Monday, September 26, 2022 Sep 26, 2022
79° F Dallas, TX

Breakfast With: Yasmin Bhatia

The CEO of Uplift Education brings her business smarts to improving Dallas schools.
By Jason Heid |
illustration by Tony Healey

Ever wondered what happened to the smartest girl in your high school class? The one whose social skills were as impressive as her IQ? Well, she might be sitting across from me at 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in a booth at AllGood Café in Deep Ellum.

It’s not literally her, of course—unless you graduated in Katy—but someone very much the type. She’s Yasmin Bhatia, head of the nonprofit Uplift Education, which operates 26 charter schools across the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Just 36 years old, Bhatia is overflowing with a vivacity that makes her seem even younger.

AllGood Café is in Uplift’s newest neighborhood. This fall, Laureate Secondary Preparatory opens in a former warehouse and office building on Elm Street just a couple blocks from the restaurant. There was some controversy earlier this year, when neighborhood business owners objected to Uplift moving in. They feared that the presence of a school might lead to new restrictions from the city, particularly for the nearby bars.

“Honestly we weren’t expecting the reaction we got, at all,” Bhatia says. “Normally we don’t get people who don’t want us.” But most of the neighborhood concerns have been calmed, and all the publicity resulted in Laureate Secondary filling up faster than any Uplift school had before. There will be 250 students enrolled, with another 100-150 on the waiting list.

“I have to tell you, I think I’m going to be your world’s most boring breakfast date,” she says as we consider the menu. “I’m expecting my third child in December, and so my taste buds are so bland right now.”

I thought pregnancy was supposed to give you strange cravings, like peanut butter with pickles?

“I never experienced that,” Bhatia says. “Literally, I’m a carb girl: toast and rice and pasta. No fancy sauces, grilled chicken.”

[inline_image id=”1″ align=”r” crop=””]She orders a short stack of pancakes with a side of wheat toast. She tells the waiter that she doesn’t need syrup. I also opt for the pancakes, but with a side of bacon. I’m happy to let the waiter bring me syrup.

Bhatia’s background isn’t in education. She comes from the world of corporate consulting—nine years at McKinsey & Co.—which might explain why she’s prone to using lingo like “human capital” and  “stakeholders.” So how did she end up running schools?

“I always had a passion for giving back to the community, and anytime there was a pro bono project at McKinsey, I was always the person who raised my hand,” she says. She’d reached a point in her career where she realized that consulting work wasn’t her passion. She managed to convince Uplift’s board that she was the right woman for the CEO job, despite her lack of experience.

“A lot of those business skills translated for what Uplift needed at that place in time,” Bhatia says.

She threw herself into her new role (which she assumed in 2009) with much the same approach she’d taken as a consultant, often having to learn quickly about new industries, their systems and processes. During her first couple years at Uplift, Bhatia spent a lot of time tagging along with the company’s school leaders as they observed teacher performance. She wanted to learn for herself what great instruction looks like.

“Now I can walk into a classroom and give 80 percent of the feedback that one of our principals would give,” Bhatia says. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve gotten is when someone doesn’t know my background and they ask me ‘What did you teach, Yasmin?’”

I confess to her that I’m a bit of a charter school skeptic. After all, if schools like Uplift’s can receive public money and attain better results just by operating without the same bureaucratic inertia as public school districts, shouldn’t we focus government resources on fixing the ailing ISD campuses, instead of funneling money to private entities?

“Our viewpoint is why can’t you do both?” Bhatia says, sensibly enough. “We’re dealing with children’s lives here. So if it’s going to take even five years to move that needle, is it appropriate then to ask those children, for five years, please just stay in a school that’s underperforming until we turn it around?”

So the hope is that the Dallas ISD schools are spurred to improve themselves because of competition from charters like Uplift, which draw money away from the ISDs? That’s essentially correct, except that Bhatia likes to put it a little differently.

“I realize in other cities they use the word ‘competition,’ and I think that’s the wrong word to use,” she says. “I think it’s hard to have real collaboration and get an ISD to adopt some of a charter school’s practices when we use a word like ‘competition,’ because it creates this adversarial perception. So I’d rather say ‘choice.’ I think when families have choice, then they’re educated consumers, and they’re able to make a good decision. And that alone kind of provides the same thing that competition does.”

Competition, choice. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.