WESLACO, Texas – IDEA Public Schools co-founder Tom Torkelson has resigned as the charter’s CEO and will be replaced by the other co-founder, JoAnn Gama.
Al Lopez, IDEA’s board chair made the announcement in a letter to IDEA team members on Friday.
“As chair of IDEA’s Board of Directors, I am writing after our meeting this evening to share the news that Tom Torkelson has resigned to embark on the next chapter of his career and that the Board has appointed JoAnn Gama, our current President & Superintendent, to be IDEA’s new Chief Executive Officer,” Lopez wrote.
“That IDEA is making its first leadership transition in 20 years is both a testament to the stability and success of this organization under Tom’s leadership and a reminder that different moments in an organization’s evolution call for different leaders.”
IDEA has grown from one after-school campus in Donna, 22 years ago, to the largest non-profit charter operator in Texas. With the opening of 18 new campuses for the 2018-19 school year, IDEA served more than 45,000 students at 79 schools in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, and Southern Louisiana.
It has ambitious plans for continued growth. By 2022, IDEA hopes to be educating 100,000 students across the country on their journey to and through college.
Torkelson and Gama were Teach For America corps members teaching in Donna public schools when they formed IDEA in 1998.
In August 2000, they opened the IDEA Academy Charter School with 150 students in grades 4-8. It was created as a way to help combat some of the major educational deficiencies they saw in their students, focusing the program on student achievement and college readiness. The flagship campus graduated its first class of seniors in 2007, sending 100% of its graduating students to college.
Torkelson and Gama named the program IDEA, an acronym for “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement,” and “No Excuses!” was their motto. IDEA enjoyed quick success, and the state of Texas granted a charter to IDEA in 2000. Beginning with only grades 4 to 8, the original flagship campus in Donna has expanded into a full-scale Pre-K—12 campus today.
IDEA Public Schools embarked upon an ambitious expansion plan in 2005, titled “The 2012 Plan,” with the goal of launching 22 IDEA schools across the Rio Grande Valley by the year 2012. Today, IDEA educates nearly 53,000 students in 96 schools across six regions—the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Southern Louisiana and Tarrant County.
To date, IDEA has kept its promise of sending all students to college. In the 2018-19 school year, IDEA graduated more than 1,185 seniors from 15 campuses, and for the 13th consecutive year, 100 percent of its seniors were accepted to college.
Torkelson gave an interview to the Rivard Report on Saturday. He said he had been thinking about resigning from his position for some time.
“We’ve had kind of a rocky last couple of months and obviously [COVID-19], so we’ve been delaying it,” Torkelson told the Rivard Report. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I want to make sure that IDEA is well-positioned for the next chapter and I think JoAnn’s leadership is exactly what we need right now.”
Torkelson was heavily criticized recently for planning to spend millions of dollars on the leasing and operating a private jet. He said the money was coming from private donations, not taxpayer dollars. Criticism was also leveled at IDEA for its annual $400,000 expense on tickets and box seats at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
Torkelson told the Rivard Report that this criticism made him stay on a little longer than he otherwise would have as CEO. He told the online newspaper that by staying on longer he could take responsibility for the decisions and guide IDEA beyond them.
Torkelson appeared on a webinar about how IDEA was coping with the fallout from COVID-19 on Friday, along with PSJA ISD Superintendent Jorge Arredondo. The webinar was hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. His decision to resign as CEO was not make public at the time of the webinar.
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will air excerpts from the webinar in a posting later today.
Message from Al Lopez
Here is IDEA board chair Lopez’s letter to the IDEA team and family:
Dear IDEA Team & Family,
As chair of IDEA’s Board of Directors, I am writing after our meeting this evening to share the news that Tom Torkelson has resigned to embark on the next chapter of his career and that the Board has appointed JoAnn Gama, our current President & Superintendent, to be IDEA’s new Chief Executive Officer. That IDEA is making its first leadership transition in 20 years is both a testament to the stability and success of this organization under Tom’s leadership and a reminder that different moments in an organization’s evolution call for different leaders.
