Wave of New Charter Schools Enhance Inner City Living for Families

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“So, where are you from?”

I get that question a lot. The answer, “I moved to San Antonio twenty years ago,” doesn’t quite seem to satisfy.

One day I was asked that question while being quizzed by a well-dressed mom while my son and I attended another kids’ birthday party.

What I wanted to say was, “I’m from Monte Vista!”

But it’s more complicated than that.

Detail map of Monte Vista (shaded pink) and San Antonio. Google Maps image.

Detail map of Monte Vista (shaded pink) and San Antonio. Google Maps image.

Last year, my family and I moved from Monte Vista to Alamo Heights because I want my kids to go to good public schools. Soon, if all goes well, more high-performing charter schools will come to San Antonio, and other families in San Antonio’s historic neighborhoods won’t face the same tough decision that I made.

My parents moved us to San Antonio from Germany in 1990. We rented a house near Highway 281 and Loop 1604, but my parents quickly fell in love with Monte Vista and bought an old house to restore. We moved in as soon as I graduated from high school in Northeast ISD. I spent many hours scraping paint, sweeping up bugs, re-wiring switches and plugs, scrubbing grout, etc.—all those good “old house” jobs.

When I got married in 2005, my husband and I rented a limestone Tudor bungalow in Monte Vista. Charming, a great house for parties, and once we had kids we could take walks to the playground at Landa Library.

As my son was about to turn four, we started to look seriously at the schools. Private schools are mind-bogglingly expensive and socially exclusive. What about the public schools? The moms’ network said that then-superintendent Robert Durón was reaching out to his Monte Vista neighbors asking how to bring them back into the fold of San Antonio ISD. I heard there were changes afoot at Hawthorne Academy. But then I watched Duron’s reforms hit a brick wall when he resigned.

Meanwhile, my son was almost ready for kindergarten.

When a mother needs something for her child, no one should ever say, “Just wait.” Likewise, no one should judge a mother too harshly for the things she does for her children.

So, we bought a house in Alamo Heights. It has its benefits: we are still close to our favorite places on Broadway (the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, The San Antonio Zoo, The Pearl and the future location of the San Antonio Children’s Museum). There are lots of young children living nearby. My son’s kindergarten experience has been good so far.

But Monte Vista is special to me. It was my home base for more than 20 years. My parents are currently fixing up their second project house and my sister is renting the bungalow. We all have strong ties to Trinity University. We come back for the traditions, like the Fourth of July parade and picnic.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood has been hollowed out as families leave when their kids reach school age.

But there is more at stake here than just the fact that I miss Monte Vista. (First-world problems, I know.)

Thousands of families in San Antonio are trapped in neighborhoods with failing public schools and don’t have the means to move to ’09 or to Loop 1604. How will these parents help their children escape poverty without access to an excellent education?

The Choose to Succeed movement has a solution: bring more high performing charter schools to San Antonio. Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP): San Antonio and IDEA Public Schools are already here. More schools are interested in coming to San Antonio: Great Hearts Academies, BASIS Schools, Carpe Diem Schools, and Rocketship Education. The goal is to create spaces for 80,000 students at high-performing charter schools in San Antonio by 2026.

IDEA Public Schools' students participate in their small group instruction, a fundamental of IDEA's elementary academic model BetterIDEA. Photo courtesy of IDEA.

IDEA Public Schools’ students participate in their small group instruction, a fundamental of IDEA’s elementary academic model BetterIDEA. Photo courtesy of IDEA Carver.

Research shows [PDF] that most students who attend these schools pack in a lot more learning every year. They graduate ready for challenging careers and prepared to succeed in college. This program could more than double the number of college graduates produced from San Antonio every year. Altogether, these improvements could have a dramatic impact on San Antonio’s workforce and its ability to attract employers with high-paying skilled and professional jobs.

What are the necessary elements to make this happen? These charter schools need philanthropic support to cover their start-up costs; charter schools do not get as much money per student as traditional district schools. Also, the out-of-state schools need charters to operate in Texas. BASIS and Great Hearts applied this year and are waiting to hear from the State Board of Education on Nov. 16; Rocketship and Carpe Diem are likely to apply next year (the public meeting will be broadcast live at Texasadmin.com, view the agenda here). Finally, the movement needs community support from parents who want to enroll their children in these schools.

UPDATE: BASIS and Great Hearts charters approved by the full State Board of Education during their Nov. 16 meeting.

