If there were any lingering doubts about the growing strength of charter schools in our state, KIPP Texas' move to consolidate its individual networks into one school district should dispel them.

By merging networks in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and Austin, KIPP becomes one of the largest charter school networks in Texas, with over 25,000 students in 50 schools this past academic year.

It's clear that charters aren't going away. And though this newspaper supports traditional public schools as a pillar of this country's foundation, we also support effective organizations like KIPP that give parents choices for their kids.

There's no question charters, which started in Texas in 1995 as an experiment to foster public-school innovation, have become the first-choice option for a growing number of parents. IDEA Public Schools and International Leadership of Texas are among those recently expanding their North Texas networks. 

The Texas Education Agency reports there are more than 700 charter schools across the state. Advocates say over 130,000 Texas children are on charter waiting lists.

Successful charters and traditional schools can and should co-exist. We've supported expansion efforts of Uplift Education in southwest Dallas. And we've pushed for districts to collaborate more with charters by sharing facilities, as Grand Prairie is doing with great success.

A graduate adorned his mortarboard with a message to his mother during a commencement ceremony for Uplift Peak Preparatory graduates at Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas on May 25, 2018. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

A graduate adorned his mortarboard with a message to his mother during a commencement ceremony for Uplift Peak Preparatory graduates at Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas on May 25, 2018.  (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

That makes it critical for Texas public schools, which the vast majority of children attend, to figure out ways to offer more choices to keep their students — and the state funding that comes with them. It's the reason districts like Dallas ISD have smartly invested so heavily in innovative programs such as collegiate academies and single-gender schools that are moving the needle on achievement.

Last year, 34,632 students lived in DISD attendance zones but attended charter schools.

We realize losing students is particularly tough for DISD because a combination of rising property taxes and declining enrollment means it will have to send millions back to the state next year through "recapture."

But it falls to legislators to do more to help districts like DISD — which must relinquish tax dollars even though 90 percent of its students are poor — by finally fixing Texas' convoluted funding system. They've left districts to fend for themselves, which is why so much rides on DISD trustees' decision on whether to call a vote to raise taxes to keep successful programs alive.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is right to place a priority on beefing up his own offerings to  hold on to students. But he told our editorial board this week that there's so much political animosity over charters that he's reluctant to collaborate with them, even though the state gives financial incentives for working together.

That's too bad. 

Parents, of course, need to do their homework to find the best-quality schools for their kids. Not all charters are good. But it's time for charters and traditional schools to end their long-standing fight and learn from each other. 

There's room for both. 



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Updated July 11


By: Bekah McNeel

KIPP Public Charter Schools, one of the country’s most established and prolific charter networks, has embarked on a new phase in its institutional growth.

On Wednesday, the four regional KIPP networks in Texas announced their merger to form KIPP Texas Public Schools, a single statewide nonprofit that will serve 27,700 students — 25 percent of KIPP’s national student population — across 52 campuses in Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.

The statewide network will be led by CEO Sehba Ali, former superintendent of KIPP Houston. She anticipates new opportunities for growth and innovation but said that major initiatives weren’t necessarily imminent.

While “we can’t do everything at once,” Ali said, aligning curriculum, professional development, and teaching practice is a top priority.

The idea came up over dinner 18 months ago, Ali said, when the regional CEOs were discussing how economies of scale benefit large school districts. They also noted the variety of success and innovation in each KIPP network. It became clear, she said, that each one had something to gain from joining forces.

“As an organization, we wanted the exact same thing for our kids,” Ali said.

In addition to administrative efficiency, every campus will gain access to stronger curriculum, teacher training, and professional development. Any money saved by streamlining administrative costs will be pumped back into campuses, KIPP spokesperson Ieesha Collins said.

As an example of improvements to come, Mark Larson, founder of KIPP San Antonio and now chief growth officer of KIPP Texas, said he anticipates enhanced offerings in English and math for students at KIPP San Antonio.

“In both of those there is a more robust and more rigorous approach to those than what KIPP San Antonio could provide on our own,” Larson said.

KIPP Through College, the advising and support program that helps KIPP graduates get to and through college, also stands to benefit greatly by consolidating into a statewide network, Larson said. Most Texas students stay in-state for college, so the centralized service will feel more consistent across high school and college.

