Charter school network appears to be landing in New Mexico

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EL PASO – IDEA Edgemere Kindergartens walked quietly in single file down the hall, their uniforms embroidered with the school logo, left hand behind back, right finger to lips. Hush. On the wall above their heads there was a sign saying, “We’re doing whatever it takes.”

It was only the second day of school, but they were already learning the rigors of IDEA Public Schools, a Texas nonprofit that targets low-income Hispanic communities – and delivers academic results.

Its network of schools – now 79 and growing rapidly – consistently outperforms Texas public schools on standardized test scores in every subject and at every grade level. It boasts a 100% graduation rate and widely advertises the fact that each of its graduates is accepted into university.

“I think the first thing we do is believe in children,” said Ernesto Cantu, executive director of the El Paso office, where the network opened four schools in August. “If you don’t believe that every student should go to college, you are out of place (at IDEA).”

Now, building on this success, the charter network – founded 18 years ago in a southern Texas border town – is announcing aggressive plans to expand. Those plans include expanding to 173 kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools from Texas to Louisiana and Florida by 2022 – a goal of serving 100,000 students up from 45,504 today.

And he’s got his eyes on New Mexico.

No large national charter management organization operates in New Mexico. But while state law prohibits for-profit companies from running charter schools, it doesn’t stop a large nonprofit from entering the market, according to Lisa Grover, senior advocacy director at New Mexico State for the National Alliance for the Public based in Washington, DC Charter Schools.

FOLLOWING: Charter schools target at-risk students in New Mexico

IDEA administrators met with Chris Ruszkowski, the New Mexico secretary of education, in March and were given a “good” welcome, Cantu said. (The public education department did not respond to Searchlight’s many requests for comment.)

IDEA has already hired one of New Mexico’s top performing educators. As principal of Anthony Elementary School in the Gadsden Independent School District, Linda Perez improved test scores and helped make the school a Blue Ribbon winner in one of the poorest areas of the state.

She is now “Principal in Residence” at IDEA Edgemere, a training program that will prepare her to lead one of the network’s future new schools in El Paso next year. Its educational philosophy – marked by a “no excuses” approach and an early focus on college education – apparently dovetailed well with the charter mantra.

“Every child can and will succeed if given the opportunity,” IDEA proclaims on its website, a motto that contrasts sharply with New Mexico’s explicit lack of expectations for at-risk students. In opening statements last year in a lawsuit he recently lost, the Department of Public Education laid bare his belief that some children simply cannot learn.

“Students are not like empty containers that you take a pitcher and pour knowledge into,” said Stephen Hamilton, state attorney in Martinez v New Mexico, in May 2017. “Students who are economically successful disadvantaged, because of their situation, are not as receptive to education as other students and have difficulty learning, and they perform less well.

The IDEA model provides a highly structured, supportive academic environment to ensure that every student not only graduates, but is admitted to university as well. These supports include extended day programs to help children with homework, Saturday school, “rigorous pre-AP instruction” for middle school students, “AP for all” high school students, as well as academic and university counseling. .

To receive a degree, students must apply for and be accepted into a four-year college, according to the student handbook. It is a rule enshrined in the charter of IDEA public schools in Texas. To help them get there, IDEA sends its students across the country to visit colleges and universities. Last year, the network spent $ 3.9 million to achieve this goal.

Not all students come this far. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) does not report attrition rates for charter networks, but IDEA spokesperson Marco Carbajal said the “retention target” for students in the network is 90% . This could mean that up to 10 percent of students don’t come back year after year.

FOLLOWING: Las Cruces voters approve all four measures of GO bonds

The network – founded in Donna, Texas by Teach For America alumni Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama – has many boosters, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has supported it with several grants. It has also won multi-million dollar Race to the Top grants, a competitive federal program designed to “help pave the way for effective reforms and provide examples for states and local education agencies,” according to the US Department. education.

But it has also faced its fair share of criticism, including claims that its policies artificially inflate measures and ignore the potential effect of “eliminating” student attrition. The TEA gives the network a “B” in its academic grading system, which assesses student performance on standardized tests, college preparation and graduation rate.

