IDEA’s strat­egy: re­spect and high ex­pec­ta­tions

Char­ter school group is mov­ing into North Texas to serve low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods

The Dallas Morning News - - Points - By EL­IZ­A­BETH SOUDER El­iz­a­beth Souder is ed­i­tor of Points, as­sis­tant opin­ion ed­i­tor and a mem­ber of the Dal­las Morn­ing News ed­i­to­rial board.

As lead­ers in Texas and across the coun­try wring their hands about lift­ing the ed­u­ca­tional per­for­mance of low-in­come chil­dren to state stan­dards, the IDEA Pub­lic Schools group of char­ter schools has a de­cep­tively sim­ple and sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful so­lu­tion: Re­spect. Re­spect the stu­dents’ in­tel­lect and re­spect their needs.

The group op­er­ates char­ter schools in Austin, El Paso, the Val­ley, San An­to­nio and south­ern Lou­i­si­ana, and it plans to open schools in Fort Worth this year. The strat­egy is to build pub­lic char­ter schools in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods where tra­di­tional pub­lic schools are strug­gling — 89 per­cent of the group’s stu­dents come from low-in­come fam­i­lies. The re­sult has been higher test scores than the state pub­lic school aver­age, a B grade from the Texas Ed­u­ca­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and, ac­cord­ing to IDEA, a 100-per­cent col­lege ac­cep­tance rate for the past 12 years.

“The story out there is that, ‘Oh, these kids aren’t per­form­ing be­cause their par­ents don’t care, and the kids don’t care.’ No. Kids do the work that you put in front of them. Are you go­ing to put in front of them low-qual­ity, easy work, or are you go­ing to re­ally chal­lenge them?” IDEA co-founder Tom Torkel­son said at a re­cent meet­ing with The Dal­las Morn­ing News ed­i­to­rial board. “How do we do it? Re­ally high ex­pec­ta­tions for kids, the be­lief that they can do it, and when they’re not do­ing it, there’s just more sup­port we have to pro­vide so that they can get them­selves ready.”

He said: “If you look na­tion­ally, low-in­come stu­dents, ac­tu­ally, low-in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents, about 3 per­cent of the work they’re asked to do on a given day, week and year is on level. If you look at mid­dle-class kids, es­pe­cially mid­dle-class white kids, they spend just a hair un­der 50 per­cent of their time do­ing work that’s not on level.”

IDEA’s ap­proach is to open a school with a few grade lev­els and then add more grades each year. Each cam­pus ul­ti­mately has two schools: a high school and a lower school. IDEA cur­rently en­rolls 45,000 stu­dents in 79 schools, and it is ex­pand­ing quickly. By 2022, IDEA aims to op­er­ate 173 schools and en­roll 100,000 stu­dents.

That will even­tu­ally in­clude 10 new cam­puses in Tarrant County. The first Tarrant County school opens this year in the Las Ve­gas Trails neigh­bor­hood of Fort Worth. IDEA will add cam­puses as well in Hal­tom City and Ar­ling­ton.

Such growth re­quires hir­ing a lot of teach­ers and train­ing them. Torkel­son said the schools do not fo­cus on re­cruit­ing peo­ple with de­grees in ed­u­ca­tion, but they hire the smartest peo­ple he can find and train them to be great teach­ers. For many of the new hires, this in­volves train­ing for two years at an es­tab­lished cam­pus in the Val­ley or San An­to­nio — while earn­ing a salary. The school group says it pays com­pet­i­tive teacher salaries and per­for­mance bonuses.

“We don’t have any bias for peo­ple who are ed­u­ca­tion ma­jors,” Torkel­son said. “We feel like if we have some­body who knows their stuff, and they’re re­ally great at mo­ti­vat­ing, and they learn fast, we will turn them into, well, they’ll turn them­selves into a great teacher. We’re go­ing to help ac­cel­er­ate that process.

