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.
There is one course particular to YES Prep campuses that is perhaps most responsible for the schools' success with admissions offices across the nation. During their junior and senior years, every student is required to take a course with one of the school's college counselors. Teens at other high schools, public and private, are fortunate if they can meet with their college counselors for a few hours over the course of the semester. At YES, they're face-to-face with a counselor for an hour each day for two years. During junior year, the college counseling course focuses on identifying colleges and preparation for the SAT and ACT exams. YES Prep counselors are trained in the Princeton Review test prep curriculum. Senior year, students work their way together through the application process. They discuss which schools might be the best fit for each other, pooling their knowledge from research and required college visits. They work on applications to six to eight colleges, refining their essays and gathering teacher recommendations.
By January, the curriculum shifts to introducing families to the intricacies of the financial aid process and to filing the FAFSA form.
Finally, students prepare for the difficult transition of leaving what for many are close-knit immigrant families. The separation anxiety has led some students to pick a college close by over one that might be a better academic fit. "I want to go to college, but I want to go to the college right down the street" is a refrain counselors frequently hear from students, Kamentz says. To counter the tendency, YES Prep requires students to enroll in one of the summer study programs that schools nationwide offer to give them a taste of college life. This summer, for instance, 24 YES Prep rising seniors attended a three-week program at Duke University. Others participate in programs at the University of Kansas, University of Georgia, and Texas A&M.
[Read more students' college admissions stories.]
All of this college preparation has led to clear success for YES schools and their alumni (573 and counting). Not only do 100 percent enroll in college, but 80 percent have either earned a degree or are still working toward it, far above the national average of about 50 percent. Students who drop out of YES Prep usually do so when they can't meet the college admission requirement for a YES diploma because of failed courses or college rejections, Kamentz says. Others stay at YES for additional help. "I'd rather a student stay behind and get their head on straight than go off to college and not be ready," Kamentz says.