HIDALGO, RGV – As National Charter Schools Week ends, the leaders of IDEA Public Schools are reflecting on another successful year.

May 1 to May 7 marked National Charter Schools Week, which is designated to raise awareness of public charter schools and the benefit they provide to students and communities. Additionally, this year marks the 20th anniversary of operating charter schools in Texas.

This week, IDEA Public Schools’ 507 seniors revealed their college choices. For ten straight years, IDEA have sent 100 percent of their graduating seniors on to college. Leaders of the charter school say this accomplishment is all the more impressive since 90 percent of IDEA’s students come from low-income households in some of the most underserved communities in Texas.

Tom Torkelson
Tom Torkelson

IDEA is also receiving national recognition. Recently, schools in the IDEA network have been ranked among the best and top performing schools in the nation by both the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report. For the second consecutive year, IDEA Public Schools has been included in the Washington Post national school rankings. And, for the eighth consecutive year, IDEA is represented in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. IDEA leaders say this reflects the rigor and success of IDEA’s college-going culture.

“Each year, we are developing and coaching our campus leaders and teachers to become the best teachers in the nation for our students,” said Tom Torkelson, Founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools. “When we started IDEA 16 years ago, we aimed to be the most rigorous in our state because we knew it was the way to get our students to and through college. These national rankings help us know we are on the right track.”

Torkelson said the rankings reflect IDEA’s unique College Success Model—an integrated mix of classes, activities, and events that include individualized instruction at the Academy level, pre-AP courses starting in 6th grade, and a full complement of college counseling, workshops, and college campus experiences throughout high school.

Washington Post rankings

More than 22,000 public high schools across the country were analyzed for the Washington Post’s annual ranking of America’s Most Challenging High Schools. Specifically, the Washington Post analyzed the number of students who participated in Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests in relation to the overall size of the high schools graduating class. The Washington Post index considers college test participation a better measure of school success than test scores.

Six IDEA Public Schools high schools were ranked among the most challenging by the Washington Post. All of IDEA’s eligible College Prep high schools were ranked in the top 200 most challenging high schools nationwide (and in the top 40 in Texas) including:

IDEA Mission – 11th (4th in Texas)
IDEA Frontier – 15th (5th in Texas)
IDEA San Benito – 16th (6th in Texas)
IDEA Quest – 17th (7th in Texas)
IDEA San Juan – 28th (12th in Texas)
IDEA Alamo – 43rd (16th in Texas)
IDEA Donna – 106th (33rd in Texas)

U.S. News and World Report rankings

For its annual ranking of best high schools in the nation, U.S. News and World Report examined college-readiness data including reading and math proficiency, academic achievement of disadvantaged students (black, Hispanic, and low-income) in comparison to state averages, and rates of participation in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate testing.

Five of IDEA Public Schools received a gold medal ranking for college readiness and high rankings on the list. The IDEA Public Schools’ high schools that received a Gold or Silver Medal ranking from U.S. News and World Report include:

IDEA Frontier – 79th National Gold Medal (15th in Texas)
IDEA Quest – 84th National Gold Medal (16th in Texas)
IDEA San Juan – 112th National Gold Medal (20th in Texas)
IDEA Mission – 187th National Gold Medal (31st in Texas)
IDEA San Benito – 405th National Gold Medal (56th in Texas)
IDEA Donna – 560th National Silver Medal (67th in Texas)

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, praised IDEA.

“IDEA’s commitment to ensuring all of their students enter college, regardless of their economic background, serves as a national model for how best to educate some of our nation’s most vulnerable students,” Rees said. “We congratulate IDEA Public Schools for being recognized once again by the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report as some of the nation’s top performing schools, and for continuing to produce high results for their students.”

Class of 2016

IDEA leaders say they are proud of the Class of 2016, in which 507 seniors graduated. The school district issued a news release with these facts about the class:

•    35 percent of 2016 graduates were accepted to a Tier 1 or 2 College or University – up from 25 percent last year.
•    The Class of 2016 has already earned $16.9 million in scholarships, including three Dell Scholar recipients.
•    Class of 2016 graduates will be attending the University of Texas, Northwestern University, Dartmouth, Yale and Boston College, just to name a few.

“IDEA makes sure their students have what it takes to get into college, and then gives them what they need to graduate from college. Students who attend top colleges and universities, Tier One and Two, are statistically more likely to graduate and receive advanced degrees. IDEA has deliberately focused its curriculum and college support services to get more of its graduates into these institutions. The increase in IDEA students accepted to Tier One and Two colleges is a direct reflection of IDEA’s commitment to offer students access to all the opportunities of the most elite public and private high schools,” the news release stated.

The news release singled out two students for special praise. Both Caroline Cantu and Francisco Macossay blazed unique trails to Ivy League schools.

Cantu will enter Princeton University in the fall of 2016 after graduating from IDEA Quest College Prep in Edinburg, TX. She said she came to IDEA in 6th grade and has been preparing every day since then to be the first member of her family to attend college. “I am so excited about going to Princeton. I can’t believe that I was able to get this life-changing opportunity through the Questbridge program. I know I will go and make my family and community proud,” Cantu said.

A native of Reynosa, Mexico, Macossay came to this country when he was 14 years old. Now, three years later, he’s headed to Brown University. Taking AP Spanish as part of IDEA’s AP for All initiative, Macossay was one of just 55 students worldwide, to receive a perfect score. “I’m extremely excited about being accepted to Brown because I know it will open up a world of possibilities and my dream is now becoming a reality,” Macossay said of his IDEA experience and his acceptance to Brown.

IDEA co-founder Torkelson said the IDEA students will leave their high schools with more than a world-class K-12 education. He said IDEA’s College Support Team will make sure they have every resource – from financial aid to housing and travel, to academic and counseling supports, well into their college careers. He pointed out that IDEA begins preparing students for success in college from the first day of kindergarten with campus visits, college counseling and application supports, and that support doesn’t end until each IDEA alumnus graduates from college.

“It’s common place to celebrate young, gifted athletes when they select a college. Some will make it all the way to the pros, while some will never make it out of college, but we recognize their athletic achievements, all the same. College Signing Day is the most important event on the IDEA Public Schools calendar, because it celebrates our students’ academic achievements. They’ve worked just as hard, and if we have anything to say about it, every single one of them will earn their college degree,” Torkelson said. “Every year our students and teachers prove that every child can and will succeed regardless of demographics, income, or geography.”

IDEA students celebrated their accomplishments with their families at two College Signing Day events held at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo on April 27 and 28.

20th Anniversary

David Dunn
David Dunn

Referring to the 20th anniversary of charter schools operating in Texas, Texas Charter Schools Association’s Executive Director David Dunn said: “In 1996, we saw the beginning of the charter school movement with 20 operating charters and today, Texas can boast of 189 operating charters. I am so proud of the exponential growth in the number of students and campuses and the incredible successes we’ve seen in student outcomes. I’m excited to see what the next 20 years will bring charter schools and students.”

Dunn defined charter schools as independent, tuition-free public schools open to all students. He said they are given the flexibility to be more innovative while being held accountable for improved student achievement. And he said charter schools must adhere to strict academic and financial accountability standards. In Texas there are 613 charter school campuses serving a diverse student body of approximately 228,000 students.

Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this story shows IDEA Public Schools students at College Signing Day, held at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo. The photo is courtesy of IDEA.