In addition to doing or overseeing just about every job in the organization over the last 20 years, JoAnn is a national leader in the charter school and college-for-all movements. With a personal story that affirms IDEA’s mission of providing opportunity through education, JoAnn has received the prestigious Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership and was appointed to President Barack Obama’s White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She is in the National Charter School Hall of Fame and sits on the board of the Texas Public Charter Schools Association. In short, JoAnn is an inspiring, eminently capable and proven leader who can seamlessly assume a new role. IDEA’s outstanding senior leadership team is fully behind JoAnn, and they will have plenty of time to make the transition a smooth one before the next school year.
Even as we navigate an uncertain time for schools everywhere because of COVID-19, we are as optimistic as ever that IDEA will continue to be a force for tremendous good in the communities we serve ‒ and in more communities to come in the future. From a single school in Donna, Texas, IDEA has become the fastest-growing charter school network in America and a major contributor of first-generation college students. IDEA will continue to thrive under JoAnn’s clear-sighted leadership and her devotion to students and educators.
I am confident that each of you stands ready to help take IDEA to new heights. For some of you, there are direct ways you will be supporting our new leader, because you will be working together daily. For most of you, your support of JoAnn’s leadership will be more indirect: by helping your students continue to learn while they’re home, by preparing that anxious senior for graduation and the perfect college fit, by welcoming a new family into the IDEA community, by recruiting a fantastic teacher or staff member, or by ensuring IDEA always uses its resources in the most effective and responsible way. We believe in “Sweating the Small Stuff” because it all contributes to IDEA’s excellence and impact. And now, JoAnn—an expert at tackling the small and the large—will be leading the way forward.
All of us on the Board, together and individually, will be actively involved in making this transition successful. The Board has already implemented a number of policy changes and controls to strengthen board oversight and meet the highest standards in governance, fiscal responsibility, board membership and public transparency. That work continues, and is being advised by experts in nonprofit and corporate management and governance. We are committed to being both IDEA’s advocates and providing critical oversight as IDEA continues to grow and make a difference for kids and communities.
We are excited that JoAnn is chief executive at this important moment, and we are grateful for everything Tom contributed to build IDEA into the remarkable organization it is. And, to this wonderful team of nearly 7,000 people, thank you for everything you were already doing for IDEA before this pandemic affected our community and country in unprecedented ways, and for all you will do to support IDEA going forward.
Al Lopez, Board Chair & the IDEA Board of Directors
Message from JoAnn Gama
Gama wrote about the upcoming changes at IDEA in a letter to the IDEA team and family on Friday. Here it is:
Hi Team & Family. I have had a lot of jobs in my 20 years at IDEA Public Schools, starting as Assistant Director and teacher in Donna, Texas, and lately as President and Superintendent. Now I’m excited to move into a new role as IDEA’s Chief Executive Officer.
I’m taking over from my friend Tom Torkelson, who has led IDEA since he and I had the crazy idea in our 20s to start our own school. Now we have almost 100 of them, and my own children are among IDEA’s 53,000 students.
Being a parent to 3rd and 7th graders at our neighborhood IDEA Public School is a big part of my motivation for working at IDEA. I know from my own experience growing up in Houston and being the first in my family to go to college that education is the key to a world of choices. That’s what I want for my kids, and it’s what I work for every day, for every IDEA student.
Right now is a really hard time for kids and families. We’re on top of each other at home. We’re trying to do school in our kitchens. Some people are out of work, and others are working heroically to take care of the rest of us. There’s just a lot of uncertainty and stress. But what I see in the IDEA community is a “Whatever It Takes” spirit that has been a hallmark of our Team & Family since the beginning. We’ll get through this.
I hope you’ll join me and other IDEA parents this Wednesday, April 22 at 6 PM for our weekly town hall right here on Facebook. We’ll talk about how homeschooling is going, share what IDEA is doing to support families, and check in with each other during this unusual time. Hope to see you then.
Editor’s Note: Executive editor Ron Rogers contributed to the above news story from Weslaco, Texas.