A vision for the future of education sits within a converted church in the heart of a working-class neighborhood in northern Houston, abutted by auto parts stores and a heat treatment plant. At YES Prep North Central, homogeneity reigns: Of the 953 middle and high schoolers at the 11-year-old charter school, 96% are Hispanic, and a similarly large majority live at or below the poverty line. The kids are dressed the same–blue or khaki pants with school-issued polo shirts. But most important, their outcomes are uniform, too: 100% of graduates get into a four-year college, as the university pennants lining the hallways suggest.
Gliding into the school, 44-year-old Carrie Walton Penner sticks out from the students–older, blonder and, in jeans and a black wrap jacket, more polished than the young collegiate uniforms she weaves through. She’s also the granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, the daughter of current company chairman Rob Walton, an heir to the largest family fortune, to the tune of $165 billion, in the entire world. And as the family’s point person on education issues, she’s arguably the most powerful force in the charter school movement. “How long is the longest-serving teacher?” she asks the school director, amid a flurry of questions. “Is there step-up pay and pay for performance?”