Texas Education Agency (TEA) Director of Charter School Administration Heather Mauzé questions members of the Promesa Academy board.
Heather Mauzé, the Texas Education Agency's director of charter school administration, questions Promesa Academy board members during the charter's application process. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Promesa Academy, a new elementary charter school, may join San Antonio’s growing menu of education options if approved by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and the State Board of Education.

The aspiring charter is working its way through the Texas Education Agency’s rigorous application process and will find out its fate on June 1.

At a time when school districts blame the growth of charters for siphoning enrollment from traditional public schools, a look at Promesa Academy’s application process shows that a high barrier of entry exists for new charters. In the last five years, less than 20 percent of applicants ultimately gained state approval.

This year, the state received 21 applications for new charter schools, including three applying to serve students in the San Antonio area. Of the 21, four applications advanced to the final step of the process, including Promesa Academy.

“To be [approved], a new charter has to stress innovation, hit a need in the community, and show it can be held accountable for student outcomes,” Promesa Academy Head of School Ambika Dani told the Rivard Report. “It is a hard process, but it should be a challenge to create a new education model.”

Promesa Academy Head of School Ambika Dani Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Promesa Academy’s application outlines the school’s intention to teach students in kindergarten through fifth grade in San Antonio’s 78207 zip code, an area that’s among the city’s poorest and that overlaps with San Antonio Independent School District’s attendance boundary on the city’s West Side.

The Application Process

In early December 2017, aspiring charter operators submitted extensive applications – some more than 100 pages long. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) then reviewed them for completion and eligibility. If applications cleared this barrier, they moved on to what is called the external review period.

Five non-TEA evaluators conducted the external review, assessing and scoring each application based on the proposed charter’s mission and vision, growth plans, assessments, public outreach, operations, and other categories.

Applicants had to clear an average minimum score of 85 percent in this phase of the process. Even though five reviewers evaluated each application, the TEA eliminated the highest and lowest score before averaging the remaining three.

Schools that didn’t clear this bar could appeal the decision. The remaining applicants advanced to an internal agency review for additional questions and then onto interviews. This year’s interviews took place on Monday and Tuesday.

Dani and members of her founding board interviewed in Austin on Monday with members of the TEA and State Board of Education (SBOE) member Ruben Cortez Jr. (D-Brownsville).

Promesa Academy’s Interview

Interviewers questioned the Promesa Academy team on different parts of its application, including plans for gifted and talented students, an average school-day schedule, professional development for teachers, and the school’s proposed name.

Cortez in particular zeroed in on whether there was a need for Promesa Academy in its proposed location. Dani and several board members mentioned in their opening remarks that Promesa Academy would aim to educate a “highly underserved community.”

“In fact, more of the campuses in [the 78207 zip code] met standard than didn’t meet standard. So why that region? Who attracted you there?” Cortez asked.

State Board of Education Secretary Ruben Cortez Jr. (D-Brownsville) questions Promesa Academy board member Franco Cruz. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Promesa board member Gail Ribalta, responded that the West Side is an “invisible part of San Antonio” that struggles with generational poverty.

The zip code where Promesa Academy’s facility will be located, 78207, can be characterized as a region with highly concentrated poverty: Just under half of residents 25 and older do not have a high school diploma, and the poverty rate approaches 41 percent.

Dani told the Rivard Report that when she first moved from Irving to San Antonio in May 2017, she sought to identify areas with a need for a new charter school. Her research showed that students in 78207 weren’t being adequately educated, she said.

There are nine SAISD elementary schools already in the area.

Cortez said that while Dani and her board members focused on the area being “underserved,” the majority of 78207 elementary schools received a passing grade from the TEA. However, the State has deemed four of the nine – Ogden, Rodriguez, King, and Storm elementary schools – as “improvement required.”

“It is not an easy decision to choose to open a new charter school given the political climate in San Antonio, but when you look very carefully at a map of our city and couple demographic data with academic data, there are pockets in our city that are struggling with need,” Dani said. “If you think about the access that families have in that zip code … [schools] are still not performing at the level they need to to really change the trajectory of students’ lives in that community.”

Other questions pertained to the unusual model Promesa Academy plans to implement. Teachers would be subject matter experts rather than teach all subjects to one grade level. The school would employ teachers who focus only on math and science, English-language arts and social studies, art, physical education, or Spanish.

Promesa board member Jared Sorenson called the proposed model “radical and unusual” because content specialization is not customary at the elementary level. He said it would benefit students because teachers would prepare fewer lessons and could focus more on catering the material to individual students.

The inquiries that produced the most heated discussion concerned Dani’s association with Building Excellent Schools, a national nonprofit that works with fellows each year to develop and create new charter schools in urban areas. Dani is one of BES’ 2017-18 fellows. Three of the four charter school applications that made it to the TEA’s interview process have a connection to BES.

BES is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which was started by Sam and Helen Walton, the founders of Walmart. At one point, the Walton Family Foundation was the biggest backer of BES, according to BES’ website. The Walton Family Foundation has also been linked to the funding of the voucher movement.

The foundation supports charter schools across the country through funding grants and has invested more than $386 million in more than 2,100 charter schools around the nation, according to its website.

At Monday’s interview, Cortez said the three applications with ties to BES, including Dani’s, that had advanced to interviews looked to him like an “outside foundation that is sponsored by the Walton family” coming into Texas education.

Dani said that other than helping with the governance structure of the board, BES has had little input on what Promesa Academy will look like.

Members of the  Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education meet with Promesa Academy officials in Austin. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“BES is definitely not a pulling-the-strings puppet master – it is absolutely a mentor relationship,” Promesa board member Molly Campbell said. “We have been very pleased with the mentorship BES has [given] to Ms. Dani. … We will be constantly assessing our [return on investment] on BES. … We certainly think that the relationship has been a positive and helpful one thus far.”

The next step in the process is for Morath to review the entire application process and make a recommendation to the SBOE on whether to approve the applicant. After Morath makes his recommendations on June 1, the SBOE can veto any application approved by him at its June 15 meeting.

If the school’s application is approved, Dani said, Promesa Academy will spend the next year working on the recruitment of students, securing a facility in the 78207 area, and hiring teachers and staff. The school would open in Fall 2019 with classes for kindergarten and first-grade students. Another grade would be added each subsequent year.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.