YES Prep Southwest School Director Eric Espinoza graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2003 and majored in criminal justice at St. Louis University. After briefly working as an insurance adjuster, he became a Spanish teacher at YES Prep Southwest. Eric taught Spanish I and II for four years and became a Grade Level Chair. He then served as Dean of Students for five years and led other Deans of Students in their professional development before becoming a School Director. We interviewed him about life in the early days of YES Prep, his journey as an educator, and how being an alumnus from the Southwest community impacts his work as a leader.
When did you start attending YES Prep?
I started in 6th grade when it was still Project YES at Rusk elementary. For 7th grade, I went to HISD because I didn’t have transportation, but then I returned when it became YES College Prep and attended from 8th-12th grade.
What was Project YES/YES College Prep like in the early days?
One of the things I remember most was loving our teachers. I had incredible relationships with them. Jason Bernal used to pick me up in an 18-passenger van so that I could get to school.
Spring trips were awesome. On one trip, we jumped on a bus and went to see schools in Chicago and Indiana. Our college counselor at the time, Donald Kamentz, would give us tours of the colleges and universities.
Why did your family enroll you at Project YES?
I grew up a few minutes away from the Southwest campus, so I was zoned to Dowling (now Lawson). I knew it was really bad, and my parents didn’t want me to go there, but I didn’t get into the magnet school. My aunt worked at Rusk, so even though it was a huge commute [to go to YES Prep], it seemed like the best option. My mother has a college degree, as well as several of my aunts and uncles, so I think I still would have gone to college if it weren’t for YES. But I wouldn’t have had as much access to ways to get to college without YES. I wouldn’t have had the kind of college-counseling I received.
Why did you come to work at YES Prep and why do you stay?
I always knew I’d like to work here. Almost every summer in college, I taught summer school at either Southeast or Southwest. I stayed connected with the School Directors. I hated working as an insurance adjuster because the culture was so terrible. That experience solidified for me that YES is where I belonged. It was a safe place for me as a student, as a teacher, and as a leader. The other reason I stay is that Southwest values continuous improvement. I love to grow and develop here. Leaders grow very quickly because you’re surrounded by such high-performers. Our leadership team was intact for five years with minimal changes. When you see that kind of continuity and persistence from leadership, it has a huge impact on staff and kids.
Tell us about the transition to School Director over the past several months.
It has been awesome. I started taking the reins in January or February of last year with the hiring process and budget management. I also sat in on School Director meetings. I feel like I’m very blessed to have stayed at Southwest and to continue the work we’ve done here with our mission and our specific school initiatives. Staff really appreciate the continuity. There’s still been a learning curve because there’s a tremendous amount of work and the decision-making has a huge impact on staff and kids, but I feel like I’m positioned to be successful here.
Harvey was certainly difficult. We were one of the campuses with the least amount of impacted families. However, we had the highest number of staff members impacted, which has been very tough. As a staff, we’ve coordinated multiple efforts to gut homes, clean up, offer donations, and give advice. In such a difficult time, it’s been uplifting to see our staff uniting to volunteer and get their hands dirty helping other Mavericks.
How do you apply your experiences as a YES Prep alumnus who grew up in the Southwest community to your work as a leader?
One of the privileges I have is that I know the students and this community. It has helped me to be an effective teacher and Dean of Students because I can connect with students and families in a unique way. Kids also know that they can’t pull things– because I speak Spanish and know some of the jokes from when I was coming up. I can also share my own experiences at Dowling– how I had a miserable experience academically and had a difficult time fitting in and surviving. A lot of our students will talk about how they want to leave YES Prep, and I can share that with them.
I also have insight into why some of our families come here. I think there’s a myth that families choose our school because of the college-going focus, but I know a lot do it for the same reason my family did– because it’s a safe option. So I know that we have to do a lot of work in middle school to talk to families about college and to build that college-going identity, so that the families are prepared for the process in high school.
Why do we need more educators of color?
I didn’t have a lot of role models that looked like me growing up– even at YES Prep. That’s so important so that kids can see what success could look like for them.