YES Prep is a charter school network in Houston with very close ties to Teach For America. It was founded in 1995 by Chris Barbic, a 1992 TFA corps member. Many of the teachers at the YES campuses are from TFA as is the current head of schools, Jeremy Beard. Jeremy Beard is also the husband of Elisa Villanueva-Beard who is the CEO of TFA.
In 2010, YES was awarded a million dollars by Oprah Winfrey, in part because of their incredible record of getting 100% of their 12th graders to be accepted into college. This was before people knew to ask, “But what percent of your 9th graders remained in the school to become 12th graders?”
Regardless, YES continued to grow into what is now 12 middle schools and 5 high schools. The success of YES helped its founder, Chris Barbic, to get a job as the superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) which takes over low performing schools and turns them over to charter networks. Though The ASD was a flop and he resigned four years into the experiment, Barbic did land a good job with the John Arnold Foundation.
In Texas there are about 1200 schools of which about 200 of them received an ‘F’ for the 2016-2017 school year. Ironically, though, out of the 12 YES Prep middle schools I found that two of them received ‘F’s, exactly the same percent of schools as Texas as a whole.
|YES Prep – West||A|
|YES Prep – 5th Ward||B-|
|YES Prep – North Central||A|
|YES Prep – Southeast||A-|
|YES Prep – Southwest||A|
|YES Prep – Northside||C|
|YES Prep – Southside||F|
|YES Prep – White Oak||C|
|YES Prep – Gulfton||C-|
|YES Prep – North Forest||F|
|YES Prep – East End||B|
|YES Prep – Brays Oaks||D+|
Considering that this is one of the ‘gold standard’ charter networks, these grades don’t support the reformer argument that a network like YES has figured out how to do it and now just needs to scale up.
YES Prep also has five high schools and I noticed that none of those schools were F rated. Those schools have four As and one B. All five also got a Gold Ranking in the 2017 U.S. News And World Report ranking system. So it seems, at least on a superficial glance, that YES Prep has some inconsistency in their middle schools but gets everything worked out nicely for high school and can continue their high percent of 12th graders getting into college.
But I examined the data from here (and I invite anyone who is interested to independently analyze what I did) and found something that I think is interesting.
But first I want to get back to Chris Barbic and The ASD. One of the charter networks that was scheduled to take over a middle school was YES Prep. But then, abruptly in March of 2015, YES announced that it was abandoning their plan to take over that school. This was very strange considering that Barbic founded YES and he was acting very hurt by all this. Just one month later, Barbic was interviewed by Chalkbeat, TN, and he gave this revealing answer to the question “What are some lessons learned?”
I think a second lesson is around the depth of the poverty in Memphis and the obstacle that creates in educating our students. Obviously, when we looked at the info on our kids before bringing a school into the ASD, we knew most of the kids we serve are living in poverty and that poverty plays a factor at school. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and every single school I’ve worked with has been in a community dealing with poverty. But the poverty in Houston, where I worked before coming to Tennessee, compared to the poverty in Memphis, is different. In Houston, it was more of an immigrant poverty. In Memphis, it’s more generational poverty. I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected. We underestimated that.
It seems like Barbic is admitting that it was easier to get good test scores from the mainly Hispanic students from ‘immigrant poverty’ at YES Prep in Houston than to get them from the mainly Black students from ‘generational poverty’ in the ASD in Memphis. He is not making a general statement here about the relative intelligence of Hispanic and Black students. He could just as easily say that in two cities where the Black students have the ‘immigrant poverty’ and the Hispanic students have the ‘generational poverty’ that in those cities the Black students would be an easier population to work with than the Hispanic students. A few months later, Barbic abruptly resigned , citing his health — he suffered a heart attack — as one of his reasons.
In Houston Independent School District (HISD), the demographic breakdown is 62% Hispanic, 24% Black, 4% Asian, and 9% White. When it comes to the 12 YES Prep middle schools, they are about 85% Hispanic and 14% Black. But this varies by school.
|School||Grade||% Hispanic||% Black|
|YES Prep – West||A||73||14|
|YES Prep – 5th Ward||B-||93||6|
|YES Prep – North Central||A||96||2|
|YES Prep – Southeast||A-||95||2|
|YES Prep – Southwest||A||90||10|
|YES Prep – Northside||C||94||5|
|YES Prep – Southside||F||34||62|
|YES Prep – White Oak||C||78||19|
|YES Prep – Gulfton||C-||90||4|
|YES Prep – North Forest||F||73||25|
|YES Prep – East End||B||98||0|
|YES Prep – Brays Oaks||D+||72||23|
So any reformer who claims to be ‘data driven’ and who cares a lot about A-F school ratings would notice that by this metric, YES Prep is failing when it comes to teaching Black students. What should we make of this? Are we to believe that YES Prep has special teaching techniques that work wonders for Hispanic children but don’t work as well for Black children? Of course not. It is just that the students at the F rated schools, whatever their race, are coming into that school farther behind so it is going to be more difficult to get their test scores up. This also means that the students at the A rated schools, whatever their race, are coming into that school further ahead. A charter network that has schools with more of those students who begin further ahead is going to have more A rated schools than one that doesn’t.
Mostly this is happening because of geography and which neighborhoods the different schools are in. Aside from Southside, the other two low rated schools are still mostly Hispanic students so this suggests that there is a difference in the starting level of the Hispanic students in those schools compared to the Hispanic students at some of the other more highly rated middle schools.
But what about those YES Prep high schools? They seem to be doing pretty well with 4 As and a B. On the US News rankings, all five are among the top 40 high schools in Texas and three of them are in the top 20. Well, looking at their high school demographics, you will notice something unusual.
|School||Grade||% Hispanic||% Black|
|YES PREP HS – Southwest||A+||95||2|
|YES Prep HS – Southwest||A||90||10|
|YES Prep HS – East End||A-||98||0|
|YES Prep HS – Gulfton||B+||91||4|
|YES Prep HS – North Central||A+||96||2|
From the data it can be seen there there is an almost complete absence of Black students at the five YES Prep high schools. While 14%, on average, of their middle school students are Black, only 3.5% of their high school students are. This also suggests that Hispanic students from the lower performing middle schools are likely not represented as much in these high schools.
So the big question is, why are there so few Black students in the YES Prep high schools? Why has their percent of Black students decreased by 75% from 14% in their middle schools to 3.5% in their high schools? It seems to me that YES Prep is complicit in this since they have set up their high schools, the location and the process of getting into those high schools in a way that eliminates the lower scoring middle school students whether they are Black or Hispanic.
So is YES Prep failing its Black students and then abandoning them when it serves YES for them to do so? I can’t be certain, but the data makes me pretty confident that the answer is YES.