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The key to education achievement among low-income kids is setting high expectations

As leaders in Texas and across the country wring their hands about lifting the educational performance of low-income children to state standards, the IDEA Public Schools group of charter schools has a deceptively simple and surprisingly successful solution: Respect. Respect the students‘ intellect and respect their ne.

The group operates charter schools in Austin, El Paso, the Valley, San Antonio and southern Louisiana, and it plans to schools in Fort Worth this year. The strategy is to build public charter schools in low-income neighborhoods where traditional public schools are struggling — 89 percent of the group’s students come from low-income families. The result has been higher test scores than the state public school average, a B grade from the Texas Education Administration, and, according to IDEA, a 100 percent college acceptance rate for the past 12 years.

“The story out there is that, ‘Oh, these kids aren’t performing because their parents don’t care, and the kids don’t care.’ No. Kids do the work that you put in front of them. Are you going to put in front of them low-quality, easy work, or are you going to really challenge them?” IDEA co-founder Tom Torkelson said at a recent meeting with The Dallas Morning News editorial board. “How do we do it? Really high expectations for kids, the belief that they can do it, and when they’re not doing it, there’s just more support we have to provide so that they can get themselves ready.”

He said: “If you look nationally, low-income students, actually, low-income and minority students, about 3 percent of the work they’re asked to do on a given day, week and year is on level. If you look at middle-class kids, especially middle-class white kids, they spend just a hair under 50 percent of their time doing work that’s not on level.”

IDEA’s approach is to open a school with a few grade levels and then add more grades each year. Each campus ultimately has two schools, a high school and a lower school. IDEA currently enrolls 45,000 students in 79 schools, and it is expanding quickly. By 2022, IDEA aims to operate 173 schools and enroll 100,000 students.

That will eventually include 10 new campuses in Tarrant County. The first Tarrant County school opens this year in the Las Vegas Trails neighborhood of Fort Worth. IDEA will add campuses as well in Haltom City and Arlington.

Such growth requires hiring a lot of teachers and training them. Torkelson said the schools do not focus on recruiting people with degrees in education, but they hire the smartest people he can find and train them to be great teachers. For many of the new hires, this involves training for two years at an established campus in the Valley or San Antonio — while earning a salary. The school group says it pays competitive teacher salaries and performance bonuses.

“We don’t have any bias for people who are education majors,” Torkelson said. “We feel like if we have somebody who knows their stuff, and they’re really great at motivating, and they learn fast, we will turn them into, well, they’ll turn themselves in a great teacher. We’re going to help accelerate that process.

“And we’re diverse. 85 percent of our teaching force is Hispanic or African-American; 75 percent of our principals are also people of color. Over half of our board is people of color, half my students are people of color. I mean, we didn’t have some diversity strategy, but we started off in the Rio Grande Valley. We said, okay, we’re going to find the best people in our community.

“Every time we open up in a community, we find the sharpest people in those communities, and the sharpest African-Americans in the African-American community are more than good enough to be at IDEA. The sharpest Latinos in the Latino community. It’s this myth of people like, ‘How do you find all these people of color?’ I’m like, ‘Well, guess what? You tell them you want to hire them, and you recruit in those communities, and they want jobs, too.’

“I mean, it’s going to take intentional work to get those communities back on par. I mean, they didn’t fall behind in one year. It was decades of bad policies. So, is that good enough for us to just have solid teachers? These children very often need the most exceptional teachers. Because average or slightly below-average teachers, they’re not going to kick those kids onto a whole new track, and they oftentimes need to be on a new track. Because through no fault of their own or their parents and they’re years behind,” he said.

And that requires money. As a public charter school, IDEA gets money from the state and participates in a number of federal programs, but it doesn’t receive local tax revenue like a traditional public school district. Without tuition money, philanthropic donors fill in the gap. The list of core donors in the group’s annual report includes a number of national foundations and agencies, and also some local philanthropic heavyweights, including the Sid Richardson W. Foundation, Rainwater Charitable Fund and the Walton Family Foundation.

Torkelson said low-income students need more of everything than the rest of the student population in order to succeed. And more money means the ability to offer more help.

“They need better teachers, and they need more of them. They need a little bit more time in school. They need a little bit longer school year. About one in three of our students are English-language learners.

Kids who are really far behind are also taking an hour-and-a-half of remedial reading every day on top of all the on-level stuff. So, we don’t take them out of the on-level stuff. We just throw all the remediation on top of it.

“We have the controversial program for how English-language learners learn English. We have a transitional model that gets kids fluent in English as quickly as possible. Very, very, very controversial, but I think dual language is great. I think there’s other approaches that are great, but at scale, those are very, very challenging to get right.

“When we have students who are in and out of schools, which often happens with low-income kids who have very high eviction rates, and they’re popping around from school to school. And they’re going from a dual language strand into an ESL strand into an all English. Oh, my gosh, it’s like is there any wonder that students who are learning English aren’t doing well?”

That doesn’t mean Torkelson opposes other approaches. In fact, he’s frustrated by the political conversation that pits charters against traditional public schools.

“I don’t understand pitting educators against educators. We’re already under attack and under fire,” he said. “We need to get on the same page, and we need to advocate for the same thing that’s going to help all of our communities of color and all of our low-income communities. I think we would have a lot more strength and power versus allowing ourselves to be pitted against each other.”

Elizabeth Souder is editor of Points, assistant opinion editor and a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.

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