New Chief of Houston’s YES Prep on Growth, Discipline, Diversity and Broad Prize

Courtesy YES Prep
The Houston-based charter school network YES Prep is approaching its 18th birthday with some big changes in store. The 15-school, 10,400-student network has a new CEO, long-time YES Prep educator and administrator Mark DiBella. He started the position in April.

DiBella is the third leader in the organization’s history, succeeding Jason Bernal and founder Chris Barbic, who left to work as superintendent of the Tennessee Achievement School District from 2011-2015. Barbic, whose departure from the ASD was very public, is expected to join the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston as a senior education fellow.

YES Prep was recently named one of three finalists for the $250,000 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. The prize is given to the network that has best raised student outcomes, closed the achievement gap, and increased its graduation rate. Fellow contenders are Texas’ IDEA Public Schools and New York City’s Success Academy. The winner will be announced June 27 at the National Charter Schools conference in Nashville.

DiBella spoke with The 74 about YES Prep’s recent achievements, lessons learned the hard way, and what to expect from the network in the next few years. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The 74: You started as CEO in April after spending 15 years in various roles at YES Prep, including teacher, principal, superintendent and chief operating officer. What were the highlights of your pre-CEO tenure?

DiBella: Looking back at the 15 years I’ve been at YES now, for sure the highlight for me was the time I spent as the school director at our North Central campus, which I co-founded and became the principal of in 2005. We just had eighth grade at the time, and I said to my staff, ‘We’re going to build the best high school in the city of Houston and we’re going to be one of the (best) high schools in the nation.’ And at the time it was this crazy goal and four years later, when we graduated our first class, we were in U.S. News & World Report, top 100 schools in the country and we’re listed by Newsweek as a “Top 10 Miracle School” for AP results.

What would you like to see happen at the network in the next three to five years?

That every child in Houston will have equitable access to a public education that delivers a high-quality college prep education. That vision is so important for a couple of reasons — one, it is all about Houston. We tried to expand to Memphis last year and decided to pull operations out of Memphis (in March 2015). And, now we are just doubling down our focus on Houston. The other part of our vision that I think is personally compelling and I think it’s compelling for our city — it’s that by definition we’re not able to accomplish it by ourselves. It requires collaboration, it requires partnership … partnership with other charter schools, with traditional public schools, with service providers for socio-emotional support for our kids, and everything in between. Basically, if an organization is committed to the limitless potential of children in Houston, we’re committed to them — that’s my vision for the foreseeable future in Houston.

Does that mean that we won’t see YES Prep grow outside of Houston?

There’s a waiting list of more than 32,000 students [the combined wait lists of YES Prep, KIPP and Harmony, tallied by the nonprofit Families Empowered] in Houston who all desire to come to a Houston charter school, and they will be the ones we prioritize for the foreseeable future.

Tell me about the co-location program you’re expanding next fall with Aldine Independent School District.

We opened a school within the Aldine middle school three years ago, and this fall, we will open a school within their connecting high school. Spring Branch Independent School District, KIPP Houston and YES Prep have collaborated in a similar fashion since 2011 in what we call the SKY Partnership. We’re still hammering out (the exact details) in real time with Aldine, so I can speak about how it works in Spring Branch ISD and we’re hoping it will be similar in Aldine. When (our students) go into the (Aldine) high school, they will take core classes with us but flow in and out of electives with students who are in the traditional public high school. So it’s an opportunity for them to have a much broader elective experience than they would at YES. For example, we don’t have a football team at any of our schools. Both of these schools have football teams, so our kids will be able to participate in football. We don’t have band — we can’t afford band at any of our schools. These kids will participate in band. Those are just two examples of larger school elective choices that our kids don’t currently have access to that they will in these partnerships. Down the road, we’re interested in opening at other districts if they’re interested in having us.

YES Prep won the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools in 2012, awarded to the public charter management organization that has demonstrated the best academic outcomes in recent years, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Now you’re a finalist for the 2016 prize. How has YES Prep been able to improve student outcomes, narrow the achievement gap and raise the graduation rate?

We have a three-pronged approach. First, we have a culture of high expectations because we believe in the limitless potential of every student. Our culture encourages students to reach for the stars and provides the support to help them reach them. Second, we have a rigorous curriculum that is aligned to College Board standards and Texas standards. So, in addition to the Texas state high school graduation requirements, we also expect that every student passes at least one AP level class. We backwards-map our curriculum so that starting in sixth grade and every year thereafter until the 12th grade, students are progressing academically to achieve those benchmarks. [YES Prep’s four-year graduation rate for the class of 2016 is 64 percent. By comparison, the Houston Independent School District’s four-year graduation rate was 78.6 percent in 2014, the latest data available on its website.]

Third, we focus on talent. On the quality, longevity, and diversity (of our staff). Our nationally recognized teacher development and certification program, Teaching Excellence, provides one-on-one coaching, professional learning, and certification and has been adopted by other charter and traditional school districts in Texas.

