Great Hearts Charter Coming to San Antonio: Tuition-Free, Secular, Classical School

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Bekah S. McNeelHundreds gathered at Temple Beth-El this week to learn more about the next big thing to hit the San Antonio charter school scene: Great Hearts Academies. The wildfire success of the Phoenix-based school has given birth to Great Hearts Texas, which will open its first campus at Temple Beth-El in the Fall 2014.

From Temple Beth-El in the Monte Vista neighborhood, they intend to expand into a five campus system in each sector of the city.

Open enrollment for Great Hearts Monte Vista is Oct. 30- Dec. 6. Parents are encouraged to take advantage of the ground floor entry point. If the K-12 Phoenix system is any indicator, once this train leaves the station, it will be hard to catch. Seven thousand students are enrolled in the 17 Phoenix campuses and 11,000 are on the waiting list.

Hundreds gather at Temple Beth-El for the Great Hearts Texas informational meeting on Tuesday. Photo by Jamie Larson.

Hundreds gather at Temple Beth-El for the Great Hearts Texas informational meeting on Tuesday. Photo(s) by Jamie Larson Photography.

The expansion of Great Hearts America into Texas is due to the state’s favorable climate for “school choice.” A climate made even friendlier by the efforts of State Senator Dan Patrick and proponents of education reform, including Victoria Branton Rico of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation.

Peter Bezanson is Superintendent of Great Hearts Texas and Chief Growth Officer for Great Hearts America

Peter Bezanson is superintendent of Great Hearts Texas

Dr. Peter Bezanson, superintendent for Great Hearts Texas, thanked the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the San Antonio Area Foundation, and the George W. Brackenridge Foundation’s Choose to Succeed initiative to bring high performing charters to San Antonio. He singled out the efforts of Rico, the driving force of the foundation’s charter school support. Rico was in attendance at Temple Beth-El.

“If not for them, I’d be making this speech in North Texas right now,” Bezanson said.

Bezanson reiterated something that Rico and Patrick emphasized at a press conference in March in support of Texas Senate Bill 2.

Victoria Branton Rico of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation. File photo by Bekah McNeel.

Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Victoria Branton Rico of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation. File photo by Bekah McNeel.

“The Goal of Great Hearts is to restore a standard of excellence in American public education.” Bezanson said. “We’re not about a critique of public education.”

His statement echoed Rico’s comments back in March, when she celebrated advances in bringing charters to the state.

“A few years ago, this policy was a dead-end,” Rico said in March. She then credited the political turnaround to research efforts by MIT and Harvard showing the effectiveness of high performing charters. She and Patrick claimed that increased competition is good for public schools.

If this is true, then the level of competition brought about by Great Hearts could be revolutionary.

The success of the program in Phoenix is astounding. More so are the many stereotypes it seems to bypass. It’s a tuition-free, nonreligious, school with a curriculum built around the great classics in literature.

Great Hearts has had success reaching across demographics. According to Bezanson, 8-80% of the Phoenix students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch, depending on the campus. In San Antonio, a dual language marketing campaign made it clear from day one that this is not an enclave for the children from privileged families.

Courtesy of GreatHearts Texas.

Courtesy of Great Hearts Texas.

Great Hearts does require family support. It’s common for students to take home two hours of homework per night, often in subjects that don’t seem immediately relevant, like Latin. And Aristotle. Students need parental buy-in to reinforce the value of the rigorous curriculum.

For many families, classical education is the only selling point they need, and such was definitely the case for the crowd gathered at Temple Beth-El.

When I was in middle school, my own parents drove us from New Braunfels to San Marcos everyday so that we could attend a classical school until they found a suitable alternative. I know families who have moved to Fredericksburg and Midland for the same. Admittedly, these families tend to be conservative, Christian families, drawn to the classical emphasis on wisdom as well as academics. They are families who often believe that the hope for civilization lies in a fidelity to the Judeo-Christian ethos and Greco-Roman law. And clearly they are the kind of families with some sort of mobility.

What about that majority of families who have never heard of classical education?

Dave Williams, executive director of Great Hearts Academies in San Antonio, and Peter Crawford, the newly announced headmaster of Great Hearts Monte Vista, are prepared for the challenges of bringing the liberal arts to the inner city. In Phoenix, parent education has been crucial. They recognize that personal relationships are key to convincing parents to actively support such a rigorous curriculum.

