School Choice

From Houston to Memphis, with high hopes: Yes Prep tries to replicate college graduation success

PHOTO: via Yes Prep
Yes Prep students at Rhodes College, in Memphis.

Brianna “Brie”  Olootu, a 7th grade teacher at a Yes Prep school in Houston, says that one part of her first visit to a Yes Prep school as a prospective teacher stuck out: A handshake with a young man named Julio.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hi, I’m Julio and I’m the class of 2026. I’m going to graduate from Texas A&M,'” she said. “Students know they can go to college. That just really honestly drew me to Yes Prep culture. I’ve been here for two years and I love it,” she said.

Yes Prep is planning to start its first school outside of Texas in Memphis in 2015, and Olootu will be one of its first teachers. The charter management organization will take over a yet-to-be-determined Memphis middle school as part of the state-run Achievement School District, and could eventually run as many as 10 schools as part of the ASD.

Yes Prep, which has 13 charter schools serving 8,000 mostly low-income students in Houston, recently released a report touting the fact that its alumni graduate from college at higher rates than most demographically-similar students. Fifty percent of its first class of seniors graduated college, compared to just 10 percent of low-income students nationwide and 8 percent of Houston low-income students, according to its own research. Yes Prep hopes to translate its model–and those high school and college graduation rates–to Memphis.

“There’s always been a ‘yes, but,'” Bill Durbin, who is leading Yes Prep’s expansion to Memphis, said of the Houston school’s successes. “Coming to Memphis is a pressure test, a way to show there wasn’t a special thing [in Houston] that can’t be replicated.”

Shelby County Schools recently set its own goals to improve its graduation rate and send its students off to college or a successful career.

Memphis will present some new challenges for Yes Prep, including a different set of standards, a student population that’s farther behind academically than in Houston, and a model for school takeover that has spurred controversy in several communities.

Translating results

According to Yes Prep’s new self-study, the college six-year graduation rate of the network’s alumni has fluctuated between a high of 50 percent for its first year of graduates to a low of 34 percent of its 2007 graduates. Both figures are above the national average for low-income students. Ninety percent of the network’s students are first-generation college students.

The increased college graduation rate is not an accident, according to Yes Prep staff: Each school spends about $600 per student or 4 percent of its budget, on college counselors. This gives the schools a 40-to-one ratio of counselors to students.

In Shelby County Schools in 2013-14, high schools with as many as 749 students are assigned just one certified counselor, who may have responsibility for college admissions and other student needs. Schools with 1,000 high schoolers have two counselors.

The study was an attempt to provide transparency about the success of its high school graduates and follows in the footsteps of KIPP charter schools, which also sets goals around college graduation rates and publishes their progress. KIPP also has schools in Memphis.

Jason Bernal, Yes Prep’s chief executive officer, says the organization has learned that academic preparation isn’t the only important factor in college retention. Social skills and financial means have also strongly contributed to college success among their graduates. The school now begins teaching skills like persistence in middle school, and does outreach to families to make sure they understand the various steps of the college application process.

Yes Prep has partnered with 28 colleges, including Rhodes College in Memphis, to provide financial, academic and social support services to improve that rate.  They’ve also established an internal scholarship fund of $250,000.

Durbin said that seeing other Yes Prep students who have been successful in college can help inspire students. He said graduates at Tennessee schools such as Rhodes and Vanderbilt would be able to visit Yes Prep schools in Tennessee.

Some have questioned just how many students who enter Yes Prep in middle school actually reach high school. A blog post by education policy professor Ed Fuller, of Penn State, alleges that the schools enroll more advantaged students than their peers and that lower-performing students tend to leave the school.

Durbin said that persistence has improved over time. For middle schoolers starting with Yes Prep, “if we can get them to 9th grade, we (send) a very high percentage of them to college,” he said. He said the school has added some interventions to keep its middle schoolers enrolled to address that issue, and that the school system has included persistence as a measure on its internal report card to gauge how many students who start with the school stay enrolled.

New state, new schools

In Memphis, Yes Prep’s newest students will be coming into middle school several grade levels behind their peers in Houston, Durbin said. Shelby County Schools currently has just 6 percent of students graduating “college- and career- ready” as determined by the ACT. Just 40 percent of Shelby County students who graduate from high school go to college, according to Strive Mid-South.

At several schools, parents and teachers have protested the transfer from Shelby County Schools to the ASD, which entails a brand-new staff and identity for the school.