Outside of inevitable logistical hiccups, Larson and Ali anticipate minimal hurdles as they streamline curriculum, professional development, and services like KIPP Through College. The culture and mission of the four regions are already congruent. Each region will have a superintendent with a long history in the network.

As KIPP Texas, Ali and Larson anticipate even more cohesion — and more growth. Each region has its own expansion plan, but more rural regions of the vast state are untouched by KIPP, with fewer charter schools in general.

“We certainly anticipated that in a few years. we’ll be able to consider new markets,” Ali said.

Growth, even in charter-friendly Texas, is a political battle. At the heart of the conflict is funding. In Texas, as well as most other states, public schools are stretching every dollar and constantly fighting for state and federal funds. Charters compete for the same funds and are lobbying for a larger share of the budget as they expand to serve more students.

Representing more students and more campuses, KIPP Texas will have a stronger presence in those discussions, said Collins, the Texas spokesperson.

Charter networks confront these tensions in different ways. Some networks have entered “third way” partnerships with school districts, sometimes coming under city and state governance to create a portfolio of options for families. Ali and Larson hope that KIPP Texas will represent another option for charter networks to grow, stabilize, and improve student outcomes.

KIPP networks serve a much higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than the state average. Low-income students typically take the ACT at lower rates than their middle- and high-income peers. They also tend to have lower scores, according to ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. However, KIPP students in the Austin, Houston, and San Antonio networks take ACTs at a rate far above the state average of 45 percent, with Houston and San Antonio closing in on 100 percent, and Austin at 89 percent. KIPP Dallas–Fort Worth does not have a high school. KIPP’s average ACT scores are just below the state’s, according to state education data.

When it comes to state testing, data show that KIPP San Antonio and KIPP Houston performed better than San Antonio ISD and Houston ISD in 2017, while KIPP Austin and KIPP Dallas–Fort Worth performed slightly worse than their district counterparts.

The goal of the merger, KIPP leaders explained, is to capture the best of a large system without getting bogged down in the type of district bureaucracy for which charters were meant to be an antidote.

Most of the change is happening at the top and will barely be noticed at the campus level, Ali said. Decisions that affect students directly will continue to be made by the leadership closest to them — principals. Campus autonomy is part of the KIPP philosophy, she said, and a crucial factor in the network’s success.

Ali and Larson are not concerned that the larger network will lose its grip on the Knowledge Is Power Program brand.

Although principals are empowered to make decisions, Ali and Larson have never seen one “go rogue.” Training and support, along with a shared language and culture, have a lot to do with the network’s growth across 20 states and the District of Columbia, he explained. While charter laws and political climate differ from state to state, KIPP’s philosophy is consistent.

“Once we have folks there, we move much, much faster, together,” Larson said.

Since the first KIPP campus opened in Houston in 1994, the network has always tried to keep an eye to the future, looking for ways to lead and improve the charter movement so that students reap the benefits, Larson said.

“This feels like a very natural and smooth next step in the evolution of who KIPP is here in Texas.”


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SAISD’s Martinez: Charter, Traditional Public Schools Should ‘Work Together’

June 20, 2018

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez presides over a district in which more than 20 charter schools operate.

Emily Donaldson

Despite rhetoric that increasingly pits traditional public schools against charters, most parents don’t care which form their children’s public education takes as long as they are learning, San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez told a national charter school conference Monday.

“Families want an environment where their children are going to thrive,” Martinez told an audience at the National Charter Schools Conference in Austin. “We get caught up in the philosophical debate.”

Martinez spoke alongside educators from Denver, Indianapolis, and Louisiana as part of a panel discussion hosted by Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that brings together education leaders throughout the country.

Martinez and the other panelists emphasized that the most successful education systems experience collaboration between charters and traditional schools.

In SAISD, this issue is particularly relevant – of the district’s 90-plus campuses, there are more than 20 in-district charters. Some were created by the district, while others came about through partnerships to turn around failing schools.

Martinez told the audience that for roughly 2,000 “option seats,” at schools that students can elect to attend, rather than be zoned by neighborhood to attend, there are 10,000 applications submitted from SAISD and out-of-district students.

In recent years, Texas legislators have made it easier for these charter partnerships to exist in school district where schools are failing. During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow districts to pause the state’s accountability system and give schools a two-year chance to improve through a partnership with an outside operator.

SAISD took advantage of this policy by forming partnerships with Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary and the Relay Graduate School of Education at Storm Elementary.

