Houston's YES Prep has picked up the Broad Foundation's first top prize for charter school management organizations, winning a cool $250,000 for the charter chain. The inaugural award was announced at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools Conference in Minneapolis this morning. The award highlights charter schools that can eliminate performance gaps for poor and minority students.
The recognition comes with some irony. The Houston Independent School District did its best to bow and scrape to a team from the Broad Foundation last month, hoping to win the coveted Broad Prize for public urban school systems. (HISD is a finalist with three other districts; the winner will be announced in October.)
Now YES Prep, which was formed back in 1995 over dissatisfaction with HISD's East End performance, has earned lavish praise and recognition from the same foundation, topping the performance of 20 charter chains.
"We are delighted to award the first Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools to YES Prep because they serve as an example for other public schools systems across the country," said Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, who congratulated YES Prep via video. "YES Prep and other high-performing public charter models demonstrate that students of all backgrounds can meet high expectations and thrive when teachers get the support they need, and when parents-of all income levels-have access to world-class public schools."
Broad took pains to point out that YES Prep's students not only outperformed other urban school systems; Hispanic and African-American students in YES Prep schools outperform white students on state tests. Students at YES also outperformed other public charter school chains on AP course tests and SAT scores.
YES Prep, designated a state public charter school in 1998, has grown from one campus to 10 Houston-area middle and high school schools, serving 5,400 students. YES Prep said its waiting list currently is 9,000 students.
The schools' success is well known, especially after being ranked a top school in the country by Newsweek. Last year, the Tennessee Department of Education recruited YES founder Chris Barbic to turn around low-performing schools.
One of the biggest questions in current charter circles is whether model charter schools such as YES Prep and KIPP -- both huge successes on campuses in Houston -- can be replicated or "scaled up" in communities around the country.
KIPP, a darling of the Bush administration and born out of a partnership with the Houston Independent School District, now has 109 campuses across the country. YES has been more cautious, confining its efforts to Houston.
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first charter school, which was launched in St. Paul, Minnesota. And charter leaders are getting more honest: not every charter is going to be a great charter.
At a workshop session this morning with potential charter school founders, Andrew Collins of the Arizona Charter School Association said his state had 520 charter schools and probably half deserved to be closed.
"Having an empty school building isn't a good enough reason to have a charter school," Collins said. "You have to have a purpose. You have to want to do something innovative."