“I think I have the record at FCS for the most demerits of any student without getting expelled. It’s so ironic that I’m running a school system, when I was such a pain while I was in school.” Mark DiBella ‘94 is the CEO of YesPrep, a public charter school system that serves almost 12,000 Houston students. With 83% of these students coming from low-income households, and with a troubled history of education in the communities where YesPrep serves, achieving success is no small challenge.
A Solid Foundation
Mark grew up in a Christian home. But, it was at FCS that his encounters with dedicated teachers—even in the midst of school discipline—helped him come to grips with a truly personal faith. What he expected to be moments of harsh criticism for breaking rules were actually deep conversations about what it means to be a follower of Christ. While school rules were enforced, he was able to discover the grace that became his own. He believes that the impact of FCS has stayed with him throughout his life and career, and that this lasting impact in the area of spiritual growth and leadership is a big factor in his work today.
YesPrep, under Mark’s leadership, is focused on a singular mission: “every student a college graduate and ready to lead when they graduate.” That leadership goal should sound familiar to FCS parents and alumni. And in Houston, TX that’s not the norm for the families of his students—not yet. But they are making big progress, with 98% of their seniors going on to college (check out this Vimeo of Senior Signing Day!), and 50% graduating from college. Compare that with an 8% college graduation rate for low income students nationally, and you can get an idea about the significance of this achievement.
Partnering with the Community
YesPrep success has been recognized outside of Houston too. They received the inaugural Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools in 2012 as the top public charter school in the nation. When allowed to compete again last year, they were among the three national finalists. This award describes the underlying impact of Mark’s work: “The charter organization has also eliminated nearly every income and ethnic achievement gap its students faced.”
Mark says, “before YesPrep there were no choices for parents,” beyond the public schools that had been failing them for years. YesPrep has become not only a choice in these communities but a partner to the educational community; operating schools within schools, and planning strategically so that entire feeder systems are strengthened and not drained.
When asked about his personal growth as a leader, Mark shares about how he has learned the priority of “deeply and authentically engaging our community.” And, that having a conversation about racial disparity with students is not an option, but a “must have conversation, even though I feel ill-equipped for this conversation as a white male.” He credits FCS for helping him gain an understanding of his own faith that now allows him to be comfortable in a challenging and multicultural environment. He’s confident of his own beliefs with compassion and understanding for others.
A Life-Long Passion
After graduating from FCS and later the College of William & Mary, Mark signed up for 2 years as an inner city teacher with Teach America. What he thought was a 2-year tour of duty, became a life passion, and has now extended to 17 years of service in Houston. He plans to persevere through retirement with this career focus and the hope that he can change things in Houston. The YesPrep goal is massive—that every child in Houston would have equitable access to quality education. That means doubling or tripling the size of YesPrep in the next 10-15 years and expanding their partnerships across the city.
Even though these challenges are large, they fit with the leadership style of a marathon runner—because that’s how he “stays sane.” Mark runs almost daily as a time to stay fit, to think, and to pray. He’s completed 8 marathons and is certainly running another one at YesPrep.This marathon is longer than just 26 miles because it’s focused on the long game; creating generational change and transforming the conversations in families from “if” children should go to college to “which one” they should attend.