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VOL. 128 | NO. 176 | Tuesday, September 10, 2013

YES Prep Has Big Plans for Memphis

By Bill Dries

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The Houston charter school operator founded by Chris Barbic, the superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, has ambitious plans for Memphis.

YES Prep, a charter school operator in Houston, Texas, has big plans to become part of a public education mix in Shelby County starting with the 2014-2015 school year. The mix includes other charter schools, an Achievement School District, Innovation Zone schools and conventional schools, as well as the coming of suburban school districts next school year.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

YES Prep is among the charter school operators being considered for the third year of the state-run district for the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools in terms of student achievement.

Decisions by the ASD on which of the Memphis schools in the bottom 5 percent will be matched with which providers won’t come until December.

Meanwhile, YES Prep’s board in Houston last week approved its end of a multi-year expansion plan into Memphis of six schools by 2020 with 5,400 students.

It amounts to a charter school system.

“We definitely want to be a proof point that you can build a system that is comprehensive and serving every kid that comes in the door but also nimble enough to move when you need to, to best serve students and not get stuck in becoming the elephant in the room,” said Bill Durban, the regional superintendent for YES in Memphis.

From its beginning with a single school in Houston in 1998, YES Prep is now a set of 13 schools, grades six to 12, with 8,000 students. Some of the newer schools in Houston are led by adults who graduated from YES schools.

YES Prep is focused on “kids who are falling through the cracks,” said YES president Jason Bernal. All of its students in Houston go on to attend college.

“As YES Prep grew up (in Houston), there was always the commentary of ‘they are doing well but they are small,’” Durban said. “I think what we wanted to do was figure out how to do districts better and more efficiently so that we could be a model for others our size.”

Memphis was one of 180 cities YES considered for expansion in the latest phase of its development. Some of that has to do with the Tennessee Legislature’s 2011 decision to lift any cap on the number of charter schools in the state, with other charter school measures proposed beyond that.

“We definitely want to be a proof point that you can build a system that is comprehensive.”

–Bill Durban
Regional superintendent, YES

At least for now, YES Prep’s entry is tied to the state-run Achievement School District.

“The plan right now is within the ASD,” said Durban, who has been in Memphis this summer “just understanding neighborhoods.”

Durban hopes to oversee two charter schools within the Achievement School District in the 2015-2016 school year, with long-range plans for two more schools in the 2017-2018 school year and an additional two in the 2019-2020 school year.

“We’re taking another two years to figure it out before we even start opening up four more here,” Bernal said.

With YES Prep about to move into the high school grades in Houston and a co-location underway within a conventional school in the area, Bernal said the charter school operator is blurring the often-considerable barriers between charter and conventional schools.

“The past year we’ve just started to change the mentality of what you see in Houston,” Bernal said, specifically citing the YES school within a school in the Spring Branch area of Houston. “The idea behind that is our principals will work closely with one another. … Our kids are going to the same elective classes. Hopefully those results will be higher for all.”

The Memphis schools will be linked with YES schools in Houston in terms of curriculum development as well as plans YES has for schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.

Durban’s summer work in Memphis includes him and his staff taking a look at the Memphis Common Core-based curriculum and comparing and contrasting it with the Texas curriculum requirements. Texas is one of the few states that do not use the Common Core standards, opting instead for “Advanced Placement” standards.

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