A few blocks south of new lofts sprouting up around the Bluestar Arts Complex, planted along the Phase 3 section of the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, a different kind of urban development project has made a home in the San Antonio.

Following the hourglass-shaped contours of long abandoned railway lines and funneling the Southern breeze through a shady, park-like inner corridor, the KIPP Cevallos Campus recently became the long-awaited residence for 1,900 students in three of KIPP San Antonio’s six schools.

In orange, yellow, and green color-coded buildings, KIPP Esperanza Dual Language Academy (elementary), KIPP Aspire Academy (middle school), and KIPP University Prep (high school) now constitute a full K-12 campus.

“This is really the first time for us that the quality of the facility is finally up to par with the quality of learning that’s happening inside of it,” KIPP San Antonio CEO Mark Larson told the Rivard Report. “… These kids have been working to earn this for so long, to prove what they can do, and finally this is a way for us to say to our kids and to the community that they’re worth something fantastic in our facilities as well. We just didn’t have the resources to do it before now.”

KIPP CEO Mark Larson describes the landscaping of KIPP Cevallos. Photo by Scott Ball.
KIPP CEO Mark Larson describes the landscaping of KIPP Cevallos. Photo by Scott Ball.

While the KIPP Cevallos Campus started its school year on Aug. 8, professional tennis player Andre Agassi and leaders from the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund will invite members of the community to a ribbon cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6.

Until now, KIPP’s rapid expansion – 500 new students per year – has sent them “hermit crabbing” from one abandoned facility to the next, Larson explained to approximately 40 architects, engineers, and developers touring the campus Thursday. For instance, KIPP Aspire, the charter’s oldest San Antonio school, which Larson started 14 years ago, has lived in five different adopted locations.

Founding Principle at Alamo Architects Irby Hightower. Photo by Scott Ball.
Founding Principle at Alamo Architects Irby Hightower. Photo by Scott Ball.

This is because charter schools cannot tap into state funds or tax bonds to finance facilities. According to architect Irby Hightower, accommodating this limitation meant creating a “super-efficient” building, since “every dollar not spent on the electric bill is a dollar that could go toward teaching.”

To achieve this, 76% of the campus’s 165,000 square footage is classroom space, while in a typical public school this figure ranges from 25%-40%, according to Hightower.

Hightower said the architectural team also determined that creating a cooling wind-current through the outdoor areas and lighting rooms with windows along the whole top half of out-facing classroom walls was the most cost-effective way to increase energy efficiency while enhancing the student experience.

This is in contrast to many urban schools, old and new, which often lack windows altogether and sometimes feel more like warehouses or prisons.

A part of one of the nation’s most prominent charter networks, KIPP San Antonio claims to recruit students door-to-door in the highest-need areas within Loop 410. Like most charters, students are generally enrolled through a lottery system, and educators and students are expected to live out a set of core beliefs that emphasize values like “love,” “joy,” “high expectations,” and doing “whatever it takes.”

KIPP San Antonio has had mixed success. Their website claims that “95% of KIPP Un Mundo Dual Language Academy students are reading on or above grade level,” while KIPP Aspire and KIPP Camino are “two of only three middle schools in the San Antonio area named Gold Ribbon Middle Schools by Children at Risk.” However, KIPP Aspire Academy and KIPP Un Mundo Dual Language Academy both failed to meet Texas accountability standards in the 2015-16 school year.

(Read More: Dozens of Bexar County Schools Fail Accountability Standards)

Nonetheless, in KIPP University Prep’s “Teacher Tank,” a resource room designed for teacher collaboration, teachers Ale Cantú and Trey Ambus raved about the new building and their experiences working for KIPP.

“It’s nice to have a home,” Ambus told the Rivard Report after the tour.

Beginning his teaching journey as a Teach For America corps member with KIPP University Prep, Ambus said he’s seen the school improve each year.

“They’re all about making this a place you want to stay in,” Ambus added.

Cantú, a Teach For America alumna with seven years of experience in education, hailed the work-life balance, professional support, and sense, contrary to her previous charter experience, that teachers and students “are being treated like human beings.”

“I’m in love with teaching here,” Cantú said. “I’m in love with our staff, and I’m in love with our admin, and I’m in love with our kids. This place just rocks.”

Student ambassadors also spoke proudly of their association with KIPP and being the first students to experience the campus. They listed their dream colleges, inspired by university tours sponsored by KIPP.

High School student Arlene Serna discusses the library work study room. Photo by Scott Ball.
High School student Arlene Serna discusses the library work study room. Photo by Scott Ball.

Sophomore Amanda Abeja, whose family has moved all over the city to keep up with KIPPs’ moving campuses, said she was jealous that her brother “got to start here when he was five” while she only “got to start here in fifth grade.”

“A lot of the kids when I started fifth grade, they started two or three reading levels behind, so a lot of the work the teachers had to do was catch us up,” she explained, pointing out that her brother didn’t face such jarring academic gaps.

Closing gaps quickly is especially challenging when funding is so limited, Larson said.

Wealthier districts like North East Independent School District (NEISD) and Northside Independent School District (NISD) are in an “arms race with each other about who can build the fancier” schools, Larson stated, with taxpayers incentivized to pay bonds to increase housing values near the school. Compared to the the $35 million spent to support 1,900 students on the KIPP Cevallos Campus, Larson claimed that NEISD and NISD spend about $60-70 million on a middle school serving 600 students.

Aiming to eventually serve 9,000 students in 15 schools, while supporting approximately 3,000 graduates through KIPP Through College’s counseling services, Larson said he’ll need to raise an additional $28 million dollars.

To Larson, this vision for growth represents more than providing opportunities to the city’s thousands of KIPP students.

“What we really want is not KIPP,” Larson said. “KIPP is a vehicle to help prove what is possible and to start to change expectations. But it’s not going to be the answer. It’s part of the answer.”

What they really want, he said, is to do whatever it takes to ensure every student who lives in San Antonio has access to a great school.

Strolling past saplings hardly taller than a high school sophomore, with the San Pedro Creek awaiting its revival across a freshly planted soccer field, one can begin to imagine we just might be moving in that direction.

KIPP CEO Mark Larson leads guests around KIPP Cevallos. Photo by Scott Ball.
KIPP CEO Mark Larson leads guests around KIPP Cevallos. Photo by Scott Ball.

Top image: Outdoor paths and green areas make up a large portion of KIPP Cevallos.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.