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Inner-city prep school finds routes to colleges

A college prep school in Houston's inner city might sound like an oxymoron, but for 11 years YES Prep has been offering willing students a way out.
YES To College
Brandon Gunter, left, a senior at YES Prep North Central, talks with a Texas A&M recruiter during a college fair in Houston on Oct. 14. More than 90 percent of graduates from YES Prep are first-generation college-bound; 80 percent come from low-income families and 96 percent are Hispanic or African-American.Pat Sullivan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was Deadline Day at YES Prep North Central, the day college applications were supposed to be finished, the day essays, personal statements and a seemingly endless series of forms needed to be slipped into white envelopes, ready for submission.

The day the school's first graduating class would take one leap closer to college.

The seniors inside Room A121 were sprinting, scurrying and stumbling to the finish line. They hunched over plastic banquet tables, brows furrowed and eyed fixed on the screens of Dell laptop computers. Keyboards clattered, papers rustled and sighs swept across the room like waves of nervous energy.

So much was riding on this.

The reputation of a charter school built around the mission of sending every student to college. The hopes of parents who wanted more for their children than they had attained. The expectations of younger siblings, schoolmates and friends hungry for role models.

And above all, the dreams of 43 North Central seniors determined to turn stereotypes and statistics upside-down.

But first, those applications had to sparkle.

"We need that stuff ASAP," said Chad Spurgeon, sounding more like a coach before a big game than North Central's director of college counseling. "You've got to make sure these are where they need to be."

Around the room, jangled nerves seemed to jangle just a little more.

Eric Salazar, a soft-spoken student at the top of the senior class, gnawed absently on his cuticles.

Brandon Gunter, normally jovial, rummaged frantically through his backpack. "I'm getting the feeling I forgot my essay at home. This. Is. Not. Happening," Brandon fretted, his voice inching higher with each word.

Fernando Luna hunkered in the back of the room, staring at his computer screen and thinking of everything he still needed to finish. He smiled serenely, but inside, he could feel the pressure. College, long a dream, was suddenly, tantalizingly, nerve-rackingly within grasp.

He muttered, as if to reassure himself: "This is just an essay. I can tackle it. I can do it."

Learning what college offers
A few years earlier, college had been a vague notion for most of these students. It was a name emblazoned on a sweatshirt, an ivy-covered campus on a movie screen, a pathway for people more privileged.

"I didn't know anything about college," said Carol Cabrera, 17, the oldest child of a construction worker father and a stay-at-home mom, Mexican immigrants who had not made it past high school.

Elizabeth Martinez and Brandon Gunter, both 17, had long been told that a college education paved the road to a better life. But how to turn the ambition into reality?

In middle school, Eric Salazar often felt like the only student striving for higher standards. Fernando Luna saw his future limited to technical schools or vocational colleges.

"It's more difficult to be successful if you're ashamed to be the only person on time for a test, the only one doing homework," said Fernando, 17, as the five North Central seniors sat at a table in the school's cafeteria.

Then these five students stepped inside North Central, where college for all is not just a catch phrase. It's a vision infused into the fabric of the YES Prep charter school system.

YES Prep — the name is an acronym for Youth Engaged in Service — was founded 11 years ago by Chris Barbic, a Teach for America alumnus who shaped his vision around a simple, singular goal: Every student is expected to go to a four-year college, succeed there and return to give back to the community.

It was an ambitious goal. More than 90 percent of YES Prep students are first-generation college-bound; 80 percent come from low-income families, and 96 percent are Hispanic or African-American. Most students enter the school at least one grade level behind in math and English.

Almost all can name friends or relatives who have succumbed to the streets, dropping out, landing in jail or getting entangled with gangs.

At YES Prep, every aspect of the school is designed to steer students away from stumbling blocks. Longer school days. A strict discipline code. A challenging curriculum. A small teacher-student ratio.

There is also a nonstop conversation about college. Middle school homerooms are named after the teacher's alma mater. On Fridays, everyone is encouraged to wear shirts with college logos. Banners in hallways tout schools.

A popular bumper sticker sums up the school's mission: "Will my child go to college? The answer is YES."

Parents of students must sign a contract agreeing to commit to the YES Prep philosophy and rules. Students are admitted through a lottery, with almost 4,000 now on a waiting list to enter.

The culture-of-college formula seems to be working. At YES Prep Southeast, the only campus to serve 12th graders until this year, 100 percent of seniors have been accepted to college since the first class graduated in 2001 — matriculating at some 266 schools, including Ivy League universities.

This year, North Central will become the second YES Prep campus to graduate seniors — and the class of 2010 doesn't want to tarnish the charter school's record.

On most days, Room A121 is home to Junior and Senior Seminar.

