on-call by cell phone until as late as 10 pm. Summer school is a requirement for all students, and one Saturday per month is devoted to community service. As a result, Barbic says, 88 percent of their students go on to post-secondary education.

Although Rob Tanning-Miller, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, told us he is not specifically knowledgeable about YES Prep, he spoke with MSR about charter schools in general that have a philosophy similar to YES, such as KIP (Knowledge Is Power) schools. In regards to the kind of time commitment expected of YES teachers, Tanning-Miller says, “Doctors who are on call aren’t working eight-hour days and then on call for eight more hours every day of the week.”

He says the big issue is whether or not it is a sustainable or even a healthy model. Teachers would have to have very limited personal lives, leaving little, if any, room for a family for at least a couple of years. “Unless the lesson from schools like this is that we essentially need to go back to the days of the schoolmarm. It’s a derogative term, but that’s essentially it — where you are wedded to your job. We got away from that for a reason, and I don’t think going back to that is going to do us any good.”

He says that the success of the school is in showing that that there are students who need more intensive intervention. “But we need to do it in a way that’s not simply on the back of teachers,” Tanning-Miller said.

Charter schools generally have no connection with a union. Tanning-Miller says that some believe that union contracts and more bureaucratic districts restrict teachers, but he believes that non-unionized teachers will find that “[When administration is] looking at dollars and trying to squeeze dollars and you’re the one getting squeezed, the only way to fight that is to unionize and to bargain collectively.”

However, Jill Willis, director of communications for YES Prep, says that what is unique about them is their staff. “We don’t have traditional teachers. On average, the age is 27-28, and so they are young, they’re ambitious. They are looking for an [opportunity]…to pour their heart into something… We’re getting the teachers that want to come in and be leaders and change a city.”

According to Willis, 85 percent of their students come from families that make less than $24,000 per year. But, they believe that if they provide low-income students with the same resources that students from affluent areas have, the results are the same.

“Out of the 78 [graduating] seniors, we had one get into Harvard. We had a couple get into Vanderbilt. They come back to Houston with degrees from Stanford and Yale,” Willis boasts.

Five of their current teachers graduated from YES, continued on to graduate from college — Melanie Singleton from Columbia and another from Stanford on a full scholarship — and then returned to teach.

“We’re saying ‘You’re going to do well. Take the time — make an investment in these students — before you go on to law or grad or into another profession, or heck, stay with us forever — but you’ve got to stay strong,'” said Willis.
Some would argue that a contract between a parent, teacher and child is a self-selection mechanism that itself promotes success. Others may say that for students who are typically one to two years behind in reading, writing and math, even if they have a parent steering them toward college, college entrance is unlikely.

“Most of our families — around the dinner table — most of them are talking about school,” Willis says. “Most students, they don’t know about a college unless they have a dynamic sports team… They’ve never heard of Amherst or are [not] familiar with Columbia.”

One audience member voiced disappointment upon learning that YES was not opening a Minneapolis school. With public schools, private schools, and public charter schools all vying for students, how does a parent know which school is right for their child?

Samuels’ first advice in regards to charter schools is to go with schools, such as KIP, that have already established a national track record. Even though she agrees that there is always risk involved when trying something new, she also says, “If I have a child who was so far behind in school, and they’re not going to graduate anyway from all indicators, I want to try something.”

But is college for every child? And if so, where do skilled trades fit into this equation? Willis answers, “What we’re saying is that no matter what field you go into, a college degree is going to enhance your credibility as a professional… Don’t just be the electrician — be a manager of electricians. Be an electrical engineer.”

“[Education] is the civil rights issue of our era,” Samuels says. “We are creating a Third-World society — and they’re largely Black and Brown — who are so undereducated, and they can’t go out and get a factory job; those are not here any longer.”

Currently, Willis says, over their 10 years they have grown from 50å0 to 2,100 students, and their level of teachers has not gone down. There are currently 1,000 students on their waiting list.

Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to

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