making moves

The big IDEA: Inside the fast-growing charter network you might not know yet

It’s been 20 years since teachers Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama founded an after-school program in Donna, Texas, a city of about 16,000 along the U.S.-Mexico border.

By 2000, Torkelson and Gama had turned the program into a charter school with a light bulb logo. They named it “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement.”

Now, it’s just known as IDEA, and is a network of 79 schools. Portable classrooms remain on that Donna campus, with “WHATEVER IT TAKES” and “CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP” on signs in the windows — reminders, educators said during a recent tour, of the network’s origins. But IDEA’s roots are now spreading even further beyond the dusty Texas terrain where it was founded.

The campus in Donna is the flagship of a network poised to become the second largest nonprofit charter network in the U.S. this year. IDEA already serves 45,000 students, mostly in the Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso areas, and it’s moving fast, starting 18 schools this fall alone. Four opened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the network’s first foray outside Texas.

IDEA is also planning schools for New Orleans and Tampa, Florida, and its leaders have had talks with state officials in New Mexico. It’s making deeper inroads into the Lone Star State, too, including competitive areas like Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. In four years, the network hopes to have 100,000 students in 173 schools.

But Torkelson told Chalkbeat his big-picture goal is even larger: in 10 years, IDEA wants to reach 250,000 students, putting it on par with some of the country’s largest school districts.

To get there, the network is looking at cities across the country where they think IDEA could succeed, including Cincinnati, Ohio. Sixty principals-in-training are already on staff, he said.

“The need piece is obviously easy — almost every urban area in the U.S. needs better schools,” Torkelson said. Now, they’re looking for outside support. “Our whole thing is, this is who we are. Let’s find people who like who we are.”

Big ambitions are nothing new for charter school networks. But this is an expansion worth watching, as IDEA tries to export the model it forged by teaching mostly Latino students near the border to very different communities — at a pace that few, if any, others are looking to match.

Nationally, that kind of growth is “more the exception,” said Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’s challenging enough to do it even if you’re just trying to open another school nearby or within the same state.”

That pace of growth raises lots of questions, he said: How will you fund the schools? Staff them all? Handle regulations in new states?

Some networks with “radical” growth plans have faltered, he noted, pointing to the Rocketship charter schools. But IDEA’s steady, deliberate growth to this point and the schools’ results for low-income students of color may put it on steadier footing, he said.

Indeed, IDEA has a track record of doing well with students who often struggle. Nearly 90 percent of IDEA’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and most are students of color living in historically Latino-dominant communities. A national study of charter networks found IDEA was among those that had a positive impact on student learning.

According to a recent analysis by the Dallas Morning News, 29 of 56 eligible IDEA campuses would have earned an A under Texas’s new A-F accountability system. That’s one of the highest rates of any school system in the state. (The state did not release campus grades this year; the News calculated those ratings using available data.) IDEA also says 58 percent of graduates earn a diploma in six years from a four-year college.

Who, exactly, those graduates are is a topic of contention, especially among leaders of local school districts. IDEA’s schools enroll students through a lottery, but some students with past criminal or disciplinary records can be excluded.

“We don’t have a choice as to who comes to our doors,” said René Gutiérrez, superintendent of the Edinburg school district, where IDEA has three campuses.

Once students arrive, a sizeable chunk also leave IDEA within four years — at one point, at least one-third of students did. The schools’ share of students with disabilities is low, too: 4.8 percent in 2016-17. Texas’ statewide rate was 8.8 percent that year, and the state’s rates have been low enough to spark a federal investigation. (Torkelson says the network’s teaching practices allow students to avoid being labeled; the network did not provide updated numbers on students who leave.)

The network leans into its “no excuses” motto — it’s even on their uniforms. Discipline is strict, school days are somewhat long, and students are required to apply to a college and get accepted to earn their high school diploma.

And as other no-excuses networks have tried to add more wiggle room to the “college for all” idea, IDEA has held firm. “If you don’t believe that every student should go to college, you don’t belong,” Ernesto Cantu, head of IDEA’s El Paso office, said earlier this year.

But IDEA has been able to avoid some of the criticism that has dogged other no-excuses schools because observers also say IDEA is unusually culturally competent. The schools’ suspension numbers are low, and the network’s teaching staff is 85 percent non-white. Counselors at the Donna campus said in the days after the 2016 presidential election, leaders spent time reassuring students and staff that the school would help them navigate any immigration policy changes and acknowledged the growing amount of racist rhetoric about Latinos that students were encountering.

