On August 11, nearly 240 6th graders climbed off buses and filed into a 170,000 square-foot warehouse. Many of the students’ parents recalled when the building was a furniture store or a market, but, on the first day of school, there were no vestiges of the building’s former lives. It was a school, complete with a gleaming silver Y, blue lockers, and red and yellow walls. Like many other YES Prep students that day, the Southside Giants attended morning meeting, cheered with their new teachers, and gathered in homerooms. The transformation was complete– though building such a large school was not without challenges.
Constructing the school and filling it with students took over a year. When the building was purchased, YES Prep leaders worked with architects to determine the possibilities for the vast space. “We drew so many versions,” said Recy Dunn, Vice President of Operations and Growth. “We talked to our Heads of Schools to determine how it could be consistent with our typical school design but contain two schools and our home office.” They decided to take advantage of the high ceilings on the second floor to build one large cafeteria, gym, and library that could accommodate two schools.
The next step was to prioritize what to build. By the first day of school, the front offices and central block of classrooms were ready for use. Additionally, the upper floor was nearly finished. One side of the building, however, will be built out later— when the school expands and needs more classrooms. The home office side, at the back of the building, will be completed sometime in the spring. “We always thought about phasing,” Dunn said. “School first. Home office second. Then the future school down the road.”
Once a plan was made, Linbeck Group, LLC began work on the transformation. The building had been vacant for a while, and the team had to consider how to make it habitable, how to seal it, and what systems were functional. “The electric and plumbing had to be redone,” Dunn said. “After we demolished everything inside, we realized the floor was warped and wavy, so we had to even that out too.”
Dunn also helped to draw the boundaries for the school, targeting Third Ward, Sunnyside, OST/South Union, South Park, and surrounding communities. In deciding the boundaries, he had to consider what people were in the area, who was already being served, and what the neighboring schools were. Dunn’s team also worked with TX-DoT because of the school’s location on the feeder of 610. “They pushed us on developing our traffic plan and considering entry into the building,” he said.
While construction and operations work was ongoing, future School Director Cliff Claflin began working with his team to recruit students. “We started with the neighborhood associations and groups,” Claflin said, “like Community Cloth and Go Neighborhoods.” The team also met with elected officials and the city council. Political consultant Erica Fowler helped them connect with influential community members, such as Max Miller Jr., President of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity.
Fowler advised Claflin to canvas neighborhoods, visit churches, and spend time at local elementary schools. “It was hard because we would do things and not know how much it would yield,” Claflin said. “But you are building trust with the community. Even if you knocked on the door and they only had 4th graders, you’re sowing seeds for the future.” Still, YES Prep Southside only had 150 registered families going into May with a target of enrolling 300 students by the summer. “We just camped out at 5th grade graduations,” Claflin said. “We’d sign up families then and there. We saw a huge upswing.” YES Prep also worked with Families Empowered to sign students up.
Another challenge has been ensuring that all students who’d signed up online— more than 370 by July— followed through in attending YES Prep Southside this fall. While the location on 610 is convenient, it is also challenging for some families “Families are used to bus stops being on their doorstep,” Claflin stated. “But inside the two mile radius, we can’t guarantee a stop.” (The state does not reimburse the district for transportation for students that live within a two mile radius of the school.) “So we have a family coming from just across the highway 200 yards away,” Claflin added, “but that kid can’t walk to school safely. We have a big railroad behind us with razor wire, so the kids on the north side can’t approach from that direction either. We’re trying to do our best to work with what we have.”
By the second week of school, enrollment was above 260—shy of the 300 goal—but still climbing. “Our students are probably about 60-70% African American,” Claflin said, “which feels good because it means we’re representative of the community and our recruitment efforts paid off.” The staff, Claflin feels, is also a part of the community. “In hiring, there were a lot of natural connections to this neighborhood. People who’d grown up here or had some sort of connection and wanted to work here.”
Despite the building’s past and the roadblocks facing its transformation, YES Prep Southside feels everything like the school it is. In class, students annotate texts, conduct experiments, and celebrate their progress towards learning goals. Music plays during the passing periods. Teachers high-five students. Hallways abound with smiles. And, most importantly, students are on the path to college, so they can graduate prepared to lead.
For more photos of YES Prep Southside’s first day of school, click here.
YES Prep Southside is still enrolling. Click here to sign up!
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