Learning about charter schools is a through-the-looking-glass experience. Unlike traditional public schools, district boundaries are irrelevant. Unlike private schools, there is no tuition. Unlike magnet schools, there are no entrance requirements—if too many students apply, the school will hold a lottery, as seen in the movie Waiting for Superman.Charter schools, like all public schools, welcome both typically-abled and special education students. Also, like all public schools, charter schools have no official religious affiliation or curriculum.

IDEA Public Schools' students participate in whole group instruction as part of their daily instruction.

IDEA Public Schools’ students participate in whole group instruction as part of their daily instruction. Photo courtesy of IDEA Carver.

Before moving, I researched charter schools in my area. Unfortunately, some charter schools do not deliver a good education for their students; those schools tend to lose students and eventually go out of business.  I had heard good reviews about KIPP. However, one of the ways KIPP helps its students get ahead is by offering extra hours of instruction in the afternoons, on weekends, and during the summer; I work part-time and so I would prefer a traditional school schedule. Also, I was confused about which charter school campuses were serving which grades.

As it turned out, by the time my son started kindergarten in Fall 2012, both KIPP: Un Mundo and IDEA Carver were offering kindergarten classes. Learning from my experience, now I try to help other parents learn more about their charter school options. It’s natural for parents to want to make good choices for their children.

What I like about charter schools is the diversity of learning models. For example, Great Hearts Academies offers a great books education: all students read the classics and engage in lively class discussions. BASIS provides radically accelerated learning for middle school through high school students. IDEA uses direct instruction in classrooms to help students master the material. Carpe Diem and Rocketship offer individualized instruction using online learning supervised by teachers. These are just some of the features and innovations offered by high-performing charter schools.

As a parent, I wanted to see it for myself. I recently went on a tour at IDEA Carver Academy and College Prep. As I walked up to the kindergarten classroom, I saw a college pennant over the door. In a small group, a teacher pointed at pictures on a chart and the kids spoke in unison, practicing the sounds of the words, putting them in a sentence, and speaking respectfully to their teacher.

Meanwhile, another teacher worked one-on-one with a student, going over each sound to make sure he had a solid grasp of the lesson and spoke up with confidence. In this classroom, there is less of a chance that a child fall through the cracks. Everyone is being evaluated every day to make sure the material is learned and mastered. There is a culture of learning: the school principal, Mackee Mason, is always asking students, “What book are you reading?”

So, where am I from? The real answer: it shouldn’t matter; I’m just someone who loves learning. I read all the time. I love taking my kids to museums. I care deeply about education and I want to expand the opportunity to get a great education to all families in San Antonio, no matter what color, no matter where they live. That is why I support Choose to Succeed.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

A visit from Superman: Harlem’s Geoffrey Canada Preaches Change to Fix San Antonio Schools. Were We Listening?

Low-Performing School Boards: Why Ed Garza Matters So Much

A Thoughtful Teacher Speaks Out (Education Equality and Charter Schools)

For more information about charter schools:

Choose to Succeed

Report: Institute of Education Sciences The Evaluation of  Charter School Impacts: Final Report [PDF]

Texas Education Agency

Study: Middle School Charters in Texas: An Examination of Student Characteristics and Achievement Levels of Entrants and Leavers (see also: KIPP’s response to the study)

Inga Munsinger Cotton is a mom, a lawyer, and a geek. She blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms, a resource for parents who want to learn more about charter schools and get involved in education reform locally. You can follow her writing on Facebook at SACharterMoms, on Twitter at @SACharterMoms, and on Pinterest at sachartermoms.

12 thoughts on “Wave of New Charter Schools Enhance Inner City Living for Families

  1. While it may not be exactly appropriate for your article, give SAISD some props for the IB program at Burbank High School. It might be an option for new families with teenagers in our neighborhoods.

  2. We are very pleased with Hawthorne and thankful to have that option. When my daughter started Kindergarten, we wanted to send her to Hawthorne but lived in Beacon Hill. We utilized an inner district transfer. A few of our friends did the same. One family lived in Monticello Park. This even further expands options for folks who live in SAISD. The option is available at Bonham as well. I am not sure of the availability but it is worth investigating. We are currently planning a new home in Tobin Hill as a result of the quality of education our family can expect at Hawthorne. This would apply to Monte Vista as well. With the physical improvements, via the recent Bond, to Hawthorne and Bonham, I think we will see more families take advantage of these options.

  3. It would be interesting to see an article (or articles) written on schools – both charter and public – in the San Antonio area that provides a view on the challenges faced by each school and the community that surrounds it.

