Investing In Positive School Climates at Yes Prep

In a June 28 speech at the annual conference for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Nashville, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King challenged charter school leaders to rethink how and why they address student behavior in our schools. Dr. King charged all charter school leaders gathered last week to honestly consider our own approaches. That includes YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, where I am the CEO.

In fact, over the past few years, YES Prep has done just that—and we’ve realized that our approach to student behavior and discipline needs to change. We have an intrinsic responsibility as educators to educate every single student who comes through our doors.

Founding YES Prep North Central, YES Prep’s second campus, was a highlight of my career. But the reality that in 2010, only 34% of the founding 6th grade class graduated from YES Prep was sobering. Because of them, YES Prep acknowledged the need to take action and change. So now we are transforming how we think about student behavior in our schools and across our network.

In the last two years, we’ve revised YES Prep’s code of conduct to align with Chapter 37 of the Texas’ education code, which only allows the expulsion of a student for unlawful behaviors. We’ve also invested in training our teachers in strategies to de-escalate conflicts that can arise among students and between staff and students.

Additionally, we continue to pilot restorative practices and alternative settings. YES Prep Southwest’s Recommitment Room, for example, is a restorative alternative to out-of-school suspensions. In the Recommitment Room, students follow an individualized plan, meet with counselors and other support staff, attend classes via Skype and receive academic tutoring from specialists.

Next year, YES Prep will collaborate with KIPP Houston to build Houston’s first alternative school for charter network students with profound behavioral challenges. Rather than expelling students, YES Prep and KIPP Houston will be able to provide them with the individualized support they need in the alternative school, thereby mirroring how most traditional districts operate.

We are seeing signs that these changes are leading to more students staying with us. Since 2010, when the original 6th grade class graduated from YES Prep North Central, our system-wide population has grown to over 10,000 students. Our overall student persistence rate from one year to the next is 92%, an increase of 3% over five years. While the journey is nowhere near its end, we are heartened by the progress.

In his remarks, Secretary King hit on an uncomfortable truth for many of us: if we would not suspend or expel a student for poor math performance, we should not rush to do so for behavior issues. As charter school educators, we have the responsibility to take a hard look at our own track record, and embrace an approach that keeps more students in our schools. We must be vulnerable about our shortcomings and willing to try new approaches to better serve all of our students.

Mark DiBella is CEO at YES Prep.