Dave Williams, executive director of Great Hearts San Antonio speaks to the crowd gathered at Temple Beth-El. Photo by Jaime Larson.

Dave Williams, executive director of Great Hearts San Antonio, speaks to the crowd gathered at Temple Beth-El. Photo by Jaime Larson.

“A lot of times there’s a student…who falls in love with the school, and that flip happens,” Williams said.

The “flip” is when parents become advocates of their child’s education, and the role that the liberal arts play in their personal growth.

Many parents are ultimately won over by the conversations happening around their own homes. Thoughtful, curious students are usually really pleasant to be around. Great Hearts uses Socratic dialogue to encourage students to approach learning humbly, whether from books or from their community.

“They know how to have a deep, meaningful conversation with their peers,” said Williams.

Some might say that in a world of snarky Tweets and dysfunctional politics, that classically trained students provide a glimpse of bygone civility. Williams sees it as the future, the way forward for contemporary culture as “a model for a new civic discourse.”

Indeed, character formation is as key as intellectual growth in the Great Hearts model. For many, the school’s emphasis on the “soul” of the students, and the prevalence of words like “virtue,” “truth,” and other value-laden terminology, might raise questions about the religious affiliation of the school. The classical model maintains that the ends and goal of education revolve around wisdom and character, according to Williams, but such goals should not be limited to Christian communities.

Temple Beth-El at 211 Belknap Place.

Temple Beth-El at 211 Belknap Place.

Great Hearts Academies adheres to a strict diet when it comes to Core Knowledge and liberal arts curriculum.There is no doctrinal or political pedagogy. The schools apply the same literary criticism to the Iliad and to the Gospel of St. John, and instructors are discouraged from branching into personal beliefs, be they religious or political.

“From bell-to-bell its curriculum,” said Williams.

Crawford further explained the classical approach to training young minds using examples from kindergarten and high school.

Prospective Great Hearts students parents learn more about the Arizona-based school's curriculum. Photo by Jaime Larson.

Prospective Great Hearts students parents learn more about the Arizona-based school’s curriculum. Photo by Jaime Larson.

“We train students to be mathematical thinkers, not to be calculators,” said Crawford, referring to kindergarteners.

Math training starts with manipulatives so that children can see the reality of adding, subtracting, shapes, etc. It moves into visual representations of real things (pictures of sheep, fruit, or whatever is being calculated), and finally into abstract symbols like numbers. Students are not taught an exclusive method of calculation, but are encouraged to derive the method from their understanding of mathematical reality.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of the Great Hearts curriculum is in high school when students begin the Humane Letters instruction, which Crawford calls “the most elegant and powerful course of study I have ever encountered.”  Students read Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Marx and many others. Every single student at Great Hearts reads the classics.

“We only do one thing,” said Bezanson.


Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.


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7 thoughts on “Great Hearts Charter Coming to San Antonio: Tuition-Free, Secular, Classical School

  1. Thanks for another good article Bekah. I guess I just don’t understand how Charter schools work, but where does the budget come from if it is tuition free? Also, hopefully they can be encouraged to come over to the Eastside at some point, would be great for young families in the area!

  2. Can you comment on the NY Times article that came out this week regarding BASIS and Great Hearts? It seems that there is significant negative results in other communities that have these schools. It led me to Dr Heilig’s site, and he is very negative, but seems to have his facts straight, so it is not just trolling.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Diana,
      I did read this article

      I personally can’t comment yet (I hope others will!!!), but I can tell you to stay tuned, because I’m digging deeper into both sides of the debate, and the results of that digging will be here on the Rivard Report. It’s a complex issue, and in education, what I’ve learned more than anything is that “results” are very hard to measure, and rarely tell the whole story. Also, it’s good to ask lots of questions when you see sheets of data supporting one side or the other. We as a community need to make sure we’re all doing what you are doing: looking at things from all sides, and looking for the whole story.

  3. I’m from San Antonio, I’ve taught in Edgewood ISD and NISD at Jay for a total of five years, I have a family member attending KIPP in San Antonio (and I’ve been very involved in her education), and I’m telling you right now that you should pay more attention to what Dr. Vasquez-Heilig has to say. He’s the head of my masters program in educational policy and planning at UT-Austin and I took a history of educational policy course with him this past semester. He’s fair, intelligent, critical, a deeply experienced researcher, is well published, and is a legit expert who gets called in for senate/house meetings, education panels, etc. And he’s not necessarily anti-charter, he’s actually on the board for UT charter schools where his kids attend.

