IDEA schools moves forward on El Paso expansion



By Lindsey Anderson 

As seen in the El Paso Times

A fast-expanding Texas charter school network is taking concrete steps to open four schools in El Paso by 2018.

IDEA Public Schools, based in the Rio Grande Valley, is debating acquiring property in Far East El Paso and the Lower Valley to open schools on the sites. The network has also appointed an El Paso executive director to lead the move into West Texas.

IDEA announced the planned expansion in May, but put off publicizing any hires or likely sites for the El Paso campuses.

On Thursday, IDEA officials confirmed the charter school district is considering two campus sites in El Paso, but said they haven’t put any money down on them. Each of the two lots would house an elementary school, with prekindergarten through fifth grade, and an upper school with sixth through 12th grades, for a total of four schools on two campuses.

The Lower Valley parcel under consideration is on Rio Vista Road, east of Alameda Avenue, near Socorro High School, according to a legal notice requesting construction services that was published in El Paso Inc. The Far East property is on Edgemere Boulevard, east of Mager Drive.

The Far East Side is one of the fastest-growing parts of El Paso with new housing developments cropping up and families moving in. Many Socorro Independent School District schools in the area are overcapacity.

“It seems like there’d be great access where it would be fairly easy for parents to get to,” IDEA founder and CEO Tom Torkelson said of the two sites. “There’s a lot of homes in that area. It seems like it’s an area where there’s not many charter schools.”

Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars. They are free to attend, though students must apply and are selected via a lottery.

IDEA schools have been ranked among the best and most challenging public schools in the country by the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report.

The charter district is also known for a statistic: Acceptance to at least one four-year college or university is required to graduate high school, so 100 percent of IDEA’s graduating seniors have been accepted to college.

To oversee the El Paso expansion, IDEA has named Ernesto “Ernie” Cantu, 46, the El Paso executive director.

Cantu is currently IDEA’s senior vice president of schools. He has helped open three IDEA schools.

“I think he’ll be just such a great individual to get those schools off on the right foot and recruit a talented team of faculty,” Torkelson said.

Cantu said he will manage the opening of the schools; meet with community members to tell them about IDEA El Paso; and recruit teachers, administrators and students.

A top candidate for one of the principal positions is El Paso native Adrian Hernandez, Torkelson said. Hernandez began teaching at IDEA in 2010 and holds a master’s in education policy from Stanford University, Cantu said.

Hernandez is currently in IDEA’s principal in residence program, which trains top educators to lead schools.

Cantu said he will arrive in El Paso next year and hopes to set up office hours soon after, so anyone can ask him about the charter network.

The two planned campuses would begin with prekindergarten, kindergarten, first grade and sixth grade in 2018, then add a grade each year, Torkelson said.

Both campuses would cost about $11 million and be about 65,000 square feet with kitchens, cafeterias, gyms and playfields, according to the legal notice.

IDEA officials didn’t say whether they’re looking to buy or rent the two properties.

The charter district typically purchases land for schools but has also rented in the past, IDEA Chief Advancement Officer Sam Goessling said.

Both parcels fall within the Socorro ISD, though the Edgemere property is on SISD’s border with the Clint school district.

Local school superintendents acknowledged they’ll face increased competition as IDEA opens schools in El Paso and another charter district, Harmony Public Schools, adds more campuses in the city.

“It’s competition and we accept the competition,” Socorro ISD Superintendent José Espinoza said. “As a district, we’re not going to back down. Our district will continue to offer the best choice, whether it’s neighboring districts trying to take our students or charter districts trying to take our students.”

Some prominent El Paso leaders have expressed support for IDEA, helping bring the charter to the city. But the network’s expansion has garnered criticism from traditional public school educators.

Critics say charters rely on parents to seek out a different school for their student, which they say means charters inherently serve students who are likely to do well. Charters also often enroll a smaller percentage of special education students than traditional public schools do, and some charters can exclude students with discipline problems from admission under the Texas Education Code.

“If we get to a place where it’s apples to apples and they are outperforming my schools, then shame on me,” Ysleta school district Superintendent Xavier De La Torre said. “But if it’s two different compositions of students, then it begs the question is it really the programs in the school, the teacher preparation, or is it the result of strategic recruitment practices that appeal to a population of students who are already having success in our public schools?”

Proponents of charter schools say they offer additional choices for parents and students who may not succeed in traditional public schools.

De La Torre said he’s surprised with IDEA’s choice of locations, calling Socorro “a sound school district.”

“Maybe the attraction in the Socorro Independent School District may have more to do with the fact that that school district is still experiencing accelerated growth,” De La Torre said. “From a business perspective, that may make more sense for IDEA.”

El Paso school district Superintendent Cabrera said he supports his neighboring school districts, though he’s pleased IDEA won’t be direct competition within EPISD boundaries, considering the slew of other challenges the district has faced in recent years.

EPISD has struggled with declining student enrollment, losing an average of 1,000 students a year as families move to newer homes outside the district’s boundaries and the birth rate in the city center hasn't kept pace.

The district is also recovering from a past cheating scheme, which led to state takeover of the school district and federal fraud charges against several former top administrators. Many current charter schools are already located in this district's boundaries, and thousands of EPISD students attend them, Cabrera said.

“We’ve got a laser-like focus on getting those kids back into the El Paso school district,” he said.

Cabrera had initially expressed some willingness to collaborate with charters earlier this year, but later tempered that support. In September, El Paso ISD trustees passed a resolution vowing not to sell any unused district buildings to charters.

IDEA will begin recruiting students as early as April 2017, Torkelson said. IDEA typically partners with community groups to identify students who aren’t doing well in school, then educators visit those neighborhoods to recruit students, Torkelson said.

“We literally go door to door and we meet with parents,” he said.

Clint Superintendent Juan I. Martinez said he wasn’t concerned IDEA will lure students from his district. Martinez said most Clint graduates already attend college, so IDEA’s 100 percent college pledge likely won’t entice anyone away.

“There’s really no need for anyone else to promise something that our students can already obtain through our local schools,” he said.

IDEA has already begun recruiting teachers for its El Paso campuses, holding an information session earlier this year, Torkelson said.

The district will bring on a core group of teachers who will spend a year at an IDEA campus learning the ropes, he said. Not all teachers will have to go through the program, he said.

El Paso superintendents said they didn’t expect to lose teachers to IDEA, citing their districts' benefit packages and rising pay.

EPISD is focusing on employee compensation and satisfaction, now that a $668.7 million bond initiative has passed, Cabrera said.

EPISD has had one of the lowest starting salaries for teachers in the county in recent years.

“The board is really focused on salaries and competitiveness and hopefully making our school district as attractive as any other in the city,” Cabrera said. “I like our odds to compete against anybody.”

Martinez said voters’ recent approval of multi-million-dollar school bonds in several school districts is a testament to El Pasoans’ support for traditional public schools.

“Just the fact that El Paso ISD, Ysleta ISD, Clint ISD and the other ISDs have passed their bonds by very large margins of approval indicates that our community trusts and believes in public education, and have continued to support public education,” he said. “We do not need external competition because we compete among each other, even internally within our own schools, to be the very best in everything that we do.



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