In our BOLD Commitment to EQUITY series, members of Team 2020, our Executive Leadership Team, share how their work helps to eliminate educational inequity to advance social justice. Phil Wright, YES Prep’s Chief Schools Officer, is the guest author of our fourth installment. As Chief Schools Officer, Phil leads the management of our schools. Phil earned a B.S. from Miami University, Ohio, and a Master of Education in Administration from Sam Houston State University, Huntsville.
Educational inequity exists inside of YES Prep right now, but my introduction to educational inequity started in 2000 as a TFA corps members teaching 6th grade ELA in the Fifth Ward/Denver Harbor community. Prior to this experience I had a limited awareness of the educational inequities in our country and thought I was simply filling a teacher shortage that existed in urban settings. My awareness heightened in my first few months as I witnessed an unacceptable atmosphere for the education of young adults. Multiple classrooms on my grade level did not have a permanent teacher, passing periods were filled with the voices of yelling adults, and there was no attempt to foster joy or to celebrate student achievement. Despite the deplorable conditions, the students in the building were motivated to learn and seemed unaffected by the lack of a more positive educational experience that all children deserve. While I was a novice teacher with a steep learning curve, I knew during these first few months that fighting against educational inequity would become my life’s work.
With the assistance of great mentor teachers and dedicated teammates, including current YES Prep teacher, James Sheridan, I was able to develop as a teacher, and it became my mission to provide students with educational experiences outside of school and to assist them in applying for opportunities at schools like YES Prep Southeast that provided the education, experiences, and the positive environment all students deserve. James and I were able to assist students like Ilian Rojas, now a teacher at YES Prep Fifth Ward, to commit to YES Prep. In 2004, I decided that I also wanted the YES Prep experience of working with like-minded people that see the full potential of students.
Over the next eight years as a teacher, principal, and School Director at Southeast and North Central, I was fortunate to be on teams that continued to lead and plan spring trips, organize community service, and provide tutorials to drive student achievement. When the opportunity presented itself to become a Head of Schools, I was eager to assist School Directors in executing the YES Prep playbook at my assigned schools, Northside and North Forest. Immediately, I was struck by the stark contrast between my experiences at our oldest schools, Southeast and North Central, and the realities of our newer, growing campuses. I had been blind to the hardships of growing a school with a new grade level each year. Despite the work ethic and commitment of the staff, they couldn’t rely on a team of mentor teachers who had worked at YES Prep for years to build the culture of the school, provide excellent instruction, and lead the extra-curricular opportunities I was accustomed to at YES Prep. It was also apparent that each school had unique needs based on the communities they served, and the need for additional student support and resources was greater than I had previously experienced. As an organization, we failed to consider the strategic planning, allocation of resources, and talent initiatives required to open a school in new communities. Unfortunately, this resulted in not every child having the YES Prep experience they deserved and fueled the internal achievement gap we currently face.
As I’ve traveled from campus to campus as a Head of Schools and now as the Chief Schools Officer, I’ve been able to see how many aspects of the YES Prep experience have improved. We’ve revised our code of conduct and adjusted our practices so our school leaders are more equipped with the personnel and resources to meet the individual needs of all students, and the percentage of students that persist from grade 6th to 12th has risen from 54% in 2013 to 72% in 2018. However, we have long strides to make before our schools are equitable. Some campuses have higher ELL populations, special education populations, or more students who are homeless or refugees, resulting in greater academic performance gaps between our campuses. The opportunities and services that work for one campus don’t necessarily work for all, and our previous one-size-fits-all approach will inevitably fail some of the students we are privileged to serve. As CSO, I’m boldly committed to closing our internal achievement gap by defining the YES Prep experience for current and future campuses through strategic planning and equitable allocation of resources.
In the past year, I have started to address this issue by implementing and executing the following new initiatives:
- launching the Resident School Director Program so we have a pipeline of future leaders who receive individualized coaching and professional development to be better prepared to transition into the immense responsibility of being a School Director;
- developing a campus staffing model that allows campuses to include roles to meet the individual needs of their campus while requiring specific roles that reflect our values of extensive student support and consistent teacher development;
- creating a calculation to allocate personnel and additional funding to campuses based on student achievement gaps, at-risk populations, and free and reduced lunch status;
- and committing funds to provide an 8th grade field trip experience at all YES Prep campuses in the upcoming year.
I know these actions alone won’t be sufficient to provide the student experience we promise to our families across the system. We need to continue to make bold decisions to define the practices we believe to be foundational for every student at YES Prep to graduate college-ready and prepared to lead, which requires us to provide a safe and nurturing environment where student identity and culture are valued and celebrated. As we continue to make strides in this direction, we are considering the following initiatives for next year:
- incentivizing YES Prep talent to join founding grade levels at growing schools to reduce the challenges presented during the growth phase;
- creating a vision and milestones for a YES Prep student experience that includes academic and social-emotional learning opportunities;
- and establishing baseline student and staff culture expectations for all YES Prep campuses and support for campuses in meeting this bar.
I am in awe and humbled by the campus staff members’ work to provide the rigorous instruction and the supportive relationships our students deserve. Providing this experience is exponentially more difficult when we fail to adapt to the unique needs of our campuses, especially as they open and grow, and I’m committed to addressing this challenge so everyone at YES Prep can clearly define the YES Prep experience and see it in action at all YES Prep schools. My life’s work is to ensure that educational inequity is eliminated everywhere, including inside the walls of every YES Prep school.