    However, Great Hearts and other specific charters are cherry picking wealthy kids, serving them only, while using our tax dollars to do so. They do this in wealthy neighborhoods or other places like in SAISD where pockets of wealth exist in the midst of impoverished neighborhoods so that their kids don’t have to go to school with poorer kids (who also happen to be almost entirely minority students). I’d also give a shout out to the head of the doctoral program, Dr. Angela Valenzuela, who’s also critical of charters like Great Hearts. But here’s a link to Dr. Vasquez-Heilig’s blog site with a list of articles that are tagged with Great Hearts mentions:

    • Schools and neighborhoods are already economically segregated- this isn’t the fault of a charter school.

      The reality is that wealthy people already have their choice of schools- they move to the school district they want, or pay for private schools.

      To me this is a great opportunity for lower and middle income students from families that value education to have a similar choice.

      Would it be nice if we all lived in mixed-income neighborhoods and went to mixed-income schools? Sure. But that’s not the reality.

      Do I wish those low income students had a better quality traditional public school in their own neighborhood? Of course.

      But if you are concerned with educational opportunities for low-income and minority students, it’s hard to argue that they will be best served by limiting their school options to the one public school determined by their zip code. Is that really in their best interest?

      • There is so much wrong with your reply, Alex. You assume that just because schools and neighborhoods are socioeconomically segregated that there’s nothing to be done about it. Or that schools in impoverished communities have to stay bad as if they ever even had an opportunity to try to better themselves over the long haul. And you also assume that with school choice, kids can go to whatever school they please.

        Here’s a few thing that you don’t know that peer-reviewed research, history, and current news reports show:

        1. Charter schools contribute to the segregation of schools
        2. Public schools have never been properly funded.
        3. School choice also means that schools get to choose students, whereas traditional public schools must take every student no matter what. Great Hearts is a prime example of cherry-picking.
        4. Charters often don’t have what they need to meet the needs of students with specific needs like children who need special education services or ELLs.
        5. On average, charters don’t do as well as traditional public schools when looking at aggregated data for both sides.
        6. Just like businesses in the regular free-market, charters (also a corporation) sit like a bell-curve in terms of quality. And the one’s on the lower end are also known to literally steal money from taxpayers and parents of the children they’re supposed to serve.

        This is just for starters. What’s funny is that you also suggested that there are families in poverty that value education. Do you not see anything wrong with your assumptions? Also, do you not know history? How folks in these communities have fought for a better education and are always routed somewhere in the fight? Or how the “lack of value” that you suggest is really a legacy of wealthier citizens not doing ANYTHING to fix the broken schools in their communities and therefore they saw that working manual labor provided more income for their families than kids trying to make it through schools?

        Why is that people want to talk about education policy and not read anything about the history of it? Alex, truth is you have a lot to learn on this issue. If you had read the history, you would know that corporate reform has been around for over a century and have always played a major influential role in the development of education policy. Moreover, charters like Great Hearts and BASIS actually take funds away from these communities. Charters in general do, actually. They often skim the cream of the crop, intentionally or not. When they take students out of these communities, they take the money that comes with them, too. And this is what you want to support?

        Traditional public schools educate the majority of the children in impoverished communities, not charters. And these charters aren’t known for having services for students with special needs readily available meaning they can’t last long in these charters before having to return to traditional public schools. And by that time, the extra federal money that these charters get for students in special education stays with them after a certain date. So when those students with great need return to the traditional public schools, they aren’t able to bring that money with them back to the traditional public schools. So the traditional public schools must education a larger population of students in special education with less money per capita to do it with, lowering their capacity to provide these students with a quality education.

        So let’s do some thinking here. If I take the best students from traditional public schools while leavening the more challenging populations of students in those schools, what would my scores look like versus the traditional public schools? What kind of funding do I get if I bring in the wealthier kids while leaving the poorer students in traditional public schools? The advantage is unfair and it works to cripple the traditional public school system. And this furthers the legacy of impoverished students and their families viewing education as an option that doesn’t do them any good in the long run. So if you really do wish that students in impoverished communities had a better quality education, then you would support the strengthening of these schools and be a lot more concerned about the growing number of charters, especially when ones like Great Hearts come into our city.

        Hard to argue against creating more options as opposed to trying to change education policy to make traditional public schools in impoverished communities better for students from families with low income? Hardly, Alex. I’m holding myself back here. I could do this all day because I am studying and have been working in education for the interest of underprivileged students.

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