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Health care professions are the focus of IDEA's first school attempting the diverse-by-design model. Pictured is a student practicing how to make sutures at a health careers expo in Colorado.

Health care professions are the focus of IDEA’s first school attempting the diverse-by-design model. Pictured is a student practicing how to make sutures at a health careers expo in Colorado.

Can a more diverse charter school help students feel at ease in college? IDEA takes first step toward finding out

When the fast-growing charter network IDEA asked the federal government for several million dollars two years ago, it explained that it wanted to do something different with one of its next schools.

The school would be located in Austin, near a few schools the network already operated but far from the Rio Grande Valley where IDEA Public Schools got its start. It would be a magnet school. And it would attempt to serve a mix of students that IDEA, which serves mostly students of color from low-income households, hadn’t yet enrolled.

“Put simply, graduates of IDEA’s traditional schools have had relatively little exposure to White and affluent students, and this is a cause of stress and discomfort for minority students as they adjust to college,” IDEA’s application said.

IDEA won that $15 million grant in 2017, one of 32 winners last year, and the school is set to open in 2019. And with officials holding a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, the network is inching toward putting its theories about how it can create a racially diverse school — and how that might benefit students — to the test.

“The time has come to create a school that reduces ethnic, racial, and economic isolation, and also opens up new opportunities for our students, especially in an industry such as health care where minorities are underrepresented,” said Cameron Cook, who will serve as the principal of IDEA Health Professions College Prep. “We have a commitment to dismantle racism and we are not shying away from that.”

Nationally, charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than traditional district schools, with higher concentrations of students of color. Defenders of the model are quick to point out that’s in part because charters were, in some cases, conceived as a way to better serve students of color and those living in poverty.

The demographics have prompted concerns, though, that charters end up exacerbating school segregation and that their students lose out on the benefits of racially integrated schools. The U.S. Department of Education grant was awarded in part because of IDEA’s plan to create a school that is “diverse by design.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who has written extensively on these types of charter schools, notes that “diverse by design” schools remain relatively rare — there are about 125 schools trying nationwide, by his count.

Charter schools “can draw on wide range of neighborhoods and bring kids together in that diverse environment that research suggests is good for everyone,” Kahlenberg said. “Unfortunately, most charter schools have not followed that, so what IDEA is trying is exciting.”

IDEA officials said in their application that their goal is for their enrollment to more closely resemble the demographic breakdown of Austin’s chief traditional public school district, with white students making up at least one-third of students and black students making up at least 10 percent.

Getting there may be complicated. In Austin, IDEA’s existing student population is about 94 percent Latino, only 4 percent black and 1 percent white, and 94 percent of its students come from low-income households.

Since charter schools can not legally select students based on their race, schools must make strategic decisions about where to recruit, where to open the school, and how to weight entries in its lottery for seats. Cook said IDEA is doing just that — they located the school in East Austin, in the middle of an area with higher white and black populations, and are aggressively recruiting in neighborhoods where they haven’t served students.

The school’s success will depend on several factors, including whether the network can successfully recruit students from a variety of socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. But its leaders hope that its medical focus will help, given the optimism about future health care job numbers.

The plan is to start young: While there are already health professions academies serving grades 6 through 12 in the state, IDEA’s Cook says its plan is to expose students to careers as early as kindergarten with a focus on emergency services, then move to veterinary medicine in first grade, and dentistry in second grade. The school plans to serve 480 students when it opens, and can grow to about 1,600 students.

Whether all of that will eventually translate into students who feel at ease in any college setting will be the ultimate question.

“It sounds like a promising model to marry the needs of trying to desegregate schools while also building a pipeline of medical professionals who will have more of an ability to adapt to what they’re going to face once leaving their homes,” Kahlenberg said.