Proof of charter schools’ growing prominence in the Texas education landscape could be seen in the guest list for a day-long tour of high performing charters in San Antonio. On Nov. 6, the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, a driving force in local school choice movements, hosted a tour of five high-performing charter schools for elected leaders and policy makers.
Participants boarded a bus and spent the day on the campuses of BASIS North Central, Carpe Diem Westwood, Great Hearts Northern Oaks, IDEA Walzem and KIPP San Antonio. They observed classrooms and heard from teachers and students on each campus.
For local families wishing they could have been on the bus, the local branch of Families Empowered will host a school connection fair Saturday, Nov. 14, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at KIPP San Antonio. Families Empowered is an nonprofit focusing on school choice. The event is free, and will give families the chance to survey diverse options lined up side by side.
Texas State Board of Education member Marisa Perez (D3) was among the tour group, along with state Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-119) and state Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-22). Other elected leaders sent policy advisors in their stead.
Mary Lynn Bunkley, education committee analyst for the Texas senate; Marion Wallace, education policy advisor to Lt. gov. Dan Patrick; and Erin Hodges, special assistant to Gov. Gregg Abbott were also in attendance. They were joined by school leaders from charter schools around the city who were taking notes on the success strategies at work around them on the campuses, all of which belong to rapidly-expanding state or national networks.
“It was so inspiring to see the energy those educators had,” Perez said.
At the first stop at BASIS North Central, Perez commented on the advanced conceptual conversation between a seventh-grader and her teacher regarding case law. The student discussed the forces at work in the justice system, and even pressed the teacher on the process of judicial review. It’s the kind of conversation you might expect in a college symposium setting, not a fact drilling and memorization exercise.
“It was a whole new level of engagement,” Perez said.
Passionate teachers generate about half of the energy in these inspiring classrooms. The other half comes from articulate, curious students.
When a tour group walked into a second grade classroom at Great Hearts Northern Oaks, a designated class greeter jumped up from her seat, ready to do her job. Her eyes widened as she looked down the row of dark suits and high heels. She then drew a quick breath and diligently shook each hand and welcomed all eight adults to the classroom, with unflinching eye contact.
Perez was equally impressed with her tour guide at KIPP San Antonio, an articulate senior who explained that even though she had been accepted by her first choice, Stanford University, she would likely be going to her second choice, Brown University, because they offered her more money. Currently KIPP is developing scholarship programs so that students like this can choose from any school that recognizes their hard work and potential, Perez reminded her that admission into Brown is no small achievement.
Meeting students and leaders like this convinced education advocates like Perez that charters are serving their students very well. The proof was in each engaged face and each happy parent. Her duty is to the children and families of Texas, and she sees them being served by traditional and charter schools alike.
“As long as charter schools are public, I’m obligated to support them,” Perez said.
It’s a duty she’s happy to oblige. She’s less concerned with charter vs. traditional schools, and more concerned with making sure that each student has access to the educational experience that will put them on the path to success.
“Unfortunately charter schools have become a partisan issue,” she said.
In many ways, Perez sees the tide of families surging into charter schools as a response to the “red tape” and administrative burdens placed on traditional schools. Perez recalls conversations with her friends who teach in traditional schools. Many of those teachers would love to teach like their colleagues in the high performing charters, but they are choked by federal, state, and local regulations.
When I’ve spoken to families about why they choose the high performing charter schools and they rarely have negative things to say about teachers, or even the neighborhood schools themselves. Families are put off by the layers of bureaucracy that they feel crowd instruction and dampen enthusiasm. In short, they are sick of high stakes testing.
Organizations like Families Empowered have gained traction as parents grow desperate for options to help their students who are wilting in traditional environments. Whether those students need creative engagement or just aren’t natural test-takers, their parents feel powerless to help as they watch their children lose educational traction. Even parents whose children who are not necessarily struggling find their way to schools like Great Hearts and BASIS. Those parents are often attracted to the high-achieving track record and rigor of the schools.
Perez, herself a product of SAISD, does not believe that charter schools can replace traditional schools, nor that they are the silver bullet of education reform. However, she can’t deny the good they are doing for the families they serve.
“I’m a fan of solid education for our kids,” she said.
Whether traditional schools should be able to function with the freedom of charters, or charters should have to adhere to the same regulations and admissions policies of traditional schools, or some solution in between, the solution is through legislation. If concerned individuals feel that regulations are favoring one system over the other, Perez encourages them to vote.
*Top image: A bus full of elected leaders and staff rolls up to Great Hearts Northern Oaks. Photo by Bekah McNeel.