September 17, 2009

YES Prep: "Aha" Moments

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.


One thing YES does to prepare us for college is exposing us to colleges and universities and how they really expect a lot from incoming freshmen. Once we go there we have this mindset that we really need to step it up in our high school years. (Leonel, Junior)

Often the first in their families to go to college, many YES Prep students don’t have an understanding of what going to college will entail, what investments are required in terms of time and money, what changes to expect at home, and what the payoffs will be. Neither do their families. Donald Kamentz, Director of College Initiatives, was determined to create a strong psychological and social basis for student success in college. He felt that students and their families needed to “get” what college was about and why it was worth the investment of effort and financial resources. So Kamentz and the YES Prep team sought to create and systematize “aha moments”—a series of experiences that, according to Kamentz, “…demystifies the whole college process and experience. Through structured activities such as annual spring trips and summer opportunities, we are constantly working to create ways for students— and their families—to learn strategies to deal with a variety of college-related situations.”

Financial “aha moments” have proven to be especially critical for families. For example, an established YES Prep campus has an annual budget of only $6,000 to put towards "summer opportunity" loans and scholarships. By capping individual scholarship and loan amounts at $500, YES Prep is able to provide some support to a large proportion of juniors and seniors. Over time, however, YES Prep has learned that even if it had enough funding to act like the “Bank of YES,” it is important to make sure that families are expected to contribute something to the cost of these experiences. Even if that contribution is as low as $25 for the most economically-disadvantaged families, their financial commitment builds the expectation that investments in educational opportunities are necessary, increases awareness of why those investments are important, and demonstrates that small investments are affordable and worthwhile. 

The Important Role of Spring Trips and Summer Opportunities

Spring trips are an annual source of “aha moments” throughout a student’s time at YES Prep. Starting in the 6th grade, every class spends up to a week outside of the “YES Prep bubble” on a trip that includes a visit to at least one college or university. These spring trips make attending college tangible for students and give them something specific to work towards. They also provide valuable time away from home, starting what YES Prep calls the “letting go process” for the entire family.

YES Prep also requires all rising juniors and seniors to participate in a summer opportunity. These experiences vary widely, but must require substantial and substantive work. Working with the student opportunities coordinator, students and their families research and select an opportunity that aligns with their interests and career aspirations. Scholarship money is available to support these experiences. Over the past 10 years, for example, the 600 students who have passed through the YES Prep Southeast campus have received more than $2.5 million in summer opportunities scholarships.


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