IDEA Carver Academy students Kekoa Ablaza (left) and Dezstany Goss pose for a photo during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon. Photo by Scott Ball.
Kekoa Ablaza (left) and Dezstany Goss are IDEA Carver Academy students. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The prolific and high achieving charter network, IDEA Public Schools was named the top charter school network in the country on Monday. The $250,000 award given by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is considered one of the most prestigious recognitions available to charter schools. The announcement was made at the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville.

“We are proud to honor IDEA’s outstanding track record of preparing its students for college and beyond, and we hope that other public schools across the country can learn from their success,” stated Gregory McGinity, executive director of The Broad Foundation, in a news release.

In the 16 years since IDEA Public Schools was granted its charter, it has expanded throughout the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Austin. With 44 campuses, the network serves 24,000 pre-k-12 students of primarily Hispanic and low-income backgrounds, closely mirroring the communities in which the schools are located. Ten of the campuses are in San Antonio, serving 3,600 students.

Tom Torkelson, co-founder and CEO of IDEA, is an outspoken advocate for the potential of children to succeed, regardless of their economic background. In their time as Teach for America corps members in Donna, Texas, he and co-founder JoAnn Gama began to seek solutions to the college readiness gap their students experienced. The network’s motto “no excuses” reflects his attitude toward the perceived barriers and the role that educators can play in eliminating them.

Tom Torkelson introduces David Robinson during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon. Photo by Scott Ball.
IDEA Public Schools Co-Founder and CEO Tom Torkelson introduces David Robinson during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon in May 2015.  Photo by Scott Ball.

“This recognition is validation that when the adults in the system get it right, kids can do remarkable things,” Torkelson stated.

The seven-member review panel which selected the winner of the Broad Prize considered publicly available data from 30 of the country’s largest charter school networks. Considering student outcomes, college readiness indicators, scalability, size, and demographic data, the panel highlighted four distinctions in the IDEA network:

  • 99% of IDEA’s Hispanic and low-income students graduated on time in 2013-14.
  • Nearly every high school senior took the ACT.
  • 70% of IDEA’s high school students took an Advanced Placement (AP) exam in 2014-15.
  • For academic performance among Hispanic and low-income students, all of IDEA’s schools were in the top 30% of Texas schools in both proficient and advanced levels of elementary, middle and high school English Language Arts, math and science.

“IDEA is a shining example of how great charter schools are changing the course of children’s lives. It is incredible that for the past nine years, 100% of IDEA’s graduating seniors have been accepted to college,” stated Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

The award is given annually to the large public charter school system determined to have the best overall academic performance while closing achievement gaps and serving economically disadvantaged students and racial minority groups. Organizations cannot apply for the award nor be nominated.  To be eligible for the award, networks must meet the following criteria:

  • Five or more schools in operation as of 2013-2014,
  • 2,500 students or more enrolled each year since 2013-2014,
  • At least 40% of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch in 2013-2014, and
  • At least 33% of students are students of color in 2013-2014.

IDEA has long exceeded these requirements, and has been a finalist for the award three times. This year, other finalists included YES Prep Public Schools in Houston and Success Academy Charter Schools in New York. The $250,000 prize will be shared between the three networks, and must be used for college-readiness efforts.

Previous winners of The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools include Noble Network of Charter Schools in 2015, KIPP Schools in 2014, Uncommon Schools in 2013 and YES Prep Public Schools in 2012. Winners become eligible to win the award again after three years.
Victoria Rico, chair of the Brackenridge Foundation, which has played an integral part in bringing IDEA and other charter networks to San Antonio said that she considers it an honor to be part of the team that recruited IDEA, along with David Robinson and the Ewing Halsell Foundation.

“We knew they were the best of the best when they came to San Antonio,” Rico said, “I think we’re incredibly lucky to have them here.”

Top image: IDEA Carver Academy students Kekoa Ablaza (left) and Dezstany Goss pose for a photo during the IDEA Public Schools luncheon.  Photo by Scott Ball.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.