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YES PREP PROGRAM / Unveiling a unique education alliance / Up to 130 charter school 6th-graders will attend classes at HISD's Lee High School campus this fall

JENNIFER RADCLIFFE STAFF

Thu 07/12/2007 Houston Chronicle, Section B, Page 1 MetFront, 3 STAR Edition

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For just a few weeks, these 100 pint-size sixth-graders are the big men and women on the Lee High School campus.

That status will be as short-lived as the mandatory summer session to teach them the ropes of YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school that opened Wednesday on the third floor of the super-size campus in the Gulfton area.

When school resumes in earnest next month, the middle-schoolers will share the space with about 2,000 older teens in a charter-traditional school partnership that's unique in Texas.

The younger students already are planning their strategies for coping with potential bullies: "I'd just keep walking," 10-year-old Saul Bravo advised. "You don't want to get in a fight with the older kids. They can beat you bad."

The younger students' safety, which school leaders assure they can protect, is one of the many issues to be tackled as this partnership develops.

YES leaders hope to start with 130 sixth-graders in seven classrooms this year, but they plan to expand eventually to about 700 students - in grades six through 12 - in at least 30 classrooms.

The charter will pay nearly $65,000 to lease the space this school year, but many other details still must be worked out.

"We don't know what it is yet, but it's really going to be awesome," said Bill Durbin, co-director of the YES campus. "Some real exciting things are going to happen in the next few years."

The program will be contained mostly in the wing on the third floor, and students will attend class on a schedule slightly different from that of the high-schoolers. They'll have access to many of Lee's resources, though, including its gymnasium, swimming pool and new health clinic.

When they're older, students in the nationally acclaimed YES program may be able to share electives and extracurricular activities with Lee.

"It's an experiment. It's a little different from what we're used to," said Nella Garcîa, assistant director of the YES school, "but the energy is palpable. There's so many people excited about this."

The charter school movement began more than a decade ago in Texas as a way of giving parents more choices and educators more freedom. Results from the state's more than 200 charter holders have been mixed, and the relationship between the two types of public schools is typically strained.

Traditional public school leaders, for instance, say charter schools steal their top students and state funding. Charter school leaders complain their campuses don't receive the same level of funding as traditional schools, saying their results would be even stronger were the playing field level.

So living under one roof will take a change of mindset for both.

"Some of these hard lines are going to have to get muddied and blurred," said Lee Principal Steve Amstutz, who closely watched the first day of YES activities. "We can compete and challenge each other in a healthy way ... and if it's competition on how to best serve kids and families, you can't lose in that."

YES founder Chris Barbic said the relationship is a blend of cooperation and competition. He and Amstutz agree they can learn from one another.

Lee High, for instance, is known for its work with first-generation immigrants, many of whom enter high school at an older age, unable to speak English and years behind.

Most students entering the newest YES program come from the Gulfton neighborhood and otherwise would have attended Long, Grady or Sharpstown middle schools. YES' other locations serve primarily American-born, low-income Hispanic students.

In addition to the summer program, YES students attend class an extra two hours a day. Some spend three or four hours a day just on reading or math - whatever it takes to help them catch up to their grade levels, officials said.

These techniques have paid off at YES' only Houston high school, whose scores blow Lee's out of the water.

Students at YES' high school score an average of 250 points higher on the SAT and 30 percentage points higher on several parts of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

That campus - one of four the YES program operates in Houston - has landed on Newsweek's list of the top 100 public schools in America for the past two years.

Even with those results, YES had a tough time recruiting students to the Lee High site. Unlike its other campuses, there still are a few seats to fill.

"I'm hustling for every kid I get," Durbin said. "I feel, at times, we're better-known nationally than we are in Houston."

TAKE A LOOK

For more information, visit www.yesprep.org

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