The Tennessee Yes Prep school will be using Common Core standards, which are not in use in Texas. In Texas, Yes Prep is its own school district or LEA (Local Education Authority), while in Tennessee it will be part of the ASD. And Bernal said the school will also shift from serving predominantly Hispanic students in Houston to predominantly African-American students in Memphis.

Yes Prep’s expansion in Tennessee will be determined by how successful its first schools here are. Schools in the ASD are tasked with improving the test scores of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the state until they’re in the top 25 percent in the state.

Despite the challenges, Memphis was chosen off of a list of 191 cities as a particularly strong site for the network’s first expansion. The presence of organizations such as Teach For America, funders who were interested in supporting charter growth in the city, and a law that allows all students to attend charter schools made the city appealing, said Mark Dibella, the vice president of operations at the network.

Another factor: The superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is one of the Yes Prep’s founders. The school’s success was part of what led education commissioner Kevin Huffman to consider him for the post, Huffman said. Barbic said last summer that the school’s track record had earned it its authorization. Durbin said that relationship was not the determining factor for YES or for the ASD. “Once we open a school, we’re going to be here much longer than Chris is.”

Durbin said Yes Prep is considering applying to run schools within Shelby County Schools or in Nashville as well, “We want to serve communities that have fewer high-quality options than we think they deserve. We’re here for the long haul, whether we’re running priority schools in Shelby County or the ASD.”

Teachers in Memphis

Yes Prep will likely know where it will be located by this fall, after the state releases an updated list of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent and the ASD goes through a process matching charter operators with schools.

The school plans to bring a dozen teachers, including Olooto, from Houston to Memphis in 2015. Forty percent of the new school’s first teachers will come to Memphis from an established Yes Prep school, according to Durbin. The teachers will meet to plan for 2015 throughout the 2014-15 school year.

Yes Prep also has a program called Teaching Excellence through which teachers are trained and certified within its schools. Durbin said the organization hopes to bring that program to Memphis.

“Starting a school from ground up, I’m sure that’s a challenge,” Olootu said. “We have a lot to learn. What systems and procedures and routines are we doing in Houston that have been successful, what do we need to alter to make them more effective?”

But, she said, “I’m excited we’re choosing Memphis. You’re walking on history in Memphis,” she said. “This is definitely something I want to be a part of.”

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

choice history

The rise of tax credits: How Arizona created an alternative to school vouchers — and why they’re spreading

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

With its recent adoption of a tax credit scholarship program, Illinois became the 18th state to adopt an innocuously named — but highly controversial — policy that critics have described as a “backdoor voucher.”

In some sense, the description is apt. But by injecting a middle layer into the government’s support of private school tuition, tax credits help avoid some of the legal and political obstacles that have dogged efforts by advocates, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to promote school choice through vouchers.

Perhaps as a result, more students now use tax incentive programs than vouchers to attend private schools in the U.S. A federal tax credit is also seen as the Trump administration’s favored approach for promoting school choice at the federal level, though its immediate progress looks increasingly unlikely.

The 20-year history of this approach offers insights into why it has taken hold: resistance to legal challenge; limited government oversight, appealing to among free-market advocates of school choice; and a more politically palatable branding than vouchers.

This is far better than vouchers — it is easier to pass and easier to uphold,” Trent Franks, a conservative activist and now a U.S. congressman, said in 1999 after Arizona’s state supreme court upheld its tuition tax credit program. “I think this is the direction the country will go in.”

He proved largely right.

The number of students participating in private school choice programs over time, including tax credits (green) and vouchers (orange). (EdChoice)

Arizona’s pioneering approach

The first tax credit program was passed in Arizona in 1997. Arizona’s constitution, like most other states’, bars public dollars from going to religiously affiliated schools. Proponents knew any plan to promote private school choice would likely end up in court.

So they landed upon an ingenious approach that would make the initiative more likely to survive legal challenge. Instead of issuing vouchers for private school tuition — like Milwaukee had done since 1990 — the state would outsource that role to nonprofits. Those groups would get their money from donations, encouraged by generous tax credits.

It worked like this: An individual could donate up to $500 to a nonprofit, then get a tax cut for the exact amount they donated. The nonprofit would take the donated money and use it to offer tuition stipends — essentially vouchers — to families who met certain conditions. That system allows the state to promote the tuition subsidy, losing $500 in revenue for each maxed out donation, without paying for it directly.

Arizona’s program has since grown, and the state has created a number of other tax credit programs. (This approach is distinct from programs that give individual families tax breaks for educational spending on their own children; Illinois has had such an initiative since 2000, while Minnesota has had one since 1955.)

