Friday, February 28, 2014

Visiting YES PREP and KIPP in Houston

YES Prep and KIPP Houston
Houston, Texas
January 22nd-25th

One Sentence Take Away:"There will be no free rides, no excuses, all of us will work and all of us will learn."

 While attending the November Talks for Teachers session hosted by UPENN's Angela Duckworth, Donald Kamentz, Managing Director of College and Career Initiatives at YES Prep public schools invited me to visit the YES schools in Houston. Because of their close working relationship with the KIPP charter school network in Houston, Donald was also able to arrange visits for me with KIPP Houston as well. Angela Duckworth was scheduled to visit the schools and give a few different presentations in late January, so we scheduled my visit at the same time. This created an opportunity for me to sit in a few meetings between Angela and the schools, and attend one of her keynote speeches on the evening of January 23rd, 2014. Her Keynote speech was her presentation entitled, "The Psychology of Achievement". I have previously seen that presentation and blogged about its details, click here to view that previous blog entry. So, I left the cold and snowy weather of Vermont and headed down to Houston. Ironically, Houston had an ice-storm while I was there! From Houston, I flew to Philadelphia to attend the January 26th session of Talks for Teachers at UPENN featuring Seth Andrews of US Department of Education and Democracy Prep.

KIPP Houston
Founded in 1994 by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, Houston is the original location for KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). Their KIPP Academy middle school now shares Houston with 23 other KIPP schools and a total of 141 KIPP schools nationwide. I had the chance to visit KIPP 3D Middle School and KIPP Generations High School. My guide for the morning was Executive Director of KIPP through College, Bryan Contreras. I had a great visit with Bryan. He was very generous with his time and answered any question I could think to ask. Bryan was an especially useful tour-guide as he had grown up in that very Houston neighborhood himself. The visit echoed much of what I have written about the KIPP network in earlier blogs, with dedicated adults, high expectations, and innovative use of character education. Although the school is completely modular (due to a Texas law that restricts charter schools from borrowing the money needed for major building costs) and fenced in with a large gate, the walls and outdoor walkways were filled with the familiar encouraging mantras found in other KIPP locations (See pictures below). Students were polite, energetic and diligent in their work. A number of teachers practiced the classroom atmosphere strategy of silence as you enter, entry tasks, exit tasks, and other prescribed classroom protocol throughout the school. A couple quotes from the teachers I observed, "Let's practice silence since we are having a hard time with it while others are speaking," and "What questions do you have that would be good for the group?" Other ideas that I liked were:

*All staff members splitting up and going to the incoming students homes and meeting with the family to get a commitment to excellence signed. 

*Using a timer on the smart-board (or any projection) right over the top of whatever lesson may be displayed.

*Having teachers post where they went to college outside of their door and ask them to speak about going to college frequently.

*Using the phrase "Glow and Grows" as a way of giving feedback.

*Have a doctor come to campus to see students who are having a hard time getting to the doctor.

*Having parents come in to sit with their student while they are in detention. (Can you imagine that?)

*Asking parents and helping them to become organized to take action within local politics, and neighborhood initiatives that affect their schools and children.

*And of course, the amazing use of inspirational quotes around every corner. I asked a number of students if they felt like those quotes made a difference. Almost all replied that they thought the quotes did help them. 

YES Prep Houston:
Founded in 1998, Yes Prep currently serves 8,000 Houston area students in 13 different schools. In 2015, Yes Prep will be expanding into Memphis, eventually serving around 6,000 students there. I had the pleasure of visiting YES Prep's Southwest campus. The Southwest campus serves about 850 students in grades 6 through 12. The free and reduced lunch rate is 90%. 

I was warmly welcomed by the caring staff at the southwest campus. Special thanks to Tony Castillo and Eric Espinoza. The atmosphere was academic and positive. Much of what I witnessed in terms of instruction and school culture was similar to that of what I have previously blogged about KIPP. And like KIPP, YES works directly with Angela Duckworth in gathering data on character education and grit interventions. The administration has a fairly detailed behavior rubric and system for setting goals related to the same nine achievement characteristics that KIPP and Riverdale schools feature. Many of the students I spoke to were excited about the new gym that was being built. YES is also very focused on the new challenge of not just getting students into college, but
 getting them through college. With concentrated effort and innovative strategies, their numbers for getting students through college has been steadily increasing. 

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