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Yes Prep students at Rhodes College, in Memphis.

Yes Prep students at Rhodes College, in Memphis.

From Houston to Memphis, with high hopes: Yes Prep tries to replicate college graduation success

Brianna “Brie”  Olootu, a 7th grade teacher at a Yes Prep school in Houston, says that one part of her first visit to a Yes Prep school as a prospective teacher stuck out: A handshake with a young man named Julio.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hi, I’m Julio and I’m the class of 2026. I’m going to graduate from Texas A&M,'” she said. “Students know they can go to college. That just really honestly drew me to Yes Prep culture. I’ve been here for two years and I love it,” she said.

Yes Prep is planning to start its first school outside of Texas in Memphis in 2015, and Olootu will be one of its first teachers. The charter management organization will take over a yet-to-be-determined Memphis middle school as part of the state-run Achievement School District, and could eventually run as many as 10 schools as part of the ASD.

Yes Prep, which has 13 charter schools serving 8,000 mostly low-income students in Houston, recently released a report touting the fact that its alumni graduate from college at higher rates than most demographically-similar students. Fifty percent of its first class of seniors graduated college, compared to just 10 percent of low-income students nationwide and 8 percent of Houston low-income students, according to its own research. Yes Prep hopes to translate its model–and those high school and college graduation rates–to Memphis.

“There’s always been a ‘yes, but,'” Bill Durbin, who is leading Yes Prep’s expansion to Memphis, said of the Houston school’s successes. “Coming to Memphis is a pressure test, a way to show there wasn’t a special thing [in Houston] that can’t be replicated.”

Shelby County Schools recently set its own goals to improve its graduation rate and send its students off to college or a successful career.

Memphis will present some new challenges for Yes Prep, including a different set of standards, a student population that’s farther behind academically than in Houston, and a model for school takeover that has spurred controversy in several communities.

Translating results

According to Yes Prep’s new self-study, the college six-year graduation rate of the network’s alumni has fluctuated between a high of 50 percent for its first year of graduates to a low of 34 percent of its 2007 graduates. Both figures are above the national average for low-income students. Ninety percent of the network’s students are first-generation college students.

The increased college graduation rate is not an accident, according to Yes Prep staff: Each school spends about $600 per student or 4 percent of its budget, on college counselors. This gives the schools a 40-to-one ratio of counselors to students.

In Shelby County Schools in 2013-14, high schools with as many as 749 students are assigned just one certified counselor, who may have responsibility for college admissions and other student needs. Schools with 1,000 high schoolers have two counselors.

The study was an attempt to provide transparency about the success of its high school graduates and follows in the footsteps of KIPP charter schools, which also sets goals around college graduation rates and publishes their progress. KIPP also has schools in Memphis.

Jason Bernal, Yes Prep’s chief executive officer, says the organization has learned that academic preparation isn’t the only important factor in college retention. Social skills and financial means have also strongly contributed to college success among their graduates. The school now begins teaching skills like persistence in middle school, and does outreach to families to make sure they understand the various steps of the college application process.

Yes Prep has partnered with 28 colleges, including Rhodes College in Memphis, to provide financial, academic and social support services to improve that rate.  They’ve also established an internal scholarship fund of $250,000.

Durbin said that seeing other Yes Prep students who have been successful in college can help inspire students. He said graduates at Tennessee schools such as Rhodes and Vanderbilt would be able to visit Yes Prep schools in Tennessee.

Some have questioned just how many students who enter Yes Prep in middle school actually reach high school. A blog post by education policy professor Ed Fuller, of Penn State, alleges that the schools enroll more advantaged students than their peers and that lower-performing students tend to leave the school.

Durbin said that persistence has improved over time. For middle schoolers starting with Yes Prep, “if we can get them to 9th grade, we (send) a very high percentage of them to college,” he said. He said the school has added some interventions to keep its middle schoolers enrolled to address that issue, and that the school system has included persistence as a measure on its internal report card to gauge how many students who start with the school stay enrolled.

New state, new schools

In Memphis, Yes Prep’s newest students will be coming into middle school several grade levels behind their peers in Houston, Durbin said. Shelby County Schools currently has just 6 percent of students graduating “college- and career- ready” as determined by the ACT. Just 40 percent of Shelby County students who graduate from high school go to college, according to Strive Mid-South.

At several schools, parents and teachers have protested the transfer from Shelby County Schools to the ASD, which entails a brand-new staff and identity for the school.

The Tennessee Yes Prep school will be using Common Core standards, which are not in use in Texas. In Texas, Yes Prep is its own school district or LEA (Local Education Authority), while in Tennessee it will be part of the ASD. And Bernal said the school will also shift from serving predominantly Hispanic students in Houston to predominantly African-American students in Memphis.

Yes Prep’s expansion in Tennessee will be determined by how successful its first schools here are. Schools in the ASD are tasked with improving the test scores of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state until they’re in the top 25 percent in the state.

Despite the challenges, Memphis was chosen off of a list of 191 cities as a particularly strong site for the network’s first expansion. The presence of organizations such as Teach For America, funders who were interested in supporting charter growth in the city, and a law that allows all students to attend charter schools made the city appealing, said Mark Dibella, the vice president of operations at the network.

Another factor: The superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is one of the Yes Prep’s founders. The school’s success was part of what led education commissioner Kevin Huffman to consider him for the post, Huffman said. Barbic said last summer that the school’s track record had earned it its authorization. Durbin said that relationship was not the determining factor for YES or for the ASD. “Once we open a school, we’re going to be here much longer than Chris is.”

Durbin said Yes Prep is considering applying to run schools within Shelby County Schools or in Nashville as well, “We want to serve communities that have fewer high-quality options than we think they deserve. We’re here for the long haul, whether we’re running priority schools in Shelby County or the ASD.”

Teachers in Memphis

Yes Prep will likely know where it will be located by this fall, after the state releases an updated list of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent and the ASD goes through a process matching charter operators with schools.

The school plans to bring a dozen teachers, including Olooto, from Houston to Memphis in 2015. Forty percent of the new school’s first teachers will come to Memphis from an established Yes Prep school, according to Durbin. The teachers will meet to plan for 2015 throughout the 2014-15 school year.

Yes Prep also has a program called Teaching Excellence through which teachers are trained and certified within its schools. Durbin said the organization hopes to bring that program to Memphis.

“Starting a school from ground up, I’m sure that’s a challenge,” Olootu said. “We have a lot to learn. What systems and procedures and routines are we doing in Houston that have been successful, what do we need to alter to make them more effective?”

But, she said, “I’m excited we’re choosing Memphis. You’re walking on history in Memphis,” she said. “This is definitely something I want to be a part of.”