Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
In the latest in a series of in-depth case studies exploring how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture, Robert Maranto (University of Arkansas) takes a look at Houston’s YES Prep Public Schools. YES Prep (the “YES” stands for Youth Engaged in Service) began in 1995 as a program at Rusk Elementary School in the Houston Independent School District, then became its own independent charter school in 1998, and currently is home to 10 grade 6–12 campuses serving 6,400 students in the Houston area. From its beginning, Maranto points out, “YES Prep has emphasized citizenship through service to the community.”
In recent years, YES Prep has developed a fivefold approach to service. First, students do summer enrichment, which frequently has a service component. Second, students do substantial service within the school, with student ‘families” or “societies,” enabling older students to mentor their younger peers. Third, through the societies, seniors plan service trips for younger students, taking leadership roles and ownership of the service program. Fourth, seniors are required to do 50 hours of service to graduate, something they are well equipped to do by their prior service work. Finally, through their senior-level ethics courses, YES Prep students connect their service work to broader civic question.
YES Prep tries to produce great citizens in part by teaching students the the values of good citizenship within the school, as exemplified by the network’s Thinks and Acts. Teachers and students alike remark on the positive school atmosphere and the lack of behavioral issues. As one high school teacher proudly notes, “When I get them in 10th grade, they are already like that. The middle school teachers do that, so in high school the structure is there. There are no behavior issues.” Another teacher observes, “I tell my middle schoolers that we have the same rules as any other school, but here we enforce them.” Teachers also said they had strong parental support; as one put it, “Parents send them here because this school says they will get you to college, and they believe us. There is a lot of trust the parents have in the school.” . . .
Just as psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that individuals must satisfy basic needs such as security and physical well-being before seeking to fill more abstract needs such as self-actualization, so too must schools meet basic needs like physical safety before teachers and students can tackle academics. Because YES Prep schools are safe, teachers and students can focus on learning. Though nearly all YES Prep students are low-income and minority, by an 86 to 7 percent margin social studies teachers disagreed that “most of the children at this school are simply not capable of learning the material”—and 61 percent strongly disagreed. As social studies teacher Michael Dies put it, “YES promotes a very tolerant, safe attitude, so overall the kids are more open to being introspective and offering their opinions because they know this is a safe place for open, intellectual discourse.”