“A typical charter management organization has policies in place that allow it to make claims, like ‘100 percent of our kids apply for college,’” said David Knight, associate director of the Center for Education Research and Policy Studies from the University of Texas. in El Paso.

“They can make that claim because it’s a requirement in IDEA schools that in order to graduate you apply to college,” he said. “Some call it charter school math.”

The role of student attrition in charter school graduation rates is a controversial issue. Researchers have asked, but not yet resolved, a fundamental question: Are certain groups of children inclined to quit certain charters?

Another criticism concerns the lasting academic gains behind such programs. IDEA is working to determine to what extent those earnings crumble when its students enter college.

IDEA graduates who attend Texas colleges and universities do not do as well as their public school peers, according to 2017 data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That year, some 37% of IDEA students who attended college in Texas ended up earning 2.0 or less in their first year – ranging from a “C” average to a failing grade – compared with a quarter of those who attended college in Texas. high school graduates in general.

Cantu said IDEA Public Schools recognized the problem and was analyzing its students’ performance in college. While holding hands ensures success in high school, it can backfire on the college environment where kids have to make their own way.

“We are looking at GPAs and are proactive in providing assistance on a voluntary basis,” Cantu said. “In college, it’s up to them to seek this support. “

FOLLOWING: PED: Las Cruces charter schools grades ranged from C to F in 2018

Like many of his students from poverty, Cantu grew up in a family of migrant farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley. He has worn many hats in the IDEA network, most notably as the principal of a school in his hometown of Las Milpas, a former colony on the border between Texas and Mexico.

The IDEA network currently serves a student body that is 93% Hispanic and 87% economically disadvantaged, according to the TEA. More than a third of its students are English language learners.

Between 2014 and 2016, the latest year for which data is available, charter students typically outperformed Texas students in state standardized test scores in almost all subjects and levels. During the same period, 100 percent of IDEA high school students graduated on time, according to TEA.

IDEA has been training seniors since 2007 and has enrolled over 4,000 students since then. It’s a drop in the bucket in Texas, which trains more than 300,000 students each year.

The program sometimes encountered strong local opposition as it moved to new areas.

Where IDEA Edgemere has opened in the far east of El Paso, new single-family homes are rising by the hundreds in the desert. The local independent school district of Socorro issued a bond of $ 448.5 million in 2017 to address this growth and pay for new schools and renovations for its 46,300 students.

When the district found out about IDEA’s plans, its administrators fought back fiercely.

Superintendent Jose Espinoza organized 3,000 teachers and volunteers to go door-to-door and display the district’s successes and programs. They knocked on some 10,000 doors, according to a spokesperson for SISD, touting the public school graduation rate of 91.5%; an extended school day for children struggling with academics; art, music and sports; and a school timetable all year round.

The effort had an impact on IDEA’s recruiting plans. The charter, which enrolls its students through a lottery, had filed around 3,000 applications in El Paso, but by the first week of school, it had missed its enrollment target of 1,068 by more than 100 children. .

“Socorro did a really good job against what we did,” Cantu said, ignoring the impact.

“When we go to an area,” he continued, “people like to say ‘You are stealing our money.’ First of all, the money does not belong to you, the local school district. The money does not belong to the public IDEA schools. The money belongs to the children.

IDEA public schools spend $ 9,883 per student, according to the TEA, which is about $ 380 more than public school districts in Texas on average. Compensation for teachers in IDEA schools starts at $ 47,500 and tops out at $ 67,000. By comparison, teacher salaries in Texas public schools start at $ 28,000 and peak at $ 45,510.

As the school was about to go out at IDEA Edgemere, parents waited with engines running at 100 degrees. Ariel Navarro, driving a bright blue van, said she was excited to enroll her 5-year-old son, Junior, at an IDEA school. She is from South Texas and knew IDEA’s reputation.

“What really stood out,” she said, “was the emphasis on college.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. Read more articles about Raising New Mexico on projects.searchlightnm.com/. Help Searchlight New Mexico continue to report the news that matters to you. Contribute to http://searchlightnm.com/support-investigative-reporting/.

Journalist Lauren Villagran can be reached at lauren@searchlightnm.com.

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