When Hurricane Ike struck Houston in September 2008, it dropped another hurdle in Samantha Marquez's path to college. Her mother lost her job at a storm-shuttered business, forcing Marquez to get a part-time job at Chuck E. Cheese's to help the family's finances. "We had to use the money we had been saving for college for just starting over," she says.
The late hours at the pizza parlor ate away at her time to study for the three Advanced Placement courses she was taking at YES Prep, an innovative Houston free public charter school that requires students to attend longer school days (7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), take some Saturday classes, and do community service. Marquez could have gone to a less demanding school, but YES Prep's track record made it worth the sweat. In the past 10 years, 100 percent of its graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. Marquez was not about to break that track record. "I'm going to college," says the freshman at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. "A lot of my other friends can't say that."
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The success rate would be remarkable for any public high school, but the composition of YES's student body makes the achievement even more extraordinary. More than 80 percent of students at YES Prep schools are from economically disadvantaged households, 90 percent will be the first in their families to attend college, and 95 percent are Hispanic or African-American. By traditional expectations, these are the students least likely to succeed in the classroom, much less enroll in highly selective universities such as Stanford, Yale, and Wake Forest. But through a rigorous academic course load and a hands-on approach to the college admissions process, YES Prep—which operates eight campuses in the Houston area—has proved it possible for nontraditional students to march off to the nation's elite college campuses.
After spending six years teaching in a Houston middle school (two through the Teach for America service program), Chris Barbic, YES Prep's founder and CEO, realized that even the most dedicated teachers have a limited impact. Academic skills a child picks up one year can be lost the next school year if the next teacher is not just as dedicated. "Year after year, you're by yourself working very hard just to have a great year for that kid," Barbic says. "That just wasn't enough to move the needle or give the kids what they needed."
So Barbic decided to start a charter school with smaller classes that would permit teachers to build relationships with students. "It's very small, so everybody knows each other and the teachers were available all of the time," says graduate Sussy Aguirre, 18, a freshman at Rice University in Houston.
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But perhaps the real revolution Barbic created was the promise his schools made to the state of Texas as a requirement of their operating agreement: Every student from YES Prep (for Youth Engaged in Service) will go to a four-year college. "That was the guarantee we needed to hold the kids and ourselves accountable," Barbic says. A college acceptance letter is, in fact, a condition of graduation at YES Prep.
The charter's first school, the Southeast campus—which Marquez attended—opened its doors in 1998. It graduated its first senior class in 2001 (and currently ranks No. 68 in U.S. News's Best High Schools rankings).
Getting ready for college starts early at YES Prep. Sixth-graders (the schools include grades 6 through 12) are encouraged to start thinking about and identifying with colleges. For example, each homeroom is named after the alma mater of its assigned teacher. "Rather than 6A or 6B, it's Vanderbilt or George Washington [University]," says Donald Kamentz, YES's senior director of college initiatives. Students are pushed to start developing skills they will need for college regardless of the fact that the majority of them enter at least one grade level behind in math and English. By high school, all students are required to take at least one Advanced Placement course to get experience with college-level course work. "It was hell," says Pablo Cruz, 18, who said he thought about quitting YES just two weeks after transferring in, thinking, "Man, I can't do this no more. This is too hard." Instead, Cruz heads to the University of Houston and its creative writing program this fall.