Arizona’s and of Milwaukee’s policies look similar. In both places, students can receive a subsidy to attend a private school, and it comes at the expense of state revenue. But crucially, in Arizona, the government never had the money to begin with.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” Lisa Graham Keegan, who was Arizona’s school superintendent when the tax credit program passed, told Chalkbeat. “Those scholarships are completely separate, both for legal reasons and for philosophical reasons.”

Tax credits: the legal survivors

Private school choice across the country have been inundated with legal challenges, but tax credits have proven remarkably resilient.

Although voucher programs have continued to grow and were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, they have also faced legal challenges in state courts. Colorado’s top court, for example, struck down a voucher program in 2015. (The case is currently being reconsidered in light of a recent Supreme Court decision.)

But tax credits have never ultimately lost in state or federal court, prevailing in Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tax credits “grew up as a result of saying we need a different vehicle than vouchers in states that have legal issues,” said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs both vouchers and tax credits. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Often, cases have been thrown out before substantive arguments can be made, amounting to a win for the programs: Some courts have ruled that private organizations or individuals do not have legal standing to challenge tax credits, since they aren’t government expenditures.

That was the decision in the 2010 Supreme Court case Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, in which the majority said equating government spending and tax credits was “incorrect.”

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizations], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Light regulatory touch proves a blessing and a downside

To Arizona conservatives skeptical of both regulation and the education establishment, the system had an additional benefit.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” said Graham Keegan, and additionally that “these don’t become government dollars.”

Nationwide, tax credit scholarship programs appear less regulated than voucher programs, some of which require private school students to take state tests or for schools to undergo financial audits.

Free-market oriented supporters “see ‘neovouchers’ as much less likely to be regulated and have restrictions — the government strings attached — than a traditional voucher law,” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who wrote a book on the rise of tax credit programs and is generally critical of them.

A 1998 essay published by the Mackinac Center, a conservative Michigan think tank, made this case explicitly: “Tuition tax credits also create very different effects than vouchers. … Vouchers are more likely to be viewed as a rationale for regulating the entity that receives the subsidy.”

This has played out in practice. One analysis compared several voucher programs to a number of tax credit programs and found that, in almost all cases, vouchers were more regulated. Most tax credit systems had few, if any, financial reporting or disclosure requirements. (Notably, Florida’s program, the largest in the country, was the most regulated tax credit initiative.)

Many tax credit programs do not require participating students to take state exams, and if they do, the tests are rarely comparable to the assessments taken in public school. This means that while voucher programs have been widely studied, there is little research on the effect of receiving a tax credit scholarship.

Supporters of this approach argue that such requirements discourage private schools from participating.

Limited oversight, however, has proven something of a political liability, insofar as it has allowed for financial malfeasance. National media have drawn attention to how one prominent politician and advocate for Arizona’s program was also able to profit personally from it, for example.

“I think [limited regulation] is a feature that has some bugs,” said Enlow of EdChoice. “We need to have transparency. The programs, like Florida, which are very transparent and very open to data collection, I think are very important.” He declined to name any tax credit programs that, in his view, lacked sufficient transparency.

The use of the tax code has also raised another concern: Under some tax credit systems, “donors” can actually earn a profit by taking advantage of both state and federal tax breaks.

Selling tax credits

How exactly to brand tax credit programs has been the subject of fierce debates. Opponents have called them “neovouchers” and “voucher schemes,” while supporters sometimes portray them as entirely distinct from vouchers.

Tax credits tend to poll better than vouchers, and Welner thinks that may be because it’s less clear to most people what they are.

“People’s eyes get bleary and they tune out when people start talking about tax credits,” he said. “That helps to avoid a situation where they respond to it the same way they respond to a voucher proposal.”

Tax credits are essentially a tax cut, which can be a selling point for some, especially conservatives. Advocates sometimes also downplay the costs of tax credits to the government.

“Is it foregone revenue? Sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s the state’s revenue,” said Enlow.

The distinctions between vouchers and tax credits, though, may ultimately matter less to lawmakers in states where they are being debated. In Illinois, critics connected tax credits to vouchers, and Democrats were largely opposed to the tax credit initiative that ultimately passed.

“In my experience the arguments have been the same whether it’s a tax credit bill or a voucher bill when you’re talking with legislators,” Enlow said. “There’s some nuances, but it’s still the same.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the name of a free-market Michigan think tank, which is the Mackinac Center.