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, even though we covered so much in the first part of our conversation, there’s still a ton that we want to ask you! Let’s start with YES Prep's seminar classes – what’s the purpose of these?
Ashleigh: Students take a seminar course starting in the 8th grade and continuing through their senior year. This is a designated period and they attend it 5 days a week. During this time, we talk about study habits, GPA, SAT test prep in their junior year, and opportunities to stay engaged over the summer. They also have very frequent communication with their college counselors. While I’m on it, I should mention that our college counselor ratio is much lower than most traditional public environments. We’re probably around 35:1. And our Director of College Counseling does an excellent job at empowering our seminar teachers to get our kids ready for these conversations.
Thriving Schools: YES Prep’s “Senior Signing Day” garners quite a bit of attention. Can you tell us about this event?
Ashleigh: We’ve been doing this for a really long time, and literally, it’s my favorite YES Prep Holiday! The whole organization shuts down for this one day and for the last few years we’ve gathered as a team at the Toyota Center. Every single YES student attends, from 6th grade on up. And during the celebration, every single senior declares their intent for what they’re doing next year. The environment is electric – you’ll see our students hooting and hollering for their peers. And what’s really powerful is that our younger YES Prep students start to imagine their day up on stage, and what it’ll be like to achieve the same thing!
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us why YES Prep feels this event is so important?
Ashleigh: Absolutely! Because if we say that college is this important, then we should back it up with our actions. That means every single person in the organization feels the same way and they’re going to come out and celebrate with our students.
Thriving Schools: Shifting gears, we would imagine that creating a college-bound culture is easier when you have student buy-in. What are you doing as an organization to help create that?
Ashleigh: There are several things we do! Our teachers are always talking about the colleges they attended. The students know where they went and we have our staff wear their college shirts on Fridays. In the hallways, we have a series of bulletin boards that we rotate once a month for the admin team where we showcase the colleges we went to and what it takes to get into them. And then we also take our students on a series of trips to visit college campuses.
Thriving Schools: Can you tell us more about students’ college visits?
Ashleigh: Sure thing! Even as a 6th grader, our students might be going to visit Texas A&M, The University of Houston, or The University of Texas. So our kids, even when they’re quite young, are getting all of this exposure to college. Then, during their Junior-year, we have a much larger trip. Based on their performance levels, we send students off to different places. For instance, we’ve had students fly out to do an Ohio trip, a California trip, a Boston trip, and a Texas trip. And students really want to earn these! Then we also have a number of colleges that we partner with that provide “Impact Scholarships” and we highlight our students who have received those. We also encourage our students to apply to various scholarships. The alum featured below all received different scholarships, some full rides.
Thriving Schools: Let’s talk about how YES Prep faculty supports all of this . . . How do you ensure your staff is on board with creating this college-bound culture and using the right language when talking to students?
Ashleigh: Well I think that this starts with leadership getting the messaging right. And so the message our teachers receive from the CEO, and even during the hiring process, is that YES Prep’s mission is to increase the number of children from underserved communities who graduate from college prepared to lead. As the School Director of West, our Leadership Team identified why we exist – to empower our students and their families. Then, we hire for that mindset and we communicate that mindset. That ensures that we get individuals who are excited to join our team and have alignment in mission and purpose. This has become a part of our branding and our people know what they’re signing up for! So again, it all comes back to intentionality and we are very intentional in what we communicate.
Thriving Schools: Can you give us a few examples of how you’ve gotten staff on the same page with this messaging?
Ashleigh: This past year, we had all of our teachers take the redesigned SAT. By doing this, our staff got to experience and understand the increased level of rigor our students need to be prepared for. We also regularly share student stories with our staff so that they remain grounded in the realities our students face. Every day, our kids walk in with a story and an experience and we can’t ignore that and pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Thriving Schools: And how do you prepare teachers to have conversations with students around the wide range of college options that are out there, without being discouraging or judgmental?
Ashleigh: Well let me say that in the past, if a student were to announce they were going to a 2-year college, it was kind of seen as taboo. That isn’t the case anymore. And that’s because we’ve had the conversation, on many levels within the organization, about the real challenges our students face. As an organization, we have an “80 in 6” goal, meaning 80% of our students graduate from a 4-year college or university within 6 years. This goal acknowledges the benefits of 2-year options and our ultimate drive for alum to receive their bachelors. We work with a variety of students with different needs (disabilities, students who become parents, with competing family needs, etc), and we do our best to work with them to determine their best options. Whether that’s an immediate enrollment in a 4-year, finding a 2-year, or finding a trade/skill training program that helps them become productive citizens.
Thriving Schools: So what’s the big takeaway here?
Ashleigh: The thing I’d like to emphasize is that we want all our kids to have access to college. Because for some of our students who struggle the most, that door oftentimes stays closed. So we put our effort and energy into making sure that our students are the ones who have that choice. As long as we’re opening doors and keeping doors open for our students, I think we’re doing our job. And of course, this is really difficult. But we all know the statistics regarding the various life outcomes you face if you don’t receive a bachelor’s degree.
Thriving Schools: Last question – how does this messaging look at the student level?
Ashleigh: Here again, we’re very intentional with our language. For example, with our middle and high schoolers, we talk about cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude. And that way, students want to make the Dean’s List because that’s what we’d want for them when they get to college. Our students know the terminology and they know what they’re shooting for. And during high school, we start to calculate their GPAs and talk about what their resumes will look like. Having those conversations with students, with the right language, is very important!