As IDEA started serving more black students in schools north of the Rio Grande Valley, and after high-profile shootings in 2016 left both police officers and unarmed young black men dead, Gama and other school leaders lamented the deaths on Facebook using the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Some parents complained the posts were anti-police and even threatened to withdraw their kids in protest, according to Texas media reports. But IDEA reiterated its support, saying it sent an important message to their black students.

“This was a school I tried to recruit a decade ago to come into Louisiana when I was working in the state department of education there,” said Chris Meyer, now the CEO of the pro-school-choice organization New Schools for Baton Rouge, where IDEA serves a largely black student population and plans to open more schools. “They seem to know their DNA well.”

That sense of identity has already been tested as the network moved out of its base in the Valley.

When IDEA first expanded into Austin in 2011, the network took over a low-scoring campus in the local school district. Community activists mobilized, the backlash sent people to the polls, the school board’s membership changed, and the partnership offer was rescinded the following year. IDEA failed to build local relationships, Torkelson acknowledges.

“We should’ve known better,” he said. “It was naïve and it was foolish and we got clobbered.”

As IDEA’s initial foray into Austin was imploding, the charter won crucial support in San Antonio from David Robinson, the locally beloved NBA champion. He handed IDEA the keys to Carver Academy, a school he had helped create, and smoothed over relations in that community.

IDEA went on to open its own campus in Austin. It now has 10 schools there, and thanks to a $16 million boost from the Austin-based KLE Foundation, IDEA’s plans are to reach 26 schools in the Austin area by 2022, serving as many as 20,000 students.

Those experiences have led IDEA to its current playbook — one that more communities are likely to see up close in the years ahead.

The network’s leaders say they do a better job of finding trusted local advocates. Torkelson said the reason they are headed to Louisiana and Tampa Bay, Florida is because leaders have welcomed them. In Florida, Torkelson said State Rep. Michael Bileca — who pushed for that state’s new “Schools of Hope” program, which encourages charter schools to open near struggling district schools — reached out to IDEA several years ago.

Another factor: money. Last year, IDEA launched a fundraising campaign of $250 million to help fund its growth. It won $67 million from the federal government last year as well; a document it filed then indicates it had raised nearly $75 million from the state of Texas and a number of foundations. The organization’s goal has since been upped to $350 million.

That money allows IDEA to spend on facilities and teacher training before opening a campus and hire salaried administrators months and sometimes years in advance.

“It’s no coincidence I’m on the ground 18 months before the schools launch,” Ana Martinez, who is leading IDEA’s expansion into the Fort Worth area, told Education Post earlier this year.

Research has shown that high-performing charter schools can scale without losing their effectiveness by closely emulating the original schools’ practices. In that sense, IDEA appears to have well-laid plans.

“I have been hired to bake an IDEA cake,” Martinez said. “There are things that always go in the cake, whether I bake it in Baton Rouge or Fort Worth: the sugar, the eggs, the flour. I won’t negotiate the eggs, the flour and the sugar but I have autonomy for everything else.”

Still, scaling fast comes with risks. KIPP, which Torkelson has called a “close cousin,” remains the country’s biggest nonprofit network and is still expanding rapidly: its enrollment goal by 2020 represents doubling the number of students served in about five years, a KIPP spokesman said. But many other networks have decided against opening more than a couple of schools per year because of concerns about maintaining quality.

“KIPP is really one of the only successful networks doing what IDEA is doing on a larger scale,” Ziebarth said.

Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which is generally supportive of charters, said that rapidly growing systems can also start to face the same bureaucratic challenges that larger traditional public school districts do. There are also signs that it will be harder to mount this expansion now than it might have been a decade ago. National polls show that charters have become increasingly synonymous with the Republican political agenda, which is itself unpopular among the key places IDEA plans to go.

“The conversation around charter and private schools is more politicized than it used to be, and is a chief dynamic that has had an impact in urban areas, which tend to be more liberal and where charters are most active,” Lake said.

Many school districts are also beginning to really feel the pain of falling enrollment as networks like IDEA siphon anywhere from 5, 10, or even 20 percent of their students. That could provoke backlash against IDEA’s expansion, Lake said.

The network’s national plans beyond Louisiana remain a few years off. In the shorter term, though, IDEA’s biggest battles may happen in its own home state.

Already, if you drive from San Antonio to Austin, you’ll see a billboard alongside Interstate 35 touting IDEA’s new campus in Kyle, a growing town outside of Austin. And along the main highway into and out of the Valley, you’ll encounter a billboard by the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District touting its “A” ratings. That district has seen enrollment fall by several hundred students in the last five years.

“We each just go about own business, and we just focus on ourselves and, for me personally, on what I can do and what I can control,” said Gutiérrez, the Edinburg superintendent. “I think we try to better ourselves every year regardless if there are charter schools or not.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”