Giving it the old college try means incredible engagement to Jason Bernal at YES Prep

Jason Bernal, president, YES Prep Schools

Jason Bernal, president, YES Prep Schools

When Jason Bernal started teaching at YES Preparatory Public Schools 15 years ago, he began every day by picking up students in a van — and he quickly learned that going the extra mile would be routine in this job.

“I would have four stops, picking up students in a van and then bringing them to school every single day,” he says. “I can’t tell you the amount of time that just not me but every teacher put into every single student.”

He often took students home at night, when they stayed after school to crack the books.

As a charter-managed school organization whose goal is to give low-income students exposure to high-quality educational opportunities, YES Prep knows about engaging both teachers and students. In a big-city setting, where in the past, quality education for low-income families was hard to find, YES Prep has a current enrollment of 7,000, a waiting list of 7,000 students and is recruiting to boot.

“Our big focus is increasing the number of low-income Houstonians who will graduate from a four-year college or university,” Bernal says.

In order to graduate from the high school, students have to be accepted to a college or university.

“Currently, we have 80 percent of our kids who have graduated from college come back to Houston to work. From the very beginning, we always talked to our kids about, ‘We want you to be leaders in your communities. We want you to go to college, and we want you to come back and work in your community.’”

Driving that kind of visionary change begins with people who have a mental picture idea of what the educational process should be like, Bernal says.

Here’s how Bernal, president of the 700-employee organization of 11 schools (and growing) uses engagement so students and teachers will burn the midnight oil — and help drive visionary change.

Get in at the ground level

Every vision has a beginning, and every company has a founder. Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep, wasn’t satisfied where his children were going after they left his sixth-grade classroom. It was the impetus for the open-enrollment YES Preparatory Public Schools, which operates on $77 million revenue, including state funding, donations and fundraising efforts.

Simply defined, a vision is where you want to be or what an organization wants to realize at a certain point in time.

“To YES Prep, it’s really just raising that bar and how we meet the needs to make sure that every student becomes successful in life,” Bernal says.

Getting quality front-line managers — in this case, the teachers — is so important that numerous steps are taken. If applicants pass the first screening process, they then go through a series of interviews. The candidate is then interviewed by a school leader, the equivalent of a principal, who sets up a sample teaching lesson for the person to be delivered to a class — where the candidate can be viewed in a virtual on-the-job experience.

While the hiring process takes an extensive look at the candidate, it’s only the beginning of how deep YES Prep will go to support the right teacher.

Mold your new faces

Call it on-boarding or orientation, the process of bringing new employees into the fold is receiving more attention now from companies and organizations than ever. And no wonder when there is so much competition for good talent.

“When we are hiring brand-new teachers, we have to make sure that they have the necessary training to go into the classroom day one and be an effective instructor,” Bernal says. “We don’t have time for a teacher to get his or her feet wet for a few months or even a year.”

A Teaching Excellence program trains the first-year teachers, starting in July before classes start in the fall. This intense two-week induction program focuses on the basics: what it is to be a YES Prep teacher, what the expectations are and best practices to be a good teacher.

While that step is similar to what happens in many fields with new employees, the next step is less common but is very effective.

In addition to the training, the teachers are paired with an instructional coach, a non-evaluative mentor, Bernal says. The coach meets weekly with the new teacher.

“That is extremely important,” he says. “There are lots and lots of observations, lots of communication.”

Once a month, on Saturdays, the teachers also have professional development time as well as on Wednesdays when schools are let out early to accommodate the program.

The Wednesday sessions are kind of quality control meetings, organized by grade level, and they address concerns and other issues.

“You have your logistical items of what has to be taken care of, but you spend the majority of the time in those meetings talking about individual students and how you can meet students’ needs,” Bernal says.

“You need to have a full network of support counselors at every school so when you have a student that is a concern, you’re not a teacher on an island. In fact, we make sure that our teachers bring up those concerns with other teachers in the meetings or with school counselors to ensure that we find a way to help the student.”

Consider salary bands on merit

When it comes to the subject of wages and salaries, it’s one topic no company or organization can afford to ignore. Some companies put a salary cap on positions, limiting advancement and often denoting a dead-end job.

However, YES Prep realized that there are some people who just want to teach and be great teachers so a pathway called Teacher Continuum was created, a system on how teachers are paid based on performance and not tenure.

“With the Teacher Continuum program, we have teachers who start out at in a certain band; if you are a first-year teacher, you start off at the novice level,” Bernal says. “Then you can move throughout the bands to mastery teacher. So based on how your performance is throughout the year, you can move into a higher position.”

This is the second year of the program, and there are no mastery teachers yet.

“A big part of this is that we don’t want to lose great teachers and people who don’t necessarily want to go on to be administrators,” he says. “They just love teaching. We want to keep those teachers. It gives teachers the incentives just to continue doing really well in the classroom.”

Commit with a contract

Another part of the engagement process involves a contract — contract learning, while not a new concept, serves in a way to bind the teacher, the student and the family.

“We sit down with the parents, talk about what YES Prep is, and we have the teacher sign a contract basically stating that the teacher will be there with the students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to ensure that that child can receive the support to go to college,” Bernal says. “Parents do the same thing; students sign the contract too.”

YES Prep keeps the contract all the way through graduation. Though not a binding legal document in the strictly legal sense of a contract, the support the document provides offers one more layer to the commitment process that can lead to graduation.

Actually, 100 percent of the seniors are accepted to college and matriculate, but this is a tricky statistic because students who are retained as juniors or choose to leave the school on their own accord aren’t calculated in that number. A little more than 90 percent of the class is retained each year. Currently, 72 percent of alumni are enrolled in a four-year college or university or have graduated.

While some critics may require numbers to provide success rates, Bernal sees it otherwise.

“I think the nice thing today is our next campus, Campus 12, will be opened in 2013 by a YES Prep alum,” he says. “More than 20 of the students that have graduated from YES who went off to college have now come back and are teachers, administrators, school leaders and school directors. It is really cool to see how this whole thing comes full circle.” ●

How to reach: YES Preparatory Public Schools, (713) 967-9000 or

The Bernal File

Jason Bernal
YES Preparatory Public Schools

Born: Denver. I’m a big Denver Broncos fan. Later, when I was in third grade, we moved to Montana.

Education: I graduated from Helena High School and went to Montana State University-Billings. I have a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Sam Houston State University.

What was your first job?

During college, to try to make ends meet, I did what any college kid would do — shovel snow before class, and in the summers, I worked for the city as a garbage man.

Who do you admire in business?

Our founder, Chris Barbic. He was the visionary for YES Prep. He is definitely the one whom I look up to. Another one is my sister, Michelle Berg. I would not have gone into education if she didn’t encourage me to apply for a job with YES Prep.

What is the best advice you ever received?

When I took this position over, I had a case of nerves when I started, and Chris Barbic said, ‘Just be yourself.’ Maybe it’s too simple but that’s the best advice. Things won’t work out if you are trying to be someone you aren’t, and it’s going to come across as not being genuine. That has gotten me through a lot of difficult situations.

What is your definition of success?                      

When I think about success at YES Prep, I think I always want the best for students, to provide great opportunities for them. It’s students going to college, graduating from college, doing something that they love to do and being leaders and seeing that every day. I think that’s an easy way to define success for our kids. And I want to be able to create opportunities for our staff members, too, so they excel, so they grow professionally, and that they are doing things they never thought they would be able to do.


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