Students from Kipp Camino Academy touch an interactive public art piece by local artist Bill FitzGibbons. Photo by Scott Ball.

These days, it’s almost impossible to ignore the recent explosion of charters schools in San Antonio’s urban school districts. What was once the occasional mention of KIPP’s success – moving low-income students toward college – is now a constant stream of grand openings and new campuses.

What might surprise some parents, though, is how far the demand for these schools outweighs the supply.

Families Empowered, a nonprofit whose mission is to connect families to educational options, reports that 4,901 students are currently wait-listed at Great Hearts TX , KIPP San Antonio, and Harmony Public Schools (San Antonio campuses) charter networks. This does not include data for the prolific IDEA Public Schools network or other high-performing charters.

A map, produced by Families Empowered, indicates demand from all across the city, including North East Independent School District (NEISD), Northside ISD, and Alamo Heights ISD. The heaviest concentration, however, is on the near Westside in San Antonio ISD and Edgewood ISD.

A map of charter school waitlisted families in San Antonio. Courtesy of Families Empowered. Click here to download full size image. https://sanantonioreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/screen-shot-2016-04-28-at-6.31.06-am.png
A map of charter school waitlisted families in San Antonio. Courtesy of Families Empowered. Click here to download full size image.

For KIPP San Antonio’s 739 seats, the network received 4,646 applications. Great Hearts TX enrolled 1,277 of their 4,372 applicants, and Harmony in SA has so far enrolled 690 of the 2,698 applications they have received.

While KIPP expects their capacity to grow tremendously with the opening of KIPP Cevallos next school year, the sizable waitlist still reflects a strong trend toward “school choice” in San Antonio.

Mark Larson, founder and CEO of KIPP San Antonio, often explains that school choice has always existed a privilege of the wealthy. At the Regional Public Pre-K-12 Education Forum, Larson stressed this point as panelists discussed the future of education in San Antonio.

“Choice is not a new word (in education)” Larson said.

KIPP SA CEO Mark Larson speaks on the state of public education in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Michael Cirlos.
KIPP San Antonio CEO Mark Larson speaks on the state of public education in San Antonio during a recent panel discussion. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

While families who could afford it have long been enrolling their children in private schools or moving to neighborhoods with good schools, Larson said that this kind of privilege is out of sync with the evolution of democracy.

“We aren’t there anymore. We shouldn’t be there,” Larson said.

Critics of charter growth maintain that the schools are taking both state funding and a needed diversity from public schools. After decades of wealth-driven school choice, income diversity is virtually nonexistent in districts like SAISD, where the poverty rate hovers around 93%.  

Now some teachers and administrators feel they are losing another demographic: students with engaged parents. Whatever their motivation, if a parent is actively seeking better options for their child, then that child has a crucial advocate on the path to success. Removing hundreds of those families from a traditional public school classroom often leaves teachers without the parent partners they need. 

Others see the “coopitition” (cooperation and competition) as explained by Families Empowered founder and executive director Colleen Dippel, as a universal benefit, that will increase quality education in every classroom. If the city continues to support charter growth, Dippel sees a bright future for San Antonio students enrolled in charter, private, and traditional public school systems.

“There are other places engaging in growing the charter sector, and in those places outcomes for all kids have improved, “ Dippel said. “New Orleans, Washington DC, Memphis, and Indianapolis have engaged in similar efforts to increase the supply of high quality schools and high quality teachers, provide transparent data to parents, and support grass roots efforts to empower parents.”

Critics do question the efficacy of charter networks, most notably in New Orleans. However, their skepticism does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm generated by families who feel that charters have given them the best option for their students.

Families Empowered recently conducted a survey of waitlisted parents at KIPP San Antonio and Harmony in SA families and found that of the 624 responses they received, 351 cited academic performance as their reason for applying to a charter school. Other reasons included positive impressions of the charter campus or negative impressions of their current school campus. Some also sought to get away from bullying, or wanted a particular kind of curriculum offered at the charter school.

The charter waitlists include families across the city, at a variety of income levels.

Elected officials and staff observe a class at Great Hearts Northern Oaks. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Elected officials and staff observe a class at Great Hearts Northern Oaks. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Schools like Great Hearts and BASIS appeal strongly to parents seeking classical or intensely advanced curriculum, respectively. In districts with limited gifted/talented services or arts programming, charters have become increasingly popular, but alternative philosophies of education such as Montessori or classical education have never been the domain of public schools. Charters like Great Hearts and Montessori For All, which is looking to come to San Antonio for the 2017-18 school year, will likely draw heavily from private school families as well.

One finding from the Families Empowered survey speaks to the particular nuances of school choice. In one survey, which asked 578 individuals where they found information about schools they applied to, 275 replied that they learned about the school by word-of-mouth.

“It’s a very personal choice for parents,” said Rachael Dempsey, manager of marketing and communications for Families Empowered.

While families always have and probably always will seek trusted opinions of peers and loved ones, Families Empowered also wants to infuse new information into those networks, and encourage community-wide knowledge so that parents don’t feel like they are striking out on their own in exploring educational options.

“San Antonio is ahead of the curve on supporting parents.  Some of these other cities (New Orleans, Washington DC, etc.) neglected to support demand on the front end and are now realizing that parents want and need support,” Dippel said.

In addition to school choice fairs, where ISDs, charters, and private schools are all invited to participate, Families Empowered encourages families to apply to at least three schools in addition to their neighborhood school. They encourage parents to tour campuses and get a real feel for the environment before they are surprised in the first weeks of school. If a school is not a good fit, Families Empowered encourages parents not to wait too long before switching.

“Don’t waste a year in a school that’s not right for you,” Dempsey said.

For many parents, said Dempsey, the real empowerment comes from knowing that choices do exist, even for those who don’t have the money to move or pay full tuition at private schools.

However, as the waitlists prove, not every option will turn out to be immediately available. Dippel and other school choice advocates point to several things that can be done on the supply side to catch up with the demand that grows with parent engagement.

“I think that demand begets demand,” Dippel said. “There is a lot that can be done to support supply: equalize charter funding, ensure there is a strong funded strategy to improve teacher pipeline.”

For now, waitlists remind us that charter schools are not yet scaled to the point that they can supplant traditional schools. Independent school districts still serve the majority of students in the city, state, and nation. Families Empowered celebrates the moves that districts like SAISD and NEISD have made to increase choices for families in their district.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez has become an outspoken advocate of a multifaceted response to the challenges of inner-city education. Believing that there is no “silver bullet” to delivering high quality education to children in concentrated poverty, Martinez has invited charter networks to consider ways to work with SAISD, including property sharing.

“I’m about increasing options for our families,” Martinez said in a previous interview.

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Top Image: Students from KIPP Camino Academy touch an interactive public art piece by local artist Bill FitzGibbons. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories: 

SAISD ‘Testing the Waters’ on Conditional Free Rent for Charter Schools

Young Women’s Leadership Academy Earns Federal Blue Ribbon

Elected Officials and Families Explore Local Charter Schools

Por Vida: A Different Kind of Charter on the Southside

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

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