Local Philanthropy Ensures Thousands More Students for Charter Schools

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Sara Grossie, sixth grade math teacher at Ingram Mills College Prep, asks her students a question.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Sara Grossie, sixth grade math teacher at IDEA Ingram Mills College Prep, asks her students a question.

Two of San Antonio's largest charter networks are ambitiously planning for future growth, funded by major philanthropic contributions from local donors.

San Antonio operations of IDEA Public Schools and KIPP Texas have lofty goals for the coming years. Each plan to open a number of new schools to better serve what administrators describe as a growing waitlist of students. Combined, the two charter networks report serving close to 16,000 students with another 16,000 on the waitlist.

Administrators with KIPP and IDEA say the increasingly large demand necessitates further growth and more campuses, but funding can be a challenge, particularly for charter schools.

Classified as public schools by the state, charters have a different financial formula from traditional school districts. Unlike traditional districts, charters cannot receive funds from local tax revenue. They also are not eligible for the same levels of facility funding.

"We get less money on a per-pupil basis, so we have to make up that gap somehow and part of the way we make it up is by partnering with individuals and foundations and other institutions that want to support our mission," IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson said.

IDEA recently received a $1.5 million donation from Michael and Louise Burke, and KIPP Texas touted a $1 million donation from Harvey Najim. Without these funds, officials from the two networks say they wouldn't be able to pursue competitive growth plans to accommodate thousands on waitlists.

Harvey Najim gives a $1 million donation to KIPP Texas.

Emily Donaldson / Rivard Report

Harvey Najim gives a $1 million donation to KIPP Texas.

IDEA to implement lofty expansion plan

As the city's largest charter system, IDEA currently has 11 hubs, with two schools at each location, including an academy that serves students in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth, and a college prep school to serve sixth through 12th grade. Once fully built out, the combined campuses can educate close to 1,600 students.

Entering the 2018-19 school year, IDEA has an enrollment of close to 12,000 students. The charter network entered its second five-year growth plan at the start of the school year with the goal of opening an additional 17 schools in the next half decade. This could mean an additional 10,000 students.

The network's overarching plan to build schools has the end goal of locating an IDEA campus within 10-minutes of travel for every family in the San Antonio area, Torkelson said.

Most IDEA campuses are located in the south and central areas of the city, close to or inside Loop 410. The newest schools are marking out a new territory in the North and West sides of the city.

"When I look at the Northwest, I see it clamoring for IDEA schools," IDEA-San Antonio Executive Director Rolando Posada said. "I wouldn't call it my focus, but I'm looking at a map right now of all the IDEA schools and we are [already] populated through the East Side and South Side."

IDEA Ingram Hills is the newest campus to open, welcoming students for the first time this fall. Located near Leon Valley, Ingram Hills signifies one of the first two schools in IDEA's second growth plan.

The next to open in the plan will be IDEA Burke, announced after board members Michael and Louise Burke donated $1.5 million for the new school. It typically takes close to $22 million to construct a new campus, Torkelson said.

IDEA Burke is "barely in the architectural phase" and will take about 10 months to construct. The property the campus sits on, on San Antonio's Far West Side on Marbach Road just inside of Loop 1604, is slightly larger than the 10-12 acres IDEA typically uses for new sites. Posada said this will allow IDEA to look into other opportunities for the school, including in athletics or farming.

"[IDEA is] growing at an incredible pace but also performing at a very impressive level, as a testament to their recent [accountability] scores," Michael said. "We really applaud that and are happy to support their work."

Posada couldn't offer further details about the future IDEA schools beyond the IDEA Burke campus, but did hint at potential locations. He said IDEA was interested in locating a school near the Pearl so it could partner with the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio for a more specialized program.

IDEA's waitlist currently contains about 14,500 students, largely located on the West Side. The majority of applications are for kindergarten, third, and fourth grade, spokeswoman Jennifer Flores said.

With the rapid growth the charter network expects in the next five years, Posada said the schools must work together in a systematic fashion both in academics and in facilities. When one IDEA school opens up on the West Side of San Antonio, it will likely look very similar to one on the Southside or far Northside, Posada said.

The hallways of IDEA Ingram Hills are lined with ram symbols.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The hallways of IDEA Ingram Hills are lined with ram symbols.

As IDEA and other charters continue to expand, the organization likely will face continued scrutiny over public school students choosing to leave traditional school districts.

