Flunking Out

Charter school scandals are teaching Texas a tough lesson -- one the state should have known four years and $77 million ago.

About 90 percent of YES College Prep students are Hispanic, and almost all of their families live in poverty. "We're not taking the superstar magnet school kid," says Barbic, a tall 29-year-old with a bald head, goatee, and J. Crew necktie. "We look for the middle-of-the-road student."

YES students include those who, had the school not nabbed them first, could easily join a gang. Even though the drab campus consists only of several nondescript modular buildings scattered across an asphalt parking lot, there is a long waiting list of children whose parents want them to go there.

The school teaches fifth- through 11th-graders and, based on TAAS test results, is doing a good job of it. Barbic proudly displays the 1998-'99 scores showing that all 43 10th-graders passed the math and writing portion and that 95 percent passed reading. Nine students got at least 95 percent of the questions right on the reading test, and 14 did the same in math. Scores are similarly stellar among the sixth- through eighth-graders.

Deborah Lott, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Arlington, is still a believer in charter schools -- despite horrendous problems at Renaissance, and provided that the state provide better oversight.
Mark Graham
Deborah Lott, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Arlington, is still a believer in charter schools -- despite horrendous problems at Renaissance, and provided that the state provide better oversight.

YES students go to school Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and attend the biweekly Saturday classes and one month of summer school. Suspended kids are required to attend classes -- although they must bear the scarlet letters of having to wear their shirts inside out, stand up throughout class, and keep silent around their classmates.

"The first couple weeks, parents of new students think I'm a monster," Barbic says.

But they tend to change their minds as their children are transformed from mediocre to high achievers. YES College Prep is being held out by charter school advocates as a model, especially now that the Renaissance era has collapsed. But the qualities behind the success of YES are tough to bottle.

The school began in 1995 as Project YES, a middle school affiliated with the Houston Independent School District. For three years, it operated under HISD's wing and was able to take advantage of numerous administrative benefits of the relationship, such as being able to use the district's contract services for transportation and food.

Although the relationship had its rocky moments, Barbic admits that the school's success today is in part due to the fact that YES administrators were able to cut their teeth for three years while under HISD's security blanket.

It's different today. Barbic points to a large city street map hanging in his office. It's been violated with hundreds of pushpins, each one representing the home of a YES student. Forty different ZIP codes have pins in them. Barbic had to study that map for hours on end in order to chart the school's busing system. Then he had to drive the six routes himself to make sure his plan worked.

"It was the logic puzzle from hell," he says.

Barbic would rather be teaching students. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he majored in English and pre-law. After graduating, he hooked up with Teach for America, an AmeriCorps program that allows young people to earn teacher certification in exchange for a two-year commitment to teach in a poor neighborhood. Barbic landed at Rusk Elementary in Houston. He took over a class of sixth-graders who had all flunked the TAAS. He inspired them to do better only to find out after they graduated that some had joined gangs. That's when he and other dejected Rusk faculty members got together to form Project YES.

Of the 16 teachers at YES College Prep, 10 are Teach for America graduates.

"Everybody here works ridiculous hours," Barbic said recently while playing host on a campus tour. "I got home last night at 9:30, and the summer school classes end at 1. I have no life. I mean, I just got married, but other than that, I have no life. This is my life."

It takes commitment. It takes people who care.


Deborah Lott cared. In fact, she cared so much about the students attending the neglected and nauseating Arlington branch campus of Renaissance Charter School that she nearly broke down in tears while speaking to the Board of Education in May.

"You really have to excuse me," she said after her voice began to crack, "because I'm really upset about all of this, and it's been very traumatic for all of us. But no child, not anywhere, regardless of who they are, should ever have to try to be educated under these circumstances."

Lott was the principal of the Arlington school. Or is she still the principal? She's not sure.

"I have no idea what my status is," she said recently. "They are not cooperating with me."

"They" is basically one man: Renaissance CEO Don Jones, a gray-haired philosopher with a professorial moustache, beard, and pot belly. Jones talks about the "paradigm shift in public education" that led to the birth of Renaissance in 1996. He talks about the need that exists to "think outside the box." He talks about how the Irving Independent School District where he worked as a teacher for 14 years was neglecting its middle class of students and how all the attention was paid to jocks and cheerleaders and troublemakers, leaving "the forgotten half," well, forgotten.

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