We know that if a teacher stays in the classroom year after year, with the right supports in place, their results improve year after year. The same holds true for principals. A school’s overall performance improves year after year with the same principal. One flaw of the charter school system is massive teacher and principal turnover and at YES Prep, we’re trying to limit the amount of turnover at our schools. We have an incentive program to encourage teachers and school directors in particular to stick with us for at least five years.

Finally, we embrace diversity and recognize how important it is for students to see leaders who reflect their cultural identity in their classrooms and throughout their school. Our hypothesis is that if a teacher, student support counselor, or dean is reflective of our students’ cultural identity, that student will be more invested and will perform better. So we work hard to recruit, develop, and retain diverse talent.

What was your role in the network’s decision to expand into Memphis, Tennessee?

My role changed during our time engaging with Memphis. Originally, I was our chief operating and growth officer in our central office, so I was in charge of the process that helped select Memphis as a city that we would expand to. Later, once we decided to go to Memphis, I became the Houston superintendent and became very focused on Houston. When we actually decided to pull out, my connection to Memphis was fairly limited at that point.

Why was Memphis considered a viable partnership?

I think that it was based largely on the belief that to be a national player or have national impact you needed to be a multi-regional organization … Specifically why Memphis? We were looking at a place that had a community of like-minded educators backed by like-minded philanthropists, and large enough demand for us to grow and students who were most in need of educational choice. So we had a very detailed screening process that ultimately led us to five cities that we did a deep dive on, and Memphis came out on top through that screening process.

It turned out that there was tremendous community resistance to your expansion plan, and YES Prep decided to abandon that endeavor very late in the game. What happened? Was there something that you missed?

I think (community resistance) was something that we expected but we missed how important (community support) was. It was something that was on our list but we didn’t understand how big of a factor it should have been.

In YES in Houston, we have been largely welcomed into new communities and I think that’s in large part because our reputation precedes us in Houston. But there’s one, no reputation to precede us in Memphis, and two, the way that schools were being taken over, reassigned, “turned around,” I think led to an already charged political environment in Memphis; we didn’t fully understand the depth to which that process was charged.

How does the unsuccessful Memphis experience weigh into your growth strategy going forward? You said you’re looking to prioritize Houston now, but would you consider expanding beyond state lines again?

Crossing state lines with charter schools is incredibly difficult and in retrospect, we were not even close to mature enough from an infrastructure standpoint to be able to expand across state lines. I don’t see that fundamental challenge changing in the near future to make it, in my mind, prudent for us to choose to expand outside of Texas.

YES Prep has successful working relationships with Houston-area school districts. But you haven't been immune to the criticisms levied often at charter schools — namely, that the “no excuses” disciplinary approach contributes toward the removal of the most difficult-to-teach students and the lowest-performing. Thus, charters get the advantage over traditional districts when it comes to hitting benchmarks for test scores and graduation rates. Are these fair criticisms? How are you responding when it’s directed at YES Prep?

It’s absolutely a fair criticism. In my mind, the “no excuses” charter schools — that way of thinking — is becoming a thing of the past and I say that having been … a child of the “no excuses” charter movement. But when I go back to my experience in North Central and I talked about what a great school it was, we started with 105 sixth-graders and we graduated 36 seniors, and that was a result of no excuses. That was a result of us basically weeding kids out who weren’t performing along the way. And we don’t do that anymore. … We now say, “This is a school of choice — you choose us, we never unchoose you.”

There are things that we expel for but we don’t ever unchoose a student for not doing their work or for not being motivated enough or for excessive absences; these are things that the districts have to deal with and we have, I think, increasingly held ourselves to similar standards. It’s a place where I’m proud of the work we have done and I also know we have a lot more work to do.

To that end, we are in the process of launching a joint alternative charter school with KIPP Houston to serve students with profound behavioral challenges from both networks (and additional charter operators, who we hope to attract to Houston, in the long-term). The earliest it would open is in the middle of the 2017-18 school year. We are aggressively pursuing how to make that a reality, which is really, really exciting because it would be a way that we wouldn’t have to expel kids back into the district; we would be able to send them to the alternative school where they could get the individualized support that they need and then they could return to our schools. Most traditional districts have their own alternative settings, and it allows them to not necessarily expel at the rate that we expel.

[In 2014-15, the network reported 1,628 in-school and out-of-school suspensions combined and 34 expulsions for 9,158 students; it did not provide additional data on partial suspensions. By comparison, in 2014-15 Houston ISD recorded 66,198 in-school or out-of-school suspensions; 2,720 removals to a disciplinary alternative education program; and 69 expulsions, out of 215,225 total students, according to disciplinary report provided by the district.]

As far as serving gifted students, we are looking to leverage technology rather than hiring more and more specialized teachers. At each of our high schools, we have 400 to 500 kids. We could think about having a couple master AP calculus teachers (teach virtually) on multiple campuses rather than have them drive around the city to teach at multiple places … It’s the right idea but it’s inefficient because it doesn’t leverage technology.

The same idea would hold true for kids with special needs — but instead of technology, we can consider centralized services where we can pool kids from multiple campuses and have them go to one campus to get the support that they need. Currently several campuses have life-skills classes but they’re not open to kids who attend other schools, and we need to open those classes up.

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