Related: Approved: Democracy Prep Will Take Over SAISD’s Stewart Elementary This Fall

Martinez said his requirement for any partnership is that charter operators must work with students already enrolled at the campuses at which they assume control.

“The priority will always be the neighborhood,” he said.

Panelists also addressed the rivalry traditional districts and charter schools often feel with one another. This year, tension has been especially high in San Antonio, where many school districts have pointed to growing charter enrollment as the reason for declining enrollment and tighter budgets.

Related: North East ISD Cuts Personnel, Utility Budgets to Trim $17.1M Deficit

In his home city, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he notices heightened competition in gentrifying areas where the number of school-aged children is declining. However, he said the competition can be positive when it causes schools to promote their offerings and appeal to parents.

Martinez said San Antonio schools should look past the competition to develop better educational practices. Charters present an opportunity to positively disrupt a school district’s traditional habits, and both entities should be able to share best practices, he said.

“How do we create disruption but at the same time be able to work together and learn from each other?” Martinez asked.

The SAISD Superintendent offered Ogden Elementary’s partnership with Relay Graduate School of Education as an example that the district could learn from and apply to other traditional campuses.

Related: SAISD’s Storm Elementary to Become In-District Charter in 2018-19

Relay uses Ogden as a teaching lab for its graduate school with a two-year residency program. Resident teachers learn from master teachers and earn a teaching certification within their first year. In the second year, teaching residents earn a master’s degree and become lead teachers.

The same model will be applied at Storm Elementary, Martinez said. Some veteran teachers at Ogden described the model as a massive culture shift that helped produce better results for students.

“It has never been a lack of work, but [Ogden teachers] were seeing results and you could see it in their faces,” he said, noting that he wants to replicate successful strategies regardless of their origin.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee stressed that having great choices is important, but without community engagement, none of it matters.

Ferebee said that many of his students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and when he speaks with families, many of them don’t know the options they have, or even how their student is performing.

“We only get true choice when everybody understands how to play the game,” Ferebee said. “Our effort is ensuring we engage those that are disenfranchised.”

Round Rock boasts best public high school in Texas and No. 6 in nation, U.S. News says

May 17, 2018

Source: Austin Business Journal

Meridian School, a charter school in Round Rock, is the best public high school in the state of Texas.

That's according to U.S. News & World Report, which on Tuesday night updated the closely followed ranking for 2018. Meridian also was ranked No. 6 overall in the country.

Austin Independent School District's Liberal Arts and Science Academy came in at No. 5 in the state. In all, 10 Austin-area high schools received gold medals from U.S. News, which denotes the 500 top-ranked high schools nationwide (see full list below).

Go here to read more about the U.S. News methodology.

Meridian School is a K-12, tuition-free charter school that is based on the International Baccalaureate curriculum; it has about 1,665 students, according to its website.

Public school quality can be a big driver of home-buying decisions which in turn affect residential and retail development. Go here to check out our latest list of Austin-area public high schools ranked by SAT scores.

Here are the 10 Austin-area schools that received gold from U.S. News, including their national ranking:

6. Meridian School, Round Rock (charter school)

16. Liberal Arts and Science Academy, Austin (Austin ISD)

23. Chaparral Star Academy, Austin (charter school)

53. KIPP Austin Collegiate, Austin (charter school)

117. Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, Austin (Austin ISD)

213. Westlake High School, Austin (Eanes ISD)

221. Westwood High School, Austin (Round Rock ISD)

339. Vandegrift High School, Austin (Leander ISD)

374. Harmony School of Excellence, Austin (charter school)

400. Harmony Science Academy North Austin, Pflugerville (charter school)

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May 14, 2018

Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Washington D.C. - U.S. News & World Report today released its annual rankings of the best public high schools in the country and again public charter schools are leading the way. Seven of the ranking’s top ten schools are charter schools. Retaining the three top spots are Arizona’s BASIS Scottsdale, followed by BASIS Chandler and BASIS Oro Valley. Although charter high schools are just 10% of the country’s 26,000 public high schools, they comprise 35% of the top 100 public schools, providing an excellent education to thousands of students in grades 9-12.

U.S. News’s Best High Schools rankings take into consideration data such as performance on state assessments, enrollment, graduation rates, diversity, the number of students who participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs, and Advanced Placement / International Baccalaureate participation and test results.

