ELSA, RGV – When 36,000 students stepped foot into their campuses in the Rio Grande Valley, Austin and San Antonio last week, IDEA Public Schools became the largest charter school group in the nation.

So reported Tom Torkelson, co-founder and CEO of IDEA, at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new campus being developed in Elsa, Texas.

“What happened this year with 36,000 students stepping foot into our classrooms for the first day of school, we became America’s largest public charter school system,” Torkelson told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88FM.

“I am proud of this. I hope the Valley is proud of it as well. We are No. 1 in America in terms of size. I think we are No. 1 in terms of quality. We are certainly amongst the very best and all of that started right here in the Rio Grande Valley.”

IDEA started in 2000 as an after-school education program in a church in Donna. It has now grown to 61 schools in the Valley, Austin and San Antonio. Next year, campuses will open in El Paso, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“The 36,000 students have nudged us ahead of the previous No. 1. They are very good friends of mine, running great schools. We are not just a bit bigger than them. I don’t know if that is bragging rights or we just have a bigger target on our backs. Probably both,” Torkelson said.


Torkelson said he has long wanted to open a school in the Delta area of the Rio Grande Valley. He said he is “thrilled” it is finally going to happen in August 2018.

“You know when I started IDEA back in 2000 we had one school, today we have 61 schools across Texas, 36,000 kids and we are opening 18 schools 11 months from now. To have a high-performing, high-achieving, tuition-free public school here in Elsa just really thrills me and I have loved the reception we have gotten from the community,” Torkelson said.

“The Delta area has always wanted the best for its citizens, they want great retail, they have been really working to get a satellite campus from South Texas College, they want what every other community in the Valley has access to, and part of that, for me, is ensuring they have access to a high-performing, high quality, public charter school. It is an honor for me to be able to partner with them to be provide that to the citizens of the entire Delta community. Here in Elsa, of course, but also La Villa, Monte Alto, and Edcouch, just to name a few.”


In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Torkelson said there is interest in Florida for IDEA Public Schools.

“Last year we had about 30 states and communities ask us what it would take to open a cluster of schools in their community. In Florida, we went and testified because the state legislature and said, here are the ten things about your law that need to be changed. They changed every single one. They created a law really tailored for IDEA Public Schools. And I feel like when you have elected officials that do that you have an obligation to them to provide your end of the bargain so, I think there we are not ready to announce yet, there is a lot more that we have to do but I think Florida is really promising region for us in the future.”

One in Ten

Like Torkelson, JoAnn Gama, co-founder and superintendent of IDEA Public Schools, said she has wanted IDEA to launch in the Delta area.

“We will open in August 2018. It will be 19th campus in the Rio Grande Valley. We will start here in Elsa by serving students in Pre-K, Kinder, 1st Grade and 6th Grade. For those of you who are not familiar with our launch model it will be a full Pre-K thru 12th Grade campus with its first class graduating seniors in the year 2025,” Gama said in her remarks from the podium. She received a round of applause from parents, elected officials and educators.

Jill Dominguez, executive director of IDEA Public Schools, gave out some chilling statistics at the groundbreaking ceremony: Only one in ten students in the Rio Grande Valley finish college in four to six years. She said IDEA does five times better than that. She said IDEA also achieves a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

“Your (IDEA) students are more likely not only to go to college but to graduate from college,” Dominguez said. “This year, six IDEA schools were ranked in the top 25 schools in the country by the Washington Post. This is recognition for us that the IDEA model works and that it is making big waves across the country.”

Dominguez said that just like public schools, IDEA offers extra curricula activities to students.

“We have sports, we have clubs, art, theater and even band. But, we also do a lot of things differently. So, when students start at an IDEA academy, like these kindergarten students, they are given individualized instruction,” Dominguez said, pointing to some young children in the front seats.

“What that means is if you are a first-grader and you come to IDEA, reading at a first-grade level, we will place you at that instructional level, but if you come as a first-grader and are reading at a third-grade level, we will teach you at the third-grade level. In all situations, we work really hard to challenge our students to the very highest of their academic abilities.”

Dominguez said that at IDEA’s college prep campuses, all students in grades 6 thru 12 are offered advanced placement courses. “That means they will earn college credit for college campuses across the United States,” she said.

Dominguez said there are currently 35 IDEA schools in the Valley, and a further 26 in San Antonio and Austin. She said IDEA will launch in El Paso and Baton Rouge in 2018. And, Dominguez said, Fort Worth and Houston have also asked for IDEA Public Schools, and so the group will launch in those cities in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Accustomed to Excellence

Robert Escobar, city council member for Elsa also spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. He said the people of Elsa are excited to have IDEA in their community.

“This is what we sacrifice everything for, the kids, the future,” Escobar said. “IDEA’s model is amazing. It is what every community needs. It’s crazy that that a dream can create something so big, 61 schools in the state of Texas. That is just beyond me.”

Escobar added that while the Delta is a small community, “we are accustomed to excellence.” He said IDEA will offer a new option that the community’s students. He thanked his colleagues on Elsa City Council for working to bring IDEA to the city. “We believe in this model, we believe in IDEA. I want to see these children at that level.”

Andrew Flores, an 11th grade student at IDEA Weslaco College Prep also spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony.