Growing to Serve More Students: The Intersection of Need and Opportunity

 

Recy Benjamin Dunn HeadshotGuest blogger Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s Chief Operating Officer. As COO, Recy leads system-wide operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy. Recy has an MBA and an MA in education from Stanford, and undergraduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.  Additionally, he completed his School District Leadership certification program at Bank Street College of Education. Below, he shares some insights into how YES Prep decides where to open future schools.

Thirty-two percent of middle schools and 33% of high schools in Harris County are rated a “D” or “F”, according to the Children At Risk 2017 School Rankings. These schools have disproportionately more Black and Brown students than higher-ranked schools. It’s unacceptable that 1 in 3 students attend a school that is failing students. As a parent, I wouldn’t choose this reality for my kids– or any kid for that matter. And as a Black man in a leadership role in education reform work, I cannot stomach the slow rate of change. It is one of the reasons that YES Prep’s vision is that every child in Houston will have equitable access to a public school that delivers an excellent, college-ready education.

Map representing 26,000 students in Houston on charter school waitlists
Red dots represent students on charter school waitlists in Houston; data provided by Families Empowered

To realize this vision, we must continue to open new schools. If YES Prep stopped opening new schools today, all of our existing schools would be fully grown by 2024 and serve only about 15,000 students– a fraction of school-aged secondary students in the Houston area. Thanks to organizations like Families Empowered, we know that the demand for a high-performing charter school in Houston is vast, with more than 26,000 families on current waitlists for YES Prep, KIPP and Harmony. Thus, it is essential that we continue to grow, and we approach selecting new school sites by striving to meet at the intersection of need and opportunity.

Previously, we targeted neighborhoods or areas of town in Houston where there was a need for more high-quality school options. For example, for our current Southside campus, we looked exclusively in the greater Third Ward, Old Spanish Trail (OST), Sunnyside, and South Park communities for a potential building. We knew that these neighborhoods had a history of struggling schools, and I was motivated by the opportunity to open a school in a historically Black community in Houston. Everything we looked at was either too large or too small (generally, we search for something about the size of a Kroger like our White Oak campus and on 6+ acres of land). At the same time we were conducting this search, we were looking for new office space for our Home Office. That’s when we stumbled on an old Levitz furniture warehouse that had also been a flea market and a nightclub. At first, we thought it was way too large (at 170K+ square feet and 10 acres), but then we realized it could work for both our school and our offices. This is an example of when need and opportunity intersected: the community needed more high-quality school options, and we had the opportunity to purchase the right building for our growth.

It was around this time, however, that our board real estate committee pushed us to think more broadly about expansion, to be opportunistic as buildings and land became available, and to use criteria to hone our search. Keith Weaver, our Managing Director of Operations, and I worked with our real estate broker to layer maps of Houston with demographic data, socio-economic data, wait list data, locations of current HISD and other charter schools, etc.

Map of Houston with 7 circles that represent areas of town where YES Prep could grow
This map of Houston includes the 7 circles where YES Prep decided to target for growth. The colors represent the zones covered by YES Prep’s existing campuses.

We took those maps and drew circles on about seven areas of town. We then decided to:

  • Double down on areas of town where we already had schools but the demand and population density was high.
  • Look at areas of town where we didn’t have schools.

To be disciplined and rigorous in our site selection, we modified and adopted a Greenlighting Framework, which is a management tool that assists the Board and Executive Leadership Team in determining our readiness for a new school opening.

By adopting a citywide approach, we could arm our broker with the necessary information to cast a broad net for potential new sites. This approach has helped us be creative rather than be constrained by the market in one specific neighborhood.

Our newest campus, YES Prep Northline, was a former hospital that was later owned by a church. It was not on the market, but was inside one of the circles we drew. We knew many families in the area were on the waitlist for our Northside and North Central campuses, so we made an unsolicited offer and acquired the building for a good price.

By shifting our philosophy to be more opportunistic and thus save millions on the acquisition price, we now can redirect more funds toward what matters most: our students. As a parent I yearn for what all parents want, a great school for my children. I also know that there are not enough quality seats for all the parents and children across our city. My hope is that by continuing to grow, we can change the Houston landscape, one school at a time. 

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