In the South San Antonio Independent School District, for example, enrollment has steadily decreased in recent years. Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said charters, in part, were to blame for the dearth of enrollees. Last year, two new IDEA schools opened in South San boundaries.

State funding is limited and based heavily on student attendance. As more students leave to attend charters, traditional districts are left with less money, and as illustrated by recent budgeting votes and tough financial decisions.

Posada said IDEA's expansion is positive for all in both traditional districts and at IDEA schools.

"I felt that if we put really awesome schools in areas that were traditionally underserved, this would actually, in fact, propel other superintendents in other districts to really up their game, to get serious about meeting the needs of all their kids," Posada said. "I see South San doing some new things with STEM – well it is no surprise that we put two schools there last year."

KIPP plans to deliver on heightened demand

KIPP Texas, too, is relying on support from generous San Antonio donors to continue growing its network.

Chief Growth Officer Mark Larson said the recent $1 million donation from Harvey Najim would allow KIPP to add to its current inventory of six schools in San Antonio. To date, Najim has donated $2.1 million to KIPP.

"[Najim] signed up for the long plan of us continuing to grow, add more schools, and serve more students to help them go to and through college," Larson said Monday. "We are in final, near final, discussions to make decisions and announcements. I'm not ready today."

KIPP's focus will continue to be on the urban core, where current campuses are clustered, in and around central San Antonio, Larson said. Increased demand has pushed KIPP to look at opening additional campuses.

KIPP currently has about 1,500 students on its waitlist, spread throughout grade levels and the central part of the city, spokeswoman Michele Brown told the Rivard Report.

KIPP San Antonio students reach high to bump fists with a member of the Texas Cavaliers. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Students in the KIPP charter network interact with their teacher.

"We know that while we can run a cost-efficient model, growth continues to cost, and continues to have expenses with it as we ramp up to be able to educate more kids," Larsen said. "Without local philanthropy, we just wouldn't be able to do it. We began this journey as 90 kids in fifth grade and we made it up through one middle school, but without the role of philanthropy, we wouldn't have gone beyond that."

When KIPP does announce a new campus, it is unlikely to exist for long in isolation. While planning growth, the charter network assesses potential areas for expansion by looking at neighborhood demand, the quality of nearby schools, and opportunities to open up a feeder pattern – KIPP wouldn't open a middle school without a plan in place to also open an elementary and high school, Larson said.

Najim is happy to help with the growth, saying he believes both KIPP and IDEA are doing a great job of addressing the educational needs in San Antonio.

"I fill a [funding] hole and my counterparts like Valero and others also fill a hole in the charter school area," Najim said.

5 thoughts on “Local Philanthropy Ensures Thousands More Students for Charter Schools

  1. “I felt that if we put really awesome schools in areas that were traditionally underserved, this would actually, in fact, propel other superintendents in other districts to really up their game, to get serious about meeting the needs of all their kids,” Posado said. “I see South San doing some new things with STEM – well it is no surprise that we put two schools there last year.” What an arrogant statement from IDEA-San Antonio Executive Director Rolando Posado! Let IDEA show those incompetent administrators and teachers how it is done! The reason the “needs of all their kids” is not met is not due to incompetent administrators or teachers but with the parents of those kids. Charters may do as well as public schools but that is because parents of charted school kids are obviously engaged in their kids education.

    The Texas legislature is creating a disaster allowing charter schools to exist. They obviously are not self-sustaining and absent a few philanthropist who want their names on a building, they cannot sustain themselves with adequate facilities or support programs. Once these facilities start to deteriorate, who will come to their rescue? I believe the charter program started, not as a means to benefit “underserved students” but to give a few politically connected business people an opportunity to make money.

    Emily, I am curious as to the financial picture of IDEA and KIPP. If charters are considered public schools you should be able to find out what everyone in the organizations make and how much money sits in reserve. I suspect a hidden agenda from politically connected business people who start charter schools but seeing the financial picture may eliminate that thought in my mind. Follow the old cliché and “follow the money.”

