September 17, 2009

YES Prep: Academic Preparation

This case study explores the “nuts and bolts” of how YES Prep Public Schools, a charter organization based in Houston, Texas, succeeds in preparing low-income students not only to graduate from high school, but also to enter college ready to meet the challenges of a post-secondary education.

I feel like I am very prepared to succeed in college.  We’ve been working at this since the 6th grade. (Carol, Junior)

“Rigor matters,” explains Director of College Initiatives Donald Kamentz, “and simply put, that’s the foundational piece for our students’ college success.” The organization sets high expectations for academic performance, regardless of how far behind students are when they first come to a YES Prep school. (Most students enter YES Prep at least one year behind grade level in Math and English.) Rigorous curricular requirements are a core component of the YES model, and the academic program from 6th through 12th grade is structured to enable every student to succeed at the college level.  “The kids already get it by 7th grade,” says a teacher, because they are pushed to “prepare for high school to prepare for college.” 

Students begin to take classes for high school credit in the 8th grade, and every student completes a college preparatory sequence, including at least four years of high school English, math, social studies, and science and at least three years of a second language.  Students are required to take and pass at least one Advanced Placement class or a dual-enrollment course (for which students receive both high school and college credit).  Some students take as many as seven such advanced classes, as the YES Prep team wants to ensure that every graduate has experience with, and will not be surprised by, college-level work.  Over 65 percent of students receive a passing score of three or higher on at least one AP exam.

YES Prep strives for a tight alignment of its academic model to college course work. Teachers use feedback from the actual experiences of YES Prep alums in college to identify gaps. In a recent survey, the organization asked its alumni how well they were prepared for college.  While 82 percent of respondents stated that YES Prep prepared them for college-level work “extremely well” or “very well”, the survey revealed meaningful differences in how well students fared in specific subject areas (91 percent felt prepared for English college level work vs. 63 percent for science) and specific skills (over 80 percent felt prepared to complete homework, understand textbooks, or participate in class, while only 69 percent felt confident in their time management skills).  Science teacher teams are using this data plus a syllabi bank of college courses to strengthen their instruction and better prepare students by bolstering course standards at each grade level and incorporating more lab work.

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