Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Any San Antonian who looks at the schools atop U.S. News & World Report’s “Best High Schools” and The Washington Post’s "Most Challenging High Schools" lists will see two familiar names: IDEA Public Schools and BASIS. The two high-performing charter operators have highly ranked campuses on both lists, taking eight of the top 10 spots on The Washington Post list.
None of the charters' San Antonio campuses are eligible to be ranked yet, as they only go up to grades 9, 10 and 11. Leaders of both networks predict that in a few more years, the San Antonio campuses will top the charts as well, joining local all-stars such as Keystone School, Young Women’s Leadership Academy, International School of the Americas, and Communication Arts High School. Keystone is a private school, while the others are public magnet schools.
The U.S News & World Report rankings rely primarily on a school's pass rate for Advanced Placement tests and standardized test scores compared to other schools in their areas. The Washington Post rankings rely primarily on the percentage of the student body that takes the tests. Brian Yager, head of Keystone School, which is featured regularly on The Washington Post list, has publicly downplayed such rankings.
However, assuming that the number of students taking and passing AP tests indicates high expectations and a rigorous curriculum, the prominence of two charter operators at the top of both lists merits a closer look at how they got there.
IDEA Public Schools
Still relatively new to San Antonio, IDEA Public Schools has 10 college prep schools in the city; each begins with 6th grade. The longest-established campus, IDEA Carver was founded in 2012 and has been adding a grade each year since. It now has classes up to 10th grade, still not enough to be considered for the national rankings.
Once IDEA Carver and IDEA South Flores include all high school grade levels, IDEA San Antonio Executive Director Rolando Posada is confident they will perform as well as the schools in the Rio Grande Valley, where IDEA was formed. Posada taught in and eventually managed the Rio Grande Valley schools, and he sees the same rigor at the San Antonio campuses.
“We envisioned this six or seven years ago,” Posada said.
IDEA performed particularly well in The Washington Post rankings, largely because of their “AP for All” program at every campus, Posada said. The IDEA schools that participate in International Baccalaureate (IB), a globally-focused, comprehensive program known for its rigor begin that course in 11th grade. That famously challenging system does not perform as well in the formulaic rankings, Posada said, but it is no less rigorous. IDEA Donna, the flagship campus in the network, is an International Baccalaureate school and was the lowest ranked of the IDEA schools, though it still made the top 100. IDEA South Flores is currently planning to go the IB route.
The foundations that yield exceptional results are already in place at the San Antonio campuses, all of which are located in neighborhoods where traditional public school districts have struggled and most families cannot afford private school.
“Our approach to middle school rigor is the biggest reason for these results,” Posada said.
While some schools treat AP classes as simply the next level of advanced course offerings for upperclassmen, both IDEA and BASIS subscribe to the entire system designed by the College Board. Schools use student performance on the tests, which they begin to administer as early as 8th or 9th grade, to diagnose teaching areas that need strengthening in the middle school years.
Before that, Posada said, they are laying groundwork in “reading to learn” and work habits.
“We’re very foundational in kinder, first, and second,” Posada said.
He’s not afraid of the word “rigidity,” either. “Kids want structure,” he said. “We sweat the small stuff.”
It’s not uncommon to see IDEA school staff stop students in the hall and tell them to tuck in their shirts or ask them to change their non-uniform shoes. Parents often chafe a bit at the beginning, Posada said, as they often don’t realize that the leniency they may want regarding dress code, tardiness, and certain behaviors are the same things that will distract their kids from learning. If families can adjust to the expectations, Posada promises they will see great results.
The ultimate payoff is joy in learning. What starts as apathy moves toward compliance and learning.
“You keep moving the needle until you have true joy,” Posada said.
IDEA San Antonio’s Royal Readers event on May 16 was the culmination of that journey to joy, at least for the 2016-17 school year. The event celebrated IDEA elementary school students who read more than 1 million words since September. Some had read more than 5 million words. The celebration included photo booths, dance music, and snacks. A line of limousines waited outside to transport kids to and from their campuses.
Tom Torkelson, the founder and CEO of IDEA, said the AP program and celebrations like the Royal Readers have a common theme: focus. They require kids to apply themselves to digesting content. In an educational climate obsessed with teaching kids to collaborate and process data, there’s been a neglect of complex concepts that require concentration and reflection.
“Nobody has been obsessed with what we’re reading and writing and producing,” Torkelson said.
Students who take and pass 10-12 AP tests are demonstrating an ability to understand and explain information. Torkelson said he recently heard of a student who took 15 AP exams, passing them all. For him, results like these are the four-minute mile of academics. Now that we know it’s possible, more students will be able to do it, and there’s no reason those should not be IDEA students.
BASIS schools dominated the U.S. News & World Report rankings with its Arizona schools ranking No. 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7. In 2016, the average number of AP tests taken per student was 11.5 with an average score of 3.78 out of a maximum 5. The national average is 2.85.
Like IDEA, BASIS likes having an objective measure of its performance and uses the test scores as a diagnostic, “so we know when we’re doing it well, and when we need to work harder,” BASIS.ed CEO Peter Bezanson said. BASIS.ed is the charter management organization that operates the 21 schools in Arizona, Texas, and Washington D.C. There are also BASIS independent schools in California, New York, and Virginia, and one international school in China. They use AP curriculum throughout.
The AP program, because it was designed by the College Board, should also give graduates a stamp of approval when applying to colleges.
In a slight contrast to IDEA, Bezanson loves the AP program not only for the skills and standards, but for its specific content.
“We really love the fact that it is content-rich. It really pushes that there are things that kids need to know,” Bezanson said. For the most part, Bezanson agrees with the content the College Board has chosen.
The goal of the AP program at BASIS is to move beyond the tests into the more research-based classes, where students are not absorbing content as much as they are generating it. Senior capstone projects are based in discovery and investigation, Bezanson said. Students who start the program in 8th grade end by being able to enjoy the gratification of applied knowledge and research in their senior year.
“To be a really great AP program, you need to go all in,” Bezanson said.
Like IDEA, BASIS sets the bar high in middle school, focusing on rigor. Right now, the San Antonio schools, one in the Medical Center that opened in 2013 and the other on the city’s Northside now is in its 3rd year, go to grades 11 and 10, respectively. They have been performing exceptionally well compared to other BASIS schools as they have expanded, Bezanson said.
“I think we’re doing great in San Antonio,” he said. Next year BASIS plans to send all students grades 6-12 to a new campus in Castle Hills, while the other two campuses serve K-5.
Bezanson and Torkelson see their two programs, which have different student body demographics, as evidence that the AP program is a universal boon.
“Nationally, I’d like to form an AP alliance with IDEA,” Bezanson said.