After years of steady local growth, the YES Prep charter school network is launching a $60 million fundraising campaign to open its first schools outside the Houston area.
YES Prep Public Schools plans to open six schools in Memphis, Tenn., and four more in Louisiana, either in Baton Rouge or New Orleans, according to an announcement scheduled for Wednesday.
The chain has 13 campuses, 8,000 students and a 20 percent annual growth rate in Houston, and each new out-of-state school would grow to about 900 students over seven years. The chain projects total enrollment of 25,000 by 2020.
YES Prep is one of Houston's oldest and highest-performing charter school systems, but its methodical growth often leaves it in the shadow of giants like KIPP, a charter school system also born in the mid-1990s in Houston that has grown to more than 50,000 students in 20 states.
YES Prep's success in Houston earned it the inaugural Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools in 2012, prompting widespread attention and nudging the school system toward this national expansion. In addition to its successes preparing low-income, minority students for college, YES is also known for creating a strong teacher training program and for forging partnerships with traditional school systems, including those in Aldine and Spring Branch.
One of the charter network's graduates, Joel Munoz, 29, is now the school director of one of its newest campuses, YES Prep-White Oak, which opened in August in northwest Houston.
When he was a University of Houston student, Munoz said he equated success with carrying a briefcase and wearing fancy suits. He was interviewing for positions in the business world when he had a sudden change of heart, opting instead to return as a teacher to his alma mater.
"I just knew this is where I wanted to be," said Munoz.
The White Oak campus, like all YES schools, debuted with just sixth- graders and will expand a grade level each year until it graduates seniors.
A fiscally conservative board limited YES Prep's growth for the past 15 years. Board members have insisted that YES buy, rather than rent, almost all of its school buildings.
"If we had rented at first, we may have been able to grow faster, but we would not have any equity to borrow against," said Mark DiBella, chief operating officer.
In Houston, YES will reach 17,000 students at the end of this phase of growth. So far, about 80 percent of YES alumni – like Munoz – have returned to Houston to work. Nearly 75 percent are either college graduates or still enrolled in college.
"A lot of kids are coming back and giving back to their community, which is pretty cool," said Bernal, adding that 50 of YES Prep's 900 employees are alumni.
Munoz said he's thrilled that YES is expanding. "The more students we serve, the better. Absolutely."