Ashleigh Fritz is the School Director of grades 6-8 and high school planning at YES Prep Southside. She has spent the last eight years as a teacher, 8th/9th grade principal, and School Director of YES Prep West. Ashleigh was a founding teacher at YES Prep West where she taught 6th grade math. Prior to that, she taught 5th grade math, science, and social studies in Alief ISD. In her new role at YES Prep Southside, she will work to launch the site’s high school and refocus the school on its academic and college-bound culture. Ashleigh is a community-oriented leader and believes in being as visible and present as possible. She is originally from Beachwood, Ohio and is a graduate of Denison University.
Thriving Schools: Ashleigh, today we’re going to be talking about the college-bound culture at YES Prep! How do you think about the success of such a program?
Ashleigh: It’s not good enough just to get our students into college – we want them to be successful while they’re there! Two of the best predictors for this (while students are still in high school) are GPA and SAT/ACT performance. I also like to talk to our students about being AP-Calculus ready because of the strong correlation between those who take calculus and their success in college. So those are a few of the ways in which we think about the success of our efforts.
Thriving Schools: And what kind of results have you experienced with your students?
Ashleigh: For our class of 2016, 100% of graduating seniors were accepted into a 4-year college or university and 80% of them graduated with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Their average score on the ACT was a 22 and 75% earned at least one qualifying score on an AP exam. And this is with just over 80% of the class persisting through all four years of high school. When I get the class of 2017 comprehensive data, I can share that as well.
Thriving Schools: Wow – that’s incredible! What is your team doing differently at YES Prep that is allowing you to achieve such results?
Ashleigh: I think there are two pieces to this. The first is that a successful college culture has to be at the very foundation of why you exist. It cannot be a haphazard goal. If every adult on campus isn’t messaging the same thing, a program like this can fall flat on its face. Our expectations for college are communicated very clearly to students, staff, and parents. On the other hand, I’ve definitely seen at some other schools how the idea of college can quickly turn into a catchphrase. Again, for a program to be successful it has to be truly ingrained in the school’s culture. The second part of this is being crystal clear on what you want a college-bound culture to look like – programmatically and culturally – and what it will take to achieve it.
Thriving Schools: So let’s dig in! Can you tell us about the most important programs or routines that support the college-bound culture at YES Prep?
Ashleigh: The first one, which is foundational to YES Prep, is that our kids, our families, and our staff sign a commitment to college completion document. This takes place at the start of 6th grade. And the document makes it clear what it takes on a daily basis for our students to attain college completion. We have a ceremony around this in which our students announce to their families their affirmative – “YES!” – intention to go to college. Sometimes this might even happen during a home visit and it’s incredibly powerful and intimate to hear a student say, “YES! I agree to this standard.” Again, there’s also a section that the parents and the staff agree to. I should also note that we hold on to these letters throughout the student’s enrollment. So, if a student were to struggle or make a poor decision, we can refer back to the commitment that they’ve made.
Thriving Schools: This sounds like a very powerful ceremony! Can you tell us what else takes place during this time?
Ashleigh: One of my favorite things that we do is we give our students two nails – one of them is red and one of them is blue. We tell our students that the first one is to hang their high school diplomas on. And the second one, even though they have to “hang on” to it for 11 years, is where they’ll place their college diploma. And these serve as great reminder – whether students nail them into the wall or place them somewhere safe – as to why they work so hard at YES Prep.
Thriving Schools: I’m sure you’ve had many difficult conversations with students when they’re not meeting expectations or upholding their commitments. What do you say to them?
Ashleigh: Well, you’re right, we definitely hear from some students who say, “I don’t know if I can make that commitment anymore.” And my response to them is, “Well why did you then – when you signed your commitment letter?” I do my best to continuously remind students that their commitment is living. And breathing. And that the road is hard – all great things are. Our job as a school is to be there to support them through congratulations and correction. We bring parents into the conversation as well, it’s the three-legged stool approach.
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us about a student who’ve you had such a conversation with?
Ashleigh: Yeah! I had this one student – it was like pulling teeth all seven years that I had them. And this student came back to YES Prep and told us, “Alright, which students do I have to talk to? I want to show them that it’s attainable. That it’s okay if you struggled through high school. But go to college! It’s worth it! You can do it!” So you have to highlight the students that have struggled and made it through. And I don’t know if we spend enough time talking about all the options when it comes to college and discussing the students who take different routes.
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us more about the last point you made?
Ashleigh: Definitely! I think we need to cheer just as strongly for the student who attends the University of Houston as we do for the student who gets into Yale. Because this might be a student who otherwise may not have gone to college. We hold the Ivy’s to such a high level of prestige that we sometimes forget it’s a huge struggle for some of our families to let their children leave the state. We forget the generational bias, baggage, and discrimination. So we need to be a lot more intentional about this than we’ve been in the past.
Thriving Schools: To what extent should this college-bound culture be introduced in the elementary grades?
Ashleigh: As an organization, we start in 6th grade – so that’s when we begin building that culture. If we had kindergarten, we would start there and it would be age and developmentally appropriate. I should say, though, for our 6th graders this still seems so far away. But I do think the conversations and the spirit should 100% take place in elementary. And if you were to do a commitment to college at this age, you would have to modify the document and make it more accessible to that level of student.
Thriving Schools: Ashleigh, how did you develop your ideas around a college-bound culture?
Ashleigh: This is not me. This is YES prep. And I’ve been fortunate enough and have had the opportunity to put my spin on it. But again, these ideas, and the energy behind them, exist throughout our organization!
Stay tuned! We'll be sharing Part 2 of this conversation later this week!