Meet Jamie Downs, School Director of the future YES Prep Eisenhower

Jamie Downs is the School Director of YES Prep Eisenhower High School, which will open in 2016. Currently, he serves as the interim Director of Academics at YES Prep Hoffman, the Aldine partnership middle school that will feed into YES Prep Eisenhower. Downs was a 2007 Houston Teach For America (TFA) Corps Member who taught 6th grade English Language Arts at Fondren Middle School. He then worked for TFA in Kansas City before returning to Houston to attend the REEP program and teach at YES Prep North Forest. Downs later worked as an Assistant Principal at Sharpstown High School in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). At Sharpstown, he led over 275 students, coached 13 ELA teachers, spearheaded the PowerUp Initiative, and started The King’s Compass. I interviewed Downs about his experiences as a new School Director and founding mentor of The King’s Compass.

How did you become YES Prep’s newest School Director?
I was having a conversation with Jennifer Greene [School Director of YES Prep Hoffman] about education philosophy. I told her what I was looking to do in the future, and she connected me with [Superintendent] Mark DiBella because she knew YES was looking for a candidate with ISD experience and an understanding of a charter network. When we sat down, I heard his vision for YES Prep Eisenhower. He wanted to bring the best of both worlds— to blend a charter school’s high expectations with all the opportunities, community resources, and extra-curriculars a traditional ISD like Aldine brings to the table.

This is considered YES Prep Eisenhower’s Year Zero since it opens next year. What does a Year Zero entail for you?
I’m going to have to do a lot of hiring for next year. In order to get to the point of making good hiring decisions, I need to have an idea for the scope of the roles I’m hiring for. Right now, I’m filling in as a Director of Academics at Hoffman to understand what our kids are learning in middle school and what it will take to make sure they’re successful in high school. The next piece is learning about the Dean of Students role. I’ll be practicing and shadowing a Dean of Students, so I can come to understand the type of person I’ll want to hire for that role. Then, I’ll learn about operations and figure out the capacity of that role. These positions are critical for my leadership team. As a manager, I should understand what goes into them on a daily basis.

Soon, I’ll work on developing a vision for the school, hiring teachers, and hiring leaders. There’s also student recruitment and the parent piece, which I’m starting now. I had my first monthly meeting with parents in the Aldine community to ask: What is their experience at YES so far? What would they like to see in a high school? I want parents to have a voice in the school we’re building for them.

What other professional development do you engage in as a Year Zero School Director?
On Content Days, I spend about half the day in a School Director meeting and the other half with the Directors of Academics. I’m also a part of Leading Excellence.

What has been your experience with Leading Excellence? 
We spend a lot of time looking at the qualities of leadership. We want to recognize our strengths and understand how to utilize those to be the leaders we want to be. Our last session was all about influence: looking at who influences us and who we influence to try to determine how we can be more impactful. [Leading Excellence] has also allowed me to collaborate with people with similar aspirations and to interact with mentors. We’re able to work with higher district-level leaders and hear what they’ve learned learned. They become a thought-partner. It helps build that connectedness, which is definitely unique to YES.

What was the impetus for founding The King’s Compass?
Right after the Treyvon Martin decision, I had this conversation with a couple of my friends. We were speaking about the injustice in that case. It highlighted for me what racism looks like in the US. There were so many stereotypes for young black males. We needed to do something to empower the kids we work with on a daily basis to break those stereotypes and showcase what good things they’re doing. Right now, they just don’t have a network or platform. We saw The King’s Compass as this platform. These students— many of whom may lack a strong male influence— can connect with a mentor. We provide programming for job training, professionalization, community service, resume building, and learning about cultural identity and history. For example, we took them to the Civil Rights Museum, did a few book studies, and talked about the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and how it permeates our society. We’re educating them about themselves and the world around them.

What students are involved? How are they selected?
These are students from all over the city: YES Prep, KIPP, HISD, Pasadena ISD. We want a 2:1 ratio of mentor to mentee. Other than that, it’s open to ages 14-18. We try to target kids who aren’t already straight A students. Kids who could use a role model or influence. The kids have to be willing to commit to service events, raise $500 for the service trip, and follow a code of conduct. They don’t have to have perfect grades, but they need to show improvement.

Tell us about your service trip last summer.
Our big goal was getting them out of their comfort zone. What separates the students that have from those that have not is exposure. These kids who didn’t think they’d even go to college are now going outside the country. We partnered up with Fellowship Travel International. They suggested we look into Nicaragua. It’s the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. [Our students’] perception of poverty is based on Houston and what they saw was poverty at a different level. It opened their eyes to opportunities they have as American citizens and some of the things they take for granted. We worked with Open Eyes Ministry to help deliver food. Because of the money we raised, we were able to help buy food. Our students were able to see for themselves what was possible and what they could do. One of my mentees was going back and forth on whether he was going to college. Now, he’s decided he’s going to go in January. He has a job and is saving money so he can earn what he needs to start.
Watch the video of TKC’s trip to Nicaragua.

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