Why District Partnerships? Our Approach to Collaboration

 

By Ellen Winstead, Director of Strategic Initiatives
& Jason Bernal, PresidentMelanie Singleton, School Director of YES Prep Hoffman in Aldine ISD 

This year we’re embarking on our new district partnership with the Aldine School District, in addition to continuing our 3-way SKY partnership with KIPP and Spring Branch ISD.  Given that there is so much uncertainty in these ventures and their track record for success, we’ve proceeded with both excitement and a long list of questions.  Will these partnerships be successful?  How will we ensure the students are benefitting from it?  What obstacles will we run into along the way?  How do we maintain high investment and buy-in for the partnerships?  How will we pay for everything?  What will happen as the students transition into high school?    

Right now the SKY and Aldine partnership schools are in their 2nd and 1st years, respectively.  They are a 'school-within-a-school' model where a YES Prep school is housed on a campus of the larger district with the intention of serving the students of that district.  Eventually the programs will expand into the feeder district high school and, in the SKY partnership, the KIPP partnership students will become students at the YES Prep high school in 2016.  These are incredibly exciting, nerve-wracking and inspiring ventures!  This will be the first of a series of posts to offer some insight into our approach to partnerships and how they’re progressing throughout the year.  To begin, let’s answer the question of why we’re invested in these partnerships to begin with.
 

  • Districts are open to it!  Education Week published an article last week, Districts Respond to Charter Competition With Collaboration, which revealed that many districts are responding in a constructive way to the presence of charters.  While the study didn’t include Houston, we’ve found the same response here.  We were first motivated to look into partnerships because we found out many districts were open to it!  With the SKY partnership, for example, the Spring Branch superintendent, Dr. Duncan Klussmann, approached our founder, Chris Barbic, as well as KIPP co-founder, Mike Feinberg, and that’s where it began.

 

  • It’s in our mission – We exist to increase the number of low-income students graduating from four-year universities.  This mission isn’t limited to YES Prep students; it’s about ALL of the students in the communities where we work.  As we get bigger, we could continue to keep our head down and work parallel to school districts, but that kind of constant competition is distracting us from the fact that we all have the same desire – to do what’s best for the students of Houston and beyond – and we think moving forward in partnership could be the best way to do that.  In Houston there are over 200,000 students.  At YES Prep we serve about 8,000 right now.  While we’re proud of the impact we’re having on the students we serve and their families, we know that we can do more to have a broader impact on the students of Houston and we’re convinced that the best way to do that is to partner with other organizations that are committed to doing the same thing.

 

  • It’s part of our core values – One of our core values is to ‘build transformative relationships.’  This is often applied on a personal level when we think about our relationships with our students and co-workers, but it’s also about building transformative relationships within the larger education community.  All too often, there are negative feelings between districts and charters and we feel like this is largely due to the fact that we don’t talk to each other, learn about each other, or try to work together.  All the mud-slinging and cold shoulders doesn’t do anything good for kids, though.  We firmly believe that the key to truly transforming a city and changing the educational opportunities for ALL students lies in collaboration and partnership, not competition and closed doors.  The better our relationships with fellow school districts, the better the opportunities and services for our students.

 

  • To create life-changing opportunities for our students – This is another of our core values and is what inspires many of us to do the work we do.  We offer a rigorous college prep curriculum, lots of service opportunities, and a promise to support students to and through college.  And there are many things we can’t offer our students, like a football or swim team, extensive electives options, or a fully-functioning school newspaper.  As a charter organization, we don’t get funds for facilities and we get less money per student than traditional districts.  As a result, we run a very lean academic program and we find creative ways to turn grocery stores, churches, and warehouses into schools.  We appreciate, though, that our students want and deserve both a four-year college acceptance letter and a chance to play football.  While this isn’t a primary motivator for creating partnerships with larger public school districts like Aldine and Spring Branch, it is a very real benefit for our students.

Stay tuned for more updates as we navigate these new partnerships and document our lessons learned and surprise obstacles.  For more information now, follow these links for media coverage on our partnerships so far:

School System Leaders on District Partnerships  Jane Williams Show, Bloomberg Radio
Smart Cities Where Districts and Charters are Partners Education Week
Focus on Kids Identified as Key to District-Charter Partnerships Education Week
Aldine School District and YES Prep Charter Network Start To Put Partnership in Place KUHF
 

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