A Texas charter school network in Austin, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley can boast that 99.9% of its graduates have been accepted by a college or university. The number is almost double the statewide average, says Kenric Ward, reporting for Watchdog Texas Bureau.
Of the 541 IDEA charter graduates, 338 were the first members of their families to attend college. The network missed having a 100% rate because of two students who received military exemptions. These two students are expected to graduate in the spring.
The charter network serves 24,000 K-12 students at 44 schools and includes high schools that are ranked in the top 1% nationally by US News and World Report. Since its first school opened in 2000, IDEA has had a college completion rate five times the national average.
At this time, there are 30,000 students competing for the 7,000 slots by way of a lottery. But the publicly-funded, independently operated schools have to make things work with only $9,361 per pupil, while traditional public school students in Texas receive $13,147 on average.
Another factor that makes IDEA schools stand out is the fact that the schools work with their students after they leave the school.
“A number of our staff members have flown across the country with students to help them get situated at their universities,” said Phillip Garza, vice president of college success at the Weslaco-based IDEA. “Ultimately, the college success our students achieve is the result of the hard work of every teacher, bus driver, principal, counselor and parent.”
IDEA is presently the fastest-growing charter school network in the country. One 2015 graduate, Dylan H. Zuniga, is now attending the University of Pennsylvania. When he graduated he had taken and passed 11 Advanced Placement exams, was president of the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Club, a member of the Spanish National Honor Society, founder of a Model United Nations Club, and a representative of IDEA Quest twice in the UIL (University Interscholastic League) state competition for Literary Criticism.
“I can attest to the fact that IDEA opens students’ eyes to the limitless possibilities,” he said. “I owe much of where I am today to IDEA, which has prepared me for the academic rigor of the next four years. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine attending one of the best universities in the country.”
IDEA Public Schools has as its mantra “College for All Children” and backs up its motto with staff, programs, and a college-going culture that support its mission. Then the network of schools also has a College Support Model that provides students with services and guidance.
In 1998 Tom Torkelson and Joann Gama traveled to the Rio Grande Valley as members of Teach for America. This two year stint led to a 15 year journey, and now Gama is the president and superintendent of IDEA Public Schools while Tom Torkelson is CEO. After the school’s first year, the Donna district officials agreed that IDEA Academy had a remarkable success rate, but they did not support with the long school days, the large amount of homework, and the strict environment.
Torkelson said they would not compromise their students’ learning, however, and the school was ultimately approved. The first year classes were held in a vacated church which was leased by the school, while buses were purchased and materials were bought, all with no funding. Then and now, teachers are the backbone of the schools, says Torkelson, because they motivate, push, cajole, bribe, and arm twist to get the best out of students.
One of the founding parents of IDEA Public Schools says the education young people receive from IDEA “levels the playing field.”
IDEA is an acronym for “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement” and “No Excuses” is the schools’ battle cry. Torkelson adds that the organization’s best years are ahead of it.