In 2001 near the Texas border with Mexico, educators Tom Torkelson and Joann Gama opened a new college preparatory school for students who were primarily Hispanic and from low-income communities. Within just a few years, the students began to outperform their peers statewide.
This was the birth of IDEA, which now operates 79 schools in six regions that serve nearly 45,000 students, one-third of whom are English language learners. Despite this rapid growth, IDEA students outperform their statewide peers nearly every year. Nearly every single IDEA graduate enrolls in college and about 35 percent of alumni earn college degrees — more than three times the national average for students from low-income communities.
This kind of success is exactly what intermediaries like Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) dream of when they help founders create and grow new schools into strong school networks. CSGF began supporting IDEA in 2006 when the network served just 1,000 students. “Those dollars specifically allow us to do the important back-office work,” says Sam Goessling, IDEA’s chief advancement officer.
The research backs this strategy up: Stanford University’s CREDO research team has found that most schools that start strong stay that way, and that “two thirds of (charter management organizations) start new schools that are of the same or slightly better quality as (sic) the existing portfolio.”
The Walton Family Foundation supports the Charter School Growth Fund and a variety of intermediaries that are growing the field of new schools based on proven models and backing great entrepreneurs as they broaden their impact.
Some of the earliest such intermediaries were Building Excellent Schools, a fellowship that has helped dozens of entrepreneurs launch their first schools, and New Schools Venture Fund, a Silicon Valley-based philanthropy that in 1998 supported the first nonprofit multi-site charter school network, California’s Aspire Public Schools. More recently, the foundation joined with other donors to launch Silicon Schools Fund, which backs new personalized learning schools across Northern California.
In 2005, John Walton and other philanthropists launched the Charter School Growth Fund to grow successful schools into larger networks, commonly called charter management organizations. CSGF backs schools that use a range of models and it emphasizes school quality and the leadership team’s capabilities above all else.
Since 2005, CSGF has supported charter school networks that now operate 870 schools serving 370,000 students. The vast majority of these students are children of color from low-income backgrounds.
A newer CSGF initiative, the Emerging CMO Fund, has supported more than 20 charter school networks led by entrepreneurs of color. Many of these leaders operate high-performing schools but lack access to capital to expand their impact. The Emerging CMO helps connect them to resources that allow them to open more schools that serve students from backgrounds similar to their own.
“The most successful schools we’ve seen have been those with an idea who validate those assumptions with parents and community partners,” agrees Caitrin Wright of Silicon Schools Fund.
In addition to its traditional investments, Silicon Schools enables promising educators of color to learn alongside high-performing charter entrepreneurs as they fine-tune their school models.
Likewise, CSGF’s Emerging CMO Fund dispenses both capital and connections.
“Being a charter school leader and founder is lonely — even more so when others around you don’t look like you,” says Darryl Cobb, partner at CSGF and leader of the Emerging CMO Fund. “We help connect these leaders with funding, resources, and mentorship as they open new schools.”
One of the charter school networks receiving support from CSGF’s Emerging CMO Fund is Equitas Academy Charter Schools in Los Angeles. Born and raised in the crowded Pico Union neighborhood, Equitas Founder Malka Borrego was a first-generation college graduate who began a two-year fellowship with Building Excellent Schools after several years of teaching and nonprofit work.
“Building Excellent Schools gave me the brainspace, time and money to understand how other communities had organized effective schools for their students,” says Malka. She has created four K-8 charter schools focused on preparing more than 1,000 students to graduate from four-year colleges and universities. “In Los Angeles Unified School District and Pico Union, the promise of bilingual education has not been fulfilled,” observes Malka.
Malka says the capital and connections from the Emerging CMO Fund and CSGF’s National Fund have helped with everything from facilities to leadership development to helping her decide whether to open a high school. Student attrition at Equitas Academy schools is far lower than at nearby schools. At Equitas’ flagship campus, Latino students from low-income communities perform as well on standardized tests as their non-low-income Latino peers attending nearby schools.
Indeed, CSGF’s portfolio of organizations and schools is demonstrating that it is possible to start and grow schools that do a better job of meeting students’ needs. Students in CSGF portfolio schools gain the equivalent of 80 additional days learning in math and 57 additional days in reading than similar peers at traditional public schools. The schools have graduated over 41,000 students, and CSGF portfolio students, more than 90 percent of whom are from low-income communities, are more likely than other students from low-income communities to earn a college degree.
At IDEA, parental demand has led the organization to its most ambitious growth plan yet: Adding more than 100 schools and enrolling 100,000 students by 2022. “Parents want their child to be able to go to a school where they have the opportunity to go to college,” says Jo Ann Gama, cofounder, president, and superintendent of IDEA. “We started with that premise in 2001 and have made it a reality for the past 12 years where 100 percent of our students have been accepted to college.”