The lunch hour is winding down on a spring Friday at Anne Frank Inspire Academy but several students have already moved on to their next task. In the plaza—a high-ceiling, open room with clusters of chairs throughout—groups of students sit working on laptops. In a nearby glassed-in porch, a student pores over a rock collection he’s gathered from the grounds and upstairs an instructor reviews the day’s algebra assignment with a few students.
If it doesn’t sound like a typical middle school, that’s because it’s not. One of a growing number of public charter schools in San Antonio, Anne Frank—which is part of the John H. Wood Jr. Public Charter District and will this fall add ninth grade plus an elementary campus—operates in what students describe as “controlled chaos.” Instead of seven separate classes focused on teacher-driven lectures, students meet with an advisor each morning and work through subjects at their own pace, hearing from facilitators (their version of teachers) in morning seminars and then consulting them for guidance throughout the day. “There are no teacher desks or chairs, student desks or even hallways,” says Superintendent Bruce Rockstroh. “What you’ll see is a big open plaza with learning opportunities throughout the school.”
Though not yet on par with Houston where more than 125 charter schools are in operation, San Antonio is quickly becoming a hub for Texas’ school choice movement. That’s not by mistake. Four years ago Victoria Rico, a trustee at the Brackenridge Foundation, began looking into what other communities had done to improve education. The research led her to advocating for the growth of charter schools in San Antonio, where KIPP San Antonio already was making an impact in low-income neighborhoods. She partnered with other philanthropists and helped create the nonprofit now known as Choose To Succeed. The group has raised more than $30 million to support charter school growth and in its first two years helped recruit three Arizona-based schools with successful track records. Basis opened in fall 2013 and added a second campus last year. Great Hearts finished its first year in June and will open its second campus this fall. Carpe Diem will open a campus for the 2015-16 school year. “We make choices in every other dimension of life,” says Christi Martin, interim president and CEO at Choose to Succeed. “It’s natural. This is not unique across the nation, but we’re one of the few cities that has been so intentional about recruiting a variety of high performing charter organizations.”
By 2020, Choose to Succeed aims to have 27,700 “quality” charter school seats available in San Antonio, up from the approximately 5,800 established already. The organization defines quality seats as those within charters that have an established record of success in turning out college-ready graduates, and state standards help promote quality across the board, shuttering charter schools if they have three years of poor state financial or academic ratings. When the new law was first enforced in 2014, five San Antonio schools had their charters revoked. Gov. Greg Abbott has supported the expansion of charter schools and charter advocates continue to work toward more state funding or access to public facilities.
For Basis, Great Hearts and Carpe Diem schools, Choose to Succeed assisted in establishing charters in Texas and in finding and financing local facilities. “It’s what’s called the harbor master approach so you’re not trying to do it yourself,” says Peter Bezanson, CEO of Basis, which prides itself on a rigorous academic curriculum in which high school students pass an average of 11 AP exams and almost always go on to college. Great Hearts, too, has high expectations for students but does so through a Socratic method that relies on student-engagement rather than lectures plus a focus on great books and primary texts. Instead of reading a textbook on the Constitution, for example, students read the Constitution. “Our society has fundamentally underestimated children,” says Peter Crawford, headmaster at Great Hearts Monte Vista. “Not only are they capable of much more, but they want much more.”
KIPP and IDEA Public Schools also are college preparatory institutions, but focus on low-income students rather than all sectors. “In the beginning the goal was to create one school that could prove that our low-income kids of color could perform as high as anyone in the city,” says KIPP San Antonio founder Mark Larson, who plans to see the school grow to 15 campuses, all located inside of Loop 410. “What we’ve been able to demonstrate is that the school can be the change agent.” Carver Academy, the private elementary school Spurs legend David Robinson founded in 2001, welcomed IDEA to San Antonio in 2012 when Robinson elected to restructure the school as a public charter aligned with IDEA. The school has since opened four more campuses and welcomes students to a new East Side campus this fall.
Charter schools aren’t without their critics. And, while many are successful, others, like the now closed San Antonio Preparatory Academy, have struggled. Martin says Choose to Succeed knows charter schools aren’t “the silver bullet” to improving education in Bexar County, but the trustees see them as an important piece. The hope in providing parents more choice through charter schools, she says, is that traditional public school districts also will offer more options, whether through more magnet campuses or other specialized programs. It’s a challenge incoming San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has a history of partnering with charter schools, welcomes. “I want to make sure that our schools are redefining excellence and demonstrating to our families that we have great programming in our schools to compete with any school,” he says.
Just like families choose what park or library to take their children to, Martin says, they should be able to decide where they’re educated. “I would love to see—and I think we’re on the path toward—an increasingly vibrant education sector with lots of opportunities for educators and a culture of continuous improvement,” she says.