Members of the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education approved two new charter schools in the San Antonio area.
Members of the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education approved two new charter schools in the San Antonio area. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In recent years, San Antonio has been a battleground between charter school advocates looking to reform the education landscape and traditional school districts, which are losing students to charters. As some education advocates say San Antonio’s charter scene is already too crowded, two more hopefuls have applied for state approval, hoping to open new charter campuses in San Antonio in the coming years.

The Gathering Place and San Antonio Preparatory Charter School have cleared the most recent bar of a financial and governance review from the Texas Education Agency and will advance to interviews with the Commissioner of Education in May. The State Board of Education will also hold interviews in June before a final SBOE vote for approval. Only 8 statewide charter applicants remain in the process.

Last year, the state approved four new charters, including San Antonio’s Promesa Academy. The school, which plans to open on the city’s West Side, recently announced it would delay its launch until fall 2020 because of issues finding an appropriate facility in its desired location.

Some SBOE members and local traditional public school district advocates have questioned whether San Antonio, which is home to more than 75 open-enrollment charter campuses and 17 school districts, already has a sufficient number of schools.

IDEA Public Schools, the largest charter operator in San Antonio, currently has 22 campuses located at 11 hubs throughout the city, and plans to add another 17 campuses in the coming five years.

The Gathering Place and San Antonio Preparatory Charter School say they are filling a need for more quality school choices. The Gathering Place co-founder Ryan York points to San Antonio’s rapid growth when he describes the need for many more schools to be built.

“The city is obviously growing rapidly and projected to add more than a million [residents] over the next 20 years,” York said. “There are a lot more schools that need to be built in a short period of time, so there is no doubt that there is enough growth to support the addition of new schools.”

San Antonio Preparatory Charter School founder Stephanie Hall Powell plans to locate her campus within the boundaries of the Judson Independent School District in Northeast Bexar County, an area where fewer charter schools operate.

The Gathering Place

The Gathering Place founders York and Joanna Klekowicz hope to open one campus in the San Antonio area if approved by the state.

The founders estimate the campus would open with close to 400 students in kindergarten through second grade, eventually increasing enrollment to about 1,450 with kindergarten through eighth grade. The ultimate goal is to extend up to 12th grade, Klekowicz said.

Charter school operators can’t secure a facility until their charter is approved by the state. The founders hope to place their future campus somewhere in the Interstate 10 corridor near Fredericksburg Road. They project that there will be 17 other charter schools and 90 traditional school campuses within The Gathering Place’s rough attendance boundary where enrolled students likely will reside.

If approved, the school would focus on the arts and social-emotional learning.

York grew up as the child of musicians and worked as the executive director of a nonprofit that offered art classes to students in the Nashville area. He said he often hears families ask for more arts education and wants to make sure each student has access to it on a daily basis.

“We offered classes in break-dancing and [silk screen printing] and filmmaking, and kids would come in and say they didn’t have any art in school,” York said. “Suddenly, they can express themselves in languages and mediums that they didn’t have before.”

Students would begin their day with circle time, which would focus on developing social-emotional skills, Klekowicz added. The school staff would include full-time social workers and social-emotional counselors.

Klekowicz and York want just one campus because they want their school to be a lab for education innovation.

“Most large institutions have small research development branches,” York said. “We believe charter schools were designed to be innovative sources of development that can then be shared for collaboration with other districts. Our goal is to create one school of similar size to a typical kindergarten-through-12 continuum that can be used as an open book of learning.”

If approved, The Gathering Place plans to open in fall 2020.

San Antonio Preparatory Charter School

San Antonio Preparatory, or SA Prep, founder Hall Powell wants to meet what she perceives as a gap in quality education during the middle school years. To do this, Hall Powell has designed a school that would begin in fifth grade and extend through 12th grade with a maximum enrollment of close to 1,300 students.

The school model varies from a typical middle school in that students would remain with the same two teachers for all core subject areas. This would allow students to develop strong relationships with teachers and build community, Hall Powell said.

Hall Powell spent nine years in the U.S. Air Force and later worked at IDEA Public Schools as an assistant principal. She told the Rivard Report that Building Excellent Schools, a nationwide program that funds fellows who work to create new charter schools, recruited her to start a new charter in San Antonio.

“I’ve been in San Antonio since 2002 and was recruited by BES to found a school here because I already lived here,” Hall Powell said. “I’m not an outsider coming in.”

Ambika Dani, the founder of Promesa Academy, is also a BES fellow. She was subject to some critical questions about her association with BES because of the financial support the entity receives from the Walton Family Foundation. The Walton Family Foundation has been linked to the funding of the voucher movement.

Hall Powell said SA Prep’s board has yet to approve an agreement with BES outlining the role it would play should SA Prep receive state approval.

In the time Hall Powell has been working to design SA Prep, she said the school has hosted some community meetings, but has made the most progress in outreach by going to community hubs like Peter Piper Pizza or Walmart.

If approved, SA Prep would open in fall 2020.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.