In 11th grade, the school's two college counselors, Spurgeon and Merrily Brannigan, steer students through an introduction to the college application process and an intensive preparation for the SAT. In 12th grade, students focus on completing applications, refining essays and resumes, visiting colleges and applying for financial aid.

Brannigan and Spurgeon focus almost entirely on college counseling for 43 seniors and 60 juniors. "We learn a lot about the kids, and they learn a lot about themselves," said Spurgeon.

Carol Cabrera set aside her weekends to fill out applications and work on her essays. At home, her desk was piled with college pamphlets and brochures. Her report cards were tucked under the clear plastic tablecloth on her family's kitchen table — a constant reminder of how far she has come.

Elizabeth Martinez was spending her lunch hours chipping away at her applications in the school's still-developing library.

But on Nov. 20, the day the school set as application deadline day, many seniors were still scrambling to finish applications for the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, the schools with the most pressing deadlines.

In Senior Seminar, the 50-minute class period seemed to rocket by.

Suddenly, an anguished moan froze the entire room.


"I don't like that face," Spurgeon said, catching sight of Sally Arias' stricken expression.

"I deleted it. How did I do this? I deleted my essay," Arias whispered. "I think I'm gonna cry."

Mayra Valle rushed to her side. "We'll find it. We have to. This is your future."

A few feet away, Eric Salazar covered his face with both hands. He was nearly finished applications for Texas A&M, Cornell and Duke, his top choices. A few days earlier, a Cornell recruiter had even called to make sure he would be applying, a very promising sign.

"It gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment," said Salazar, an aspiring engineer.

Still, his essay for Cornell needed honing. He was writing about a person who had inspired him. The first line: "My dad is a carpenter."

In the back corner, Brandon had finally fished out his errant essay. Now, he was typing answers to an A&M financial aid questionnaire. "My mom is a single parent. She's struggling to raise my sister and me," wrote Brandon, who hopes to study engineering at Dartmouth.

Fernando Luna looked over Brandon's shoulder then turned back to his own computer screen with a sigh. Texas A&M was one of his dream schools, and he was still far behind on his application.

Spurgeon picked up on the sigh.

"How's your essay coming?" he asked. "Is it gonna be ready?"

"Ummm," wavered Fernando. "It's gonna be a long night."

The path to senior year has been strewn with obstacles and "aha" moments.

YES Prep students confront resistance from old friends, the temptation to slack off, worries about college costs.

"My cousins would say, 'You are such a loser. You have to go to school on Saturdays,'" recalled Carol Cabrera. "Now I say: 'I'm going to college and you're not.' "

At first, she begged her parents to take her out. Then, she started picturing herself at college, going on to a career in broadcast journalism.

"We know that a lot of things outside school that have little to do with academics will affect academics," said North Central school director Mark DiBella. "So we try to create a support system at this school. When they go back into their neighborhoods, they can hearken back to this community of like-minded people."

The school is awash with inspirational sayings — on bulletin boards, newsletters and bright orange signs on an awning. For instance: "When we all pull together we move mountains."

"By the 12th grade, these messages are just a part of you," said Brandon Gunter. "... It's like physics, like Newton's law. Something stays in motion unless something negative stops it. Here, there is nothing negative to stop us."

For many students, the turning point comes during the school's spring and summer trips, when they tour colleges and participate in camping and community service trips. The experience can be transformational.

"If it hadn't been for the trips, I wouldn't know how it feels to be away from home...," said Carol Cabrera. "Now, I've been out there, away from my parents. It makes it harder for me to think about staying in Houston for school."

For Fernando Luna, the "aha" moment came much closer to home.

He was working a summer job at a farmers market when he noticed that people seemed to be looking through him. All they saw was another manual laborer, he thought. No one could see his aspirations or his intellect.

"If I don't get an education," he remembers thinking, "I'll be letting all the people who support me down and I'll be proving the people who don't believe in me right."

Worn out by applications
Carol Cabrera wrinkled her forehead in exasperation.

With minutes left in her Senior Seminar class, Carol was surrounded by white envelopes and application packages. She had already submitted 13 applications, including one to her top choice, Whittier College in California.

Now, on deadline day, she was having second thoughts, uncertain about some of her choices.

"I'm tired. I want to go home, take a shower and go to sleep. As a whole senior class, we're tired."

On the other side of the room, Elizabeth Martinez fingered her application to her safety school, the last one she needed to mail. She'd already finished the paperwork for her other schools, including first-choice Vanderbilt University.

Just a month earlier at a parent-student conference, Elizabeth had cried as she talked about moving away from Houston. Now, she said, "I'm sure everything's going to be OK. I hope so."

She stiffened her shoulders, sealed the final envelope and placed it on the pile.

Now, the very last step: At her laptop, she clicked the online application. And in no time, the on-screen message flashed: "Congratulations, Elizabeth! You have successfully submitted your application."