National Alliance President and CEO Nina Rees has released the following statement:

"In this midst of National Charter Schools Week, this new data further validates the tremendous work charter schools are doing on behalf of their students nationwide. We are excited to see so many charter schools recognized for their outstanding performance on critical metrics such as graduation and college readiness, and gratified that an ever-growing number of families have high-quality public school options that meet the unique needs of their children. We congratulate all of the schools recognized on the U.S. News Best High School rankings.”

Texas Has Ambitious Plans to Transform Urban Schools

April 13, 2018

Source:US News

Click image to read the article

In public education, the nation's fastest-improving cities have embraced both charter schools and charter-like "innovation" or "renaissance" schools: public schools with real autonomy (some run by nonprofit organizations), real accountability for performance (including closure if their students are falling too far behind), and a variety of learning models from which families can choose. Those rapidly improving cities include New Orleans, Washington, Denver, and Chicago.

Imagine the progress possible if a state decided to push its urban districts to emulate such models. Texas is doing just that, using carrots – including $120 million in grants and assistance over two years – and sticks to convince urban districts to embrace the new approach.

who want to move more towards 21st century school systems in a far more thoughtful way than any other state," says Chris Barbic, who ran Tennessee's Achievement School District for its first four years and now invests in state efforts to turn around struggling districts and schools through his position at the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

"What is most striking to me is how the Texas Education Agency has created a compelling district operating vision, then supported it by not only applying pressure through the ability to close low-performing schools and take over low-performing districts, but also by thoughtfully creating incentives through grant dollars and implementation support."

Perhaps the most ambitious carrot offered by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is called a "Transformation Zone." In a statewide competition, six urban districts have won planning grants to create such zones, which will have independent governing boards that oversee autonomous public schools. The zones can turn failing schools over to nonprofit organizations, including charter management organizations, create partnerships between such management organizations and failing schools, and create new schools, whether district- or charter-operated. Using seven percent of the state's federal Title 1 funding (for schools with a majority of low-income students), TEA will grant $1 million per school to these zones.

A second carrot comes from Senate Bill 1882, which creates incentives for district-charter partnerships. This is modeled to some degree on Indianapolis Public Schools' "innovation network schools," which are district schools in district buildings operated by nonprofit organizations. Some are charter schools and some are district-operated schools whose faculty have voted to convert to nonprofit status, because they want full operational autonomy. These 16 schools are the fastest improving in Indianapolis Public Schools' jurisdiction.

In Texas, where they are called "partnership schools," they will be operated by charters or other nonprofit organizations, such as universities, but overseen by the local school district. They will receive the per-pupil funding amount of a charter or a district school, whichever is higher, plus a two-year exemption from the state accountability system.

This is the stick that comes with the carrot: Under House Bill 1842, passed in 2015, if a school is labeled "improvement required" by the state's accountability system for five years, the state must close it or take over the entire district, appointing a new school board. By creating partnership schools, districts will get a two-year hiatus before such draconian sanctions are imposed.

Nonprofits selected as partners must have acceptable academic performance and financial ratings for the last three years. For them, partnering will bring access to district facilities and often better financial deals.

The Texas Education Agency will approve partnership applications with a process modeled on the charter authorization process. Districts must demonstrate that their proposed partnership schools have autonomy, independent boards, and real performance goals and measures.

Another carrot comes from House Bill 1842: designation by the TEA as a "district of innovation." These districts can use waivers to opt out of two-thirds of the Texas Education Code.

To win such designation, districts must develop, with community input, innovation plans approved by their school boards. Associate Education Commissioner Joe Siedlecki says that while 300 districts have become districts of innovation, "Only a handful have taken the most waivers possible."

Morath's first major step in encouraging districts to rethink the way they oversee schools was the Lone Star Governance program, which aims to teach board members to focus more on student outcome goals. A second was a System of Great Schools Network. TEA invited eight districts, as part of a two-year cohort, to implement strategies to "empower educators to design and lead high-quality schools, support families to access desired best-fit school options, and focus central offices on school support, innovation, and oversight" rather than just operating schools. Recently it added a second cohort of five more districts.

The agency matched each district with an experienced advisor who had firsthand experience with the transition to a decentralized system of choice. For example, San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) partnered with Paul Pastorek, who as Louisiana superintendent of education led New Orleans' transformation. Spring Branch partnered with Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, former Denver Public Schools' chief academic and innovation officer.