  4. I am continually frustrated by what I see as parents looking for someone else to do what is an essential parental responsibility.

    Schooling is changing. The internet is freeing knowledge from the confines of the institution and making it freely available to all. It is moving from a provider based model to a consumer based model. Along the way all parents need to consider whether they can provide for more of their children’s education needs directly. Why should this crucial parental responsibility be offloaded?

    Education should not be something that someone else does; it is a lifelong process that parents need to lead on. Preparing our children to learn and instilling a love of learning will ultimately make a bigger difference to your children than moving into a better school district. Good students arise from bad schools and bad students graduate from good schools. The difference is the active role of the parents.

    With this in mind, any parent as concerned as the author is about her children’s education should seriously consider homeschooling. Curricula are readily available as are organizations to support and extend this effort. There is no better way to teach your children, and San Antonio is one of the best places in the country right now to do this.

  5. First, to Richard: Inga’s not relying on schools to supplant her parental responsibility, she’s asking them to do their job. Homeschooling is great when an economy can support families on one salary and both parents have the knowledge and skills to educate. For the rest of society, schools need to provide basic skills: reading, math, science, humanities and critical thinking. The independent school district system partitions the community to isolate valuable resources in select neighborhoods and creates needless, expensive administrative duplication across the city. Meanwhile, the state continues to reduce funding to public schools. America in general and Texas specifically are starving education to subsidize banking and oil. I agree – every parent should be an active participant in their children’s education. But the state, the community, the school systems need to reform and do their job.

  6. Update: The Committee on School Initiatives (including San Antonio’s Dr. Michael Soto and Ken Mercer) has voted to refer the Great Hearts and BASIS charter applications to the full State Board of Education, which meets on Friday.

  7. I found it amusing that the writer finds private schools “…mind-bogglingly expensive and socially exclusive” yet didn’t think the same of buying a house in Alamo Heights. Many would argue that purchasing a house in Alamo Heights is also mid-boggling expensive and well out of reach of many San Antonians which makes that socially exclusive as well. Before judging your local public school or public school options you should visit the school and talk to the parents there.

    • Ruth, I am opposed to ANY cost barrier to a good K-12 education, whether it’s buying a house in an expensive neighborhood, paying expensive private school tuition, or giving up one parent’s income (for homeschooling). These cost barriers cause poverty to persist across generations.

      Every family should have access to good public schools, for free, no matter where they live. The charter schools I’m talking about (KIPP, IDEA, Great Hearts, and BASIS) do not charge tuition. Also, they are open to all children in the San Antonio area (except KIPP, which serves the area inside Loop 410, excluding Alamo Heights ISD).

  8. I appreciate the information, as a resident of Monte Vista with children. We are oddballs here, I think, because we are way below the poverty line compared to most residents, but we had to get our kids out of the crime ridden neighborhood we were previously in. We have lived in MV a year now. The kids exclaimed for months how thrilled they were to live here, to be able to walk the dog and ride bikes in such a beautiful neighborhood and without fear. They LOVE it. We had to pinch pennies to move here (we rent and we are in a tiny place) but it has been completely worth it. They attend a charter school a mile away. Unfortunately we are dissatisfied with the school (they have been there for years), and are considering squeezing out even more money to rent something (most likely small and substandard) within the Alamo Heights school district so that they may attend AH schools. It’s a continual struggle and we really don’t want to move out of MV.

    We would homeschool in a heartbeat were it an option financially. However, we are both full time college students who also work, so private school is also not an option, and with one child gifted (and a teen, and bored to death with school) and another needing special ed services, it’s difficult to find a school environment that works for both kids. I am glad that there will be more charter options coming to this area, for us we will probably need to move before that actually happens though. Oh well.

  9. Inga,

    The year Great Hearts opened, Cotton Elementary School’s enrollment fell from about 450 students to 250 students. In 2012, 30% of the children at Cotton received free or reduced lunch and now 95% qualify. In other words, all the middle class, upper middle class, and rich kids vanished overnight. Its no coincidence that the mass exodus of nearly every single kid in Monte Vista who was not economically disadvantaged from Cotton Elementary occurred the year Great Hearts opened its doors. Now, Cotton Elementary is not doing nearly as well. In 2012, 81% of third graders at Cotton were proficient in the STAAR reading test and now only 68% are proficient. The school went from 4/5 passing to only 2/3rds in the blink of an eye.

    I get your frustration with crappy schools, but is economic segregation disguised as “charter schools” really the best answer?

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