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.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”