“And we’re di­verse. 85 per­cent of our teach­ing force is His­panic or AfricanAmer­i­can; 75 per­cent of our prin­ci­pals are also peo­ple of color. Over half of our board is peo­ple of color, half my stu­dents are peo­ple of color. I mean, we didn’t have some di­ver­sity strat­egy, but we started off in the Rio Grande Val­ley. We said, OK, we’re go­ing to find the best peo­ple in our com­mu­nity.

“Ev­ery time we open up in a com­mu­nity, we find the sharpest peo­ple in those com­mu­ni­ties, and the sharpest African Amer­i­cans in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity are more than good enough to be at IDEA. The sharpest Lati­nos in the Latino com­mu­nity. It’s this myth of peo­ple like, ‘How do you find all these peo­ple of color?’ I’m like, ‘Well, guess what? You tell them you want to hire them, and you re­cruit in those com­mu­ni­ties, and they want jobs, too.’

“I mean, it’s go­ing to take in­ten­tional work to get those com­mu­ni­ties back on par. I mean, they didn’t fall be­hind in one year. It was decades of bad poli­cies. So, is that good enough for us to just have solid teach­ers? These chil­dren very of­ten need the most ex­cep­tional teach­ers. Be­cause aver­age or slightly be­lowa­v­er­age teach­ers, they’re not go­ing to kick those kids onto a whole new track, and they of­ten­times need to be on a new track. Be­cause through no fault of their own or their par­ents, they’re years be­hind,” he said.

And that re­quires money. As a pub­lic char­ter school, IDEA gets money from the state and par­tic­i­pates in a num­ber of fed­eral pro­grams, but it doesn’t re­ceive lo­cal tax rev­enue like a tra­di­tional pub­lic school district. With­out tu­ition money, phil­an­thropic donors fill in the gap. The list of core donors in the group’s an­nual re­port in­cludes a num­ber of na­tional foun­da­tions and agen­cies, and also some lo­cal phil­an­thropic heavy­weights, in­clud­ing the Sid W. Richard­son Foun­da­tion, Rainwater Char­i­ta­ble Fund and the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion.

Torkel­son said low-in­come stu­dents need more of ev­ery­thing than the rest of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion in or­der to suc­ceed. And more money means the abil­ity to of­fer more help.

“They need bet­ter teach­ers, and they need more of them. They need a lit­tle bit more time in school. They need a lit­tle bit longer school year. About one in three of our stu­dents are English­language learn­ers.

“Kids who are re­ally far be­hind are also tak­ing an hour and a half of re­me­dial read­ing ev­ery day on top of all the on-level stuff. So, we don’t take them out of the on-level stuff. We just throw all the re­me­di­a­tion on top of it.

“We have the con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram for how English-lan­guage learn­ers learn English. We have a tran­si­tional model that gets kids flu­ent in English as quickly as pos­si­ble. Very, very, very con­tro­ver­sial, but I think dual lan­guage is great. I think there’s other ap­proaches that are great, but at scale, those are very, very chal­leng­ing to get right.

“When we have stu­dents who are in and out of schools, which of­ten hap­pens with low-in­come kids who have very high evic­tion rates, and they’re pop­ping around from school to school. And they’re go­ing from a dual-lan­guage strand into an ESL strand into an all-English. Oh, my gosh, it’s like is there any won­der that stu­dents who are learn­ing English aren’t do­ing well?”

That doesn’t mean Torkel­son op­poses other ap­proaches. In fact, he’s frus­trated by the po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion that pits char­ters against tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

“I don’t un­der­stand pit­ting ed­u­ca­tors against ed­u­ca­tors. We’re al­ready un­der at­tack and un­der fire,” he said. “We need to get on the same page, and we need to ad­vo­cate for the same thing that’s go­ing to help all of our com­mu­ni­ties of color and all of our low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties. I think we would have a lot more strength and power ver­sus al­low­ing our­selves to be pit­ted against each other.”

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