Sara Grossie, sixth grade math teacher at Ingram Mills College Prep, asks her students a question.
Sara Grossie, sixth grade math teacher at IDEA Ingram Mills College Prep, asks her students a question. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

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.
Harvey Najim gives a $1 million donation to KIPP Texas. Credit: Emily Donaldson / Rivard Report

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.
The hallways of IDEA Ingram Hills are lined with ram symbols. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

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.

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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.
Students in the KIPP charter network interact with their teacher. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“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.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.