Dezstany Goss, a first grader attending IDEA Carver Academy, confidently walked up to the microphone at a packed Pearl Stable, and told the crowd, “I’m going to Yale.”
Her yellow bow tie swayed and bounced as she hopped down from the podium.
“High school graduating class of 2025 and college graduating class of 2029,” said Kekoa Ablaza, a second grader attending IDEA Carver. “I will attend Harvard University where I plan to study and be a geologist. Thank you, Mr. Robinson for bringing IDEAs to San Antonio.”
One after another, local IDEA Public School students lined the stage at the Pearl Stable to speak with confidence and articulation that belied their young age, and to give thanks to David Robinson, legendary San Antonio Spur, founder of the George W. Carver Academy in 2001, and a driving force behind bringing the tuition-free IDEA public charter model to the Eastside school in 2012.
The luncheon event was part fundraiser, part Robinson tribute, and part showcase of exactly what student success looks and sounds like. IDEA Carver Academy and College Preparatory was the first of 20 planned IDEA programs that will open in San Antonio by 2017 . The Rio Grande Valley-based charter operator is on track to complete the first 10 programs, including academies and college prep schools, by August.
Not every child thinks about what year they intend to graduate from high school, much less what top-tier university they aim to attend and earn a degree in four years. IDEA Public School children have those dates memorized – one of the first steps in creating a college-going culture in low-income communities where only 8.5% of Texan eighth graders go on to receive a college degree. It’s no accident that IDEA Public Schools are located in low-income neighborhoods. IDEA Eastside campus, set to open in August, will include an elementary and secondary/college prep school – as all four other campuses do.
“In other schools they just want you pass, while here (IDEA) they want you to grow up and be successful,” said Angelina Guzman before taking the stage. She’s a seventh-grader who lives on the Southside and has been attending IDEA South Flores for two years. Before that, she attended Wright Elementary School in the Harlandale Independent School District where she said she regularly came home with failing grades.
IDEA Public Schools claims that 100% of its students attend a four-year college or university. The odds, it seems, are in Guzman’s favor. She said she’s prepared for the hard work ahead because IDEA has challenged her with tough courses and lots of homework.
“The first day I did not have my math homework (completed),” she said on stage, “I was sent to the West Wing. West Wing is where you go if you do not do your homework. And just like in Washington D.C., the West Wing is open until all the work is done … I now spend about two hours working on my homework each night – sometimes more.”
Guzman is on the honor roll now and looking into different universities, but knows for sure she wants to find one with good pre-med and biology programs. She’s going to be a neurosurgeon. Again, she’s in seventh grade.
Robinson, a deeply religious man, was humble in his remarks about how the IDEA Carver Academy came to be. “I’m a teacher at heart. I see these kids and I want to open their eyes – I want them to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We went through and found a lot of charter groups that we loved. Any of them would have been a very good choice.”
Robinson recalled the day he went to Red McCombs with his idea of starting an inner-city school and to seek funding. The billionaire businessman and philanthropist listened to his friend and first-round Hall of Famer and then said, “I’ve seen more money wasted in education than just about anything else I’ve been involved in. I want to tell you in the strongest terms as I can: Don’t do it.”
“So I was discouraged,” Robinson said, who said he went home to think and pray on how to proceed. “But it’s what God has placed on my heart. I can’t do anything else. I have to do it.”
Robinson paid McCombs a second visit and explained the school wasn’t an idea, it was a calling. McCombs was the first person to write a check. From there, hundreds of individuals, foundations, state agencies, and organizations have piled on tens of millions of dollars of support, groups that include the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the Harvey Najim Foundation and millions from the Texas Department of Education, Charter School Growth Fund, and U.S. Department of Education.
IDEA Carver broke ground on its three-story, 50,000 sq. ft. college preparatory building to house 6-12th grades in October 2014. The first floor of the new building will include the new David Robinson Museum. Steve Harding, the designer of the David Robinson Museum, said the Museum will use the game of basketball and Robinson’s life story as a metaphor for making better life choices.
“Forty years ago, it really didn’t matter that much – the only thing a college degree meant was a better house and a higher income bracket.” said Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools. Today, it’s a “frightening” world without one.
“A college degree makes a big difference in the labor market – not just in terms of wealth – but if you have a job or don’t have a job,” he said.
IDEA is not trying to replace San Antonio Independent School district and the traditional public school system, Torkelson explained. People often think the charter school conversation is about the “old way” versus the “new way” of education.
“That’s not the case at all. This is about our children in San Antonio versus all the children in Texas who are applying for college, versus all the kids in America who are applying to college. Really, this is our children versus the world’s children,” he said. “We don’t have time to make this an issue about charters versus districts or public versus private … we have to make sure we have quality schools for our children.”
IDEA schools operate outside of independent school districts, but do receive state and federal funds and are held accountable through state testing requirements. Student enrollment is free, but transportation is not provided by IDEA schools.
One of the main challenges that IDEA faces for its expansion in San Antonio and Texas beyond its 36 schools in South Texas and Austin is recruiting high-quality teachers.
“We have to change the conversation so that bright college students looking at medical school, law school, engineering school, also put education on their list,” Torkelson said after the luncheon. “We’re not winning that war for talent right now … and we’re picky.”
The problem has always been compensation. Teachers make 14% less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
IDEA teachers, in general, are paid slightly more than public school teachers, Torkelson said. “But not enough to make a big difference … but on top of that, we do have a bonus system. We’re trying to put a little bit of private sector practice into how we compensate teachers so that our very, very best teachers are actually making more – regardless of the experience they have.”
What teachers will find at the schools are students motivated to succeed, inspired by the likes of the Admiral. He towered over the youngsters gathered at the Pearl for the Monday luncheon, yet watching him interact with the students, one sensed a very real connection that had nothing to do with size or age.