EDINBURG, RGV – Tom Torkelson says if it were not for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, IDEA Public Schools would not be where it is today.

Torkelson was in the audience to hear Duncan speak to students at UT-Rio Grande Valley’s HESTEC 2015 on Tuesday. Duncan announced last week that he will be stepping down from his Cabinet post in December.

Tom Torkelson, co-founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools.
Tom Torkelson, co-founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools.

“No secretary of education has wielded as much power and influence as Arne Duncan has, partly because he came into power just when you had the stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, kicking in. There was an $800 billion infusion, several billion came to the Department of Education and he single-handedly ensured that over half a million teachers did not get laid off by putting a big infusion into the states,” Torkelson said.

“The other thing Arne Duncan did was use these signature programs, called Race to the Top and the i3 grant, which was for innovation, and said, what we are going to do is invest in the top programs around the country that work and we are going to put a lot of energy into boosting these. IDEA has been a huge beneficiary of that, to the tune of nearly $40 million.”

Torkelson said without these grants IDEA would not have been able to achieve its rapid growth.

“Personally speaking, when I think of what Arne Duncan has done for our organization, and how that has helped us grow to help so many more students, he has been an historic secretary. I have a ton of respect and admiration for him and I am really sad to see him go,” Torkelson said.

“The new guy, John King, is also a friend. If people thought Arne Duncan was a little bit radical in his views, well, they are not getting a reprieve from this new guy. He is equally as fantastic.”

The U.S. Department of Education announced in December, 2012, that it had awarded IDEA Public Schools $29 million over a four-year period as part of the Race to the Top District competition. IDEA was selected among 372 applicants and was one of 16 nationwide winners. Of the 16 only two were from Texas.

Torkelson said IDEA’s application centered on individualized student learning to improve student achievement and educator effectiveness while preparing every student for success in college and beyond.

“This is very exciting for the thousands of students IDEA serves throughout the state of Texas. We will use this award to further the success of our individualized learning academic programs for elementary students and college prep students. This will allow us to continue our work in closing the achievement gap by providing all students with access to a more rigorous college prep education that will ensure that we send 100 percent of our students to and through college,” Torkelson said at the time.

The $5 million “Investing in Innovation Fund (i3)” grant IDEA received enabled the charter school and PSJA ISD to partner and improve the way they hired, trained, and evaluated teachers and leaders. Torkelson said the partnership created a robust training program for new teacher hires, in addition to separately creating a slate of leadership programs.

As part of the i3 grant, IDEA and PSJA agreed to a rigorous third party evaluation of the effectiveness of their training program for newly hired teachers, which consisted of a one-week summer institute and instructional coaching during the school year.

“The year we embarked on this partnership, IDEA Public Schools had 18 schools and 8,000 students in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, we are a network of 36 schools across three regions of Texas, serving 20,000 students,” Torkelson said earlier this year, at the end of the fourth and final year of the project.

“The improvements we made to our hiring and training for teachers and leaders were essential in opening 18 additional high-quality schools during the last four year period.”

Torkelson discusses Steve Murdock’s HESTEC presentation

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at HESTEC, Torkelson also spoke about the presentation former U.S. Census Bureau director Steve Murdock made at HESTEC on Monday. Murdock, who is also a former state demographer for Texas, said if Texas does not improve the educational attainment of its minority populations, particularly Hispanics, its economic and social well-being will suffer. In fact, the only thing that will increase at a greater rate than the population, Murdock said, would be the rate of poverty.

Torkelson said of Murdock’s presentation: “If you look at the 34 countries that are part of the OECD, the modern, industrialized nations of the world, we are third from worst in terms of income inequality. Turkey is behind us and Mexico is behind us. That is only going to get worse. What we are seeing right now is that our inability to do a better job of getting low income minority youth to and through college is actually having a devastating impact on our economy. If we do not do a better job of making our public schools successful for all students then we are on our way to being a second world nation a generation from now. It is fixable, it’s solvable but we have got to act now.”

Torkelson said there are positive signs emerging in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I actually think if we look at schools in the Rio Grande Valley we see a lot of bright spots, of people who have stepped up and who are doing a better job of showing that great teaching matters more than poverty, great teaching matters more than parent income level; that great teaching matters more than almost any other factor. We challenge our students to do very well. We just have to ensure all of our teachers are challenging all of our kids all the time.”