  2. As long as charter schools limit their services to families with middle class incomes, who can transport their children to and from schools and pack a healthy lunch daily for their kids, then charter schools are going to have more learning ready and support capable student populations. Since charter schools can release students with behavioral incidents and students with severe Special Educational needs they wil have a more easily manageable population.
    Public school are required by law to educate every child.
    Single working moms who ride the bus every day to and from work have their children educated in public schools. Parents without a high school education who may not be in a position to help their children with schoolwork or home work have their children in public schools. Parents of children on Medicare or federal food assistance programs have children in public school. Families with children who have serious learning and or physical, mental or emotional disabilities have their children in public schools.
    Working families and middle class families who have recieved a good public education and recognize the value of a strong well supported public education system have their children attend public schools.
    Public schools educate 85% of all students. They need our support . We can’t let charter schools continue to take and keep the high achieving students and claim marvelous results at the expense of the public school system.
    The Texas legislature cut public school funding by over 5 billion dollars about 7 or 8 years ago and never really replaced it. The lege has set aside 4 billion dollars to promote charter schools.
    This is part of the problem.

    • “We can’t let charter schools continue to take and keep the high achieving students and claim marvelous results at the expense of the public school system.”

      Yeah! Who gave charters the right to take the children against their will, sending them usually to a smaller campus, with inferior facilities? Why would we let them steal the high achieving students with engaged parents? Let’s force the kids to remain in the regular public system, so that the public system could show marvelous results as well.

      Give me a break. If the public system would stop whining about having to teach all children and actually try to meet the wants and needs of all of their students, most parents would never consider a charter school, one where the facilities are smaller, where transportation is not offered, where there may or may not be a cafeteria, etc. The fact that they do, and that in many cases their children like it there means that they were likely not properly served at the local school.

      Engaged parents and their children don’t usually hate their public school and in many cases would probably rather stay. However, the system doesn’t respond to those children doing relatively well, and districts tend to limit the number that can move to accelerated programs, such as a magnet school.

      At least that is what I hear from any families that have moved to a charter school.

  3. I am one of those working moms who can (barely) afford to drive my son to a charter school every morning. He is a third grader and just started going to a charter school this year. Having been educated in the public school system myself, I wrestled with the idea and evaluated the pros and cons for a long time. I have friends who work in education who remind me of the same argument re the fact that public schools have to teach everyone….and how it is difficult to maintain the same quality of education because they don’t have as “managable” a population. But having experienced public school, and I feel I must add that this school was brand new, with an amphitheater for the kids, and families who lived in and around our neighborhood (in other words everyone was pretty much like us), it was just not affording our son a challenge nor encouraging him to fall I love with learning. Even with my husband and I supporting him through homework and being involved, we felt he wasn’t learning at full capacity. We focused on my son’s “talking” problem even when his grades were excellent. The teacher seemed frustrated and sent notes daily about our son’s talking in 2nd grade class. We disciplined at home as the notes came and forced him to be less talkative, sharing techniques to help him redirect himself in class. At his new school, his grades continue to do well, but because they rely on a behavior/consequence system my son doesn’t have to bring a daily color system folder that forces us to focus on the fact that he was not “good” because he talked to his friend when they were supposed to be working. The class room also has two teachers and a set up in which all the students face forward, focusing on the teacher or board. In public school, his teachers from kinder through 2nd sat them in groups of four, facing each other. There was no other person in the room to help keep these kids focused and I feel that was one of my son’s issues. It was difficult for him to not engage with the kids in front of him. At his new school, this isn’t the case. He has been complemented for good behavior and good character and although the homework is more challenging and takes longer for my husband and I to help with that in the evenings, we are willing to put in the effort. We understand the value of education and the fact that you must commit to it, no matter how your day went. I know that not every parent has the same outlook or puts in the same effort for reasons beyond their own control, and the children of those parents still deserve to be educated and supported in our public schools, but I feel that if public schools want to drive out the need for charter programs, the Texas Board of Education needs to implement significant changes so that the appropriate attention is given to those students who have learning disabilities challenges and those students can thrive in a high quality education system alongside other kids who don’t. It isn’t a matter of narrowing options for parents like me, who are trying so hard to help their kids get a good education. It is a matter of improving the public school system. If we had felt that the public school my son was going to, which is four minutes from my home and would otherwise have been perfect for us, was invested in my son’s future as much as we were and both the teachers and the system were one that caters to the needs of every child, I would have supported it and stuck with it. But with my experience there combined with the news that the TEB just voted to erase Hillary Clinton from history books, I feel so lucky that my kiddo was able to get in to the charter school. And while I still have to pay taxes that benefit the public school around the corner, I am going to find the money in my budget to also contribute financially to the charter school. What they are doing there for kids is a good thing.

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