“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.

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 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. 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.

Inga Cotton

Inga Cotton is a parent activist and blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms about school choice and local educational activities for families. She has two children. Read her blog at www.sachartermoms.com.

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