With one school up and going, IDEA Public Schools is looking toward opening campuses in Odessa in August of 2021.
Founded in 2000, IDEA Public Schools has grown from a small school with 150 students to the fastest-growing network of tuition-free, prekindergarten through 12th grade public charter schools in the country.
Currently, the network serves nearly 66,000 college-bound students in 120 schools across Texas and Louisiana, its website said.
Bethany Solis, executive director for IDEA Permian Basin, said construction is underway and on track for the site in Odessa that will be called IDEA Yukon, located at Kate Reed Drive and Yukon Avenue, in the Parks Bell Ranch area.
The following year, Solis said, IDEA hopes to open its second site in southwest Odessa.
“… A full school site, or a campus, has two schools — an elementary which we often refer to as an academy is k through five. In some schools, we also have prek and then secondary is middle school and high school. We call that our preparatory school and that’s sixth through 12th,” Solis said.
The campus in Odessa won’t start with prekindergarten.
“We often add pre-k to schools where the demand is high. We also know that ECISD is offering full day prek. We are unable to at this point and so we’ll see, with ECISD offering full day prek if there’s even demand for it,” Solis said.
“In my experience, full day prek is very high in demand in most communities,” she added.
The Odessa campuses will serve any students that live within a 50-mile radius so any student across the City of Odessa can enroll, as well as students from Andrews or other surrounding towns. But their parents have to drive them.
“Our goal in both Midland and Odessa is to distribute schools in a way that any family in the city proper to get to an IDEA school within a 15-minute drive …,” Solis said.
Brian Bell was “really supportive” of the idea of IDEA building in the subdivision and “was able to give us land at a really generous price,” she added.
For the Yukon site, Candace Garza has been hired as the academy (or elementary) principal, and Craig Gutierrez will be the college prep (or secondary) principal. An assistant principal of operations, Hector Ramirez, has been hired as well.
Garza and Gutierrez are in the principal in residence program training at Travis right now, Solis said.
Solis said Garza is originally from the Rio Grande Valley and has spent most of her career in Oklahoma where she was an administrator and assistant principal.
Gutierrez is most recently from Houston and has been an administrator there for many years, Solis said.
Ramirez is coming from Austin and has been assistant principal of operations for KIPP Public Charter Schools for many years. Because of the region’s chronic educator shortages, Solis said the initial commitment made to the community was that IDEA would find people outside the region.
“… We made a really concerted effort to be part of the solution and not make the problem worse. That does not mean we’re not looking for great talent locally. … There’s … something special that local talent offers because they deeply understand our community in a way that is hard for others at first. But we will continue to really actively recruit so we’re keeping our commitment on that front,” Solis said.
IDEA also has partnered with some international teacher recruitment agencies and has about 10 teachers lined up from the Philippines. They were going to teach at Travis and then there was a visa moratorium, which Solis said just got lifted recently.
“They’ve already been trained. They spent several weeks of training virtually over the summer and we’re hoping that many of them can come teach in Odessa, as well as fill some vacancies in Midland,” Solis said.
They have found Relay Graduate School of Education to be a good source of teachers as well, she added.
IDEA starts with kindergarten, first and second at the elementary level and has about 120 students per grade level. For the college prep, or secondary side, they start with sixth grade and add a grade level a year to each school until they are full scale.
“We only have applications open for those grade levels,” Solis said. “… If we have a ton of interest for the other grades in addition to those, then there is a world in which we could consider adding more grades but for now the plan is grades k, 1, 2 and sixth grade. That’s our traditional launch model.”
Travis Elementary in Midland does not represent the traditional model because it was a struggling, or “transformation school.” The school is a partnership between Midland ISD and IDEA.
“We wanted to make sure that every single family that had students zoned to this school had the opportunity for their children to still be in that school, so that’s why we opened with all grade levels at Travis. We’ll be adding seventh grade next year and we’ll go all the way to 12th at IDEA Travis.”
The facility will be expanded to accommodate the upper grades.
“… We’re finalizing plans for that. That’s another one of the benefits of the partnership is we get to use an existing MISD building and then MISD students will have an opportunity to continue through 12th grade in a building that we currently plan to build on,” Solis said.
“It won’t be on the actual campus. We’re looking at a couple of land options either exactly adjacent, or just across the street so it will be within walking distance,” she added.
IDEA’s motto is college for all, but not every student wants to attend a four-year school. Solis said students can attend community colleges, but they do push the four-year schools for the benefits.
“Our last graduating class we’ve had 100 percent of our students get accepted to college and matriculate to college for the past, I believe, 14 years … minus one year. We had one year where we had one student that didn’t. Last year we graduated just under 1,500 seniors across multiple schools and our typical numbers are 98 percent of them attend a four-year institution and then the remaining 2 percent attend an associate’s program, a technical vocational school. We pretty unapologetically push four-year simply because our fundamental mission is about equity. And the whole reason we began is because it doesn’t matter what educational outcome you look at, whether it’s third grade reading scores or bachelor’s degree attainment or anywhere in between, there is consistently a wide disparity in achievement of those outcomes between rich and poor, between white and black and brown and that’s the reason IDEA began,” Solis said.
The founders, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, were teaching fourth grade and found the students were low performing. They wondered how this could happen in the United States when students can do it if given a chance.
“We believe that there is no better anti-poverty strategy than a bachelor’s degree. When people attain bachelor’s degrees, that’s when lifetime earnings, that’s when healthcare outcomes, that’s when low incarceration rates, that’s when it really kicks in to a whole new level. So while we will never be the ones who tell a child you’re not college material, you’re not a bachelor’s degree material, but do we have some students — a very small number — that do choose a different path. College is the non-negotiable, and because of our efforts, almost every child chooses a four-year program,” she said.
The culture in Odessa tends to be that when students are old enough, they can work in the oilfield and make more money than if they go to college.
“I think our current state of the economy reminds us that that is fragile,” Solis said.
She acknowledges that the oilfield is the exception to earning potential.
“In most professions, a college degree generally guarantees higher earnings. We’re an anomaly in so many ways in our community, so I won’t argue that but one of the things that we do a lot of work with communities and with our students is money is part of it.”
But Solis said it’s not just about money.
“When you look at how quickly and how deeply incarceration rates fall with a college degree … A 25 year old with a degree is expected to live on average 10 years longer than a 25 year old without a college degree. You just look at these outcomes over and over again and it’s hard to make a case to not at least have IDEA’s approach as an option because a college education has so many individual and social benefits that we want more of that in our community,” Solis said. “We want our children to at least know they can do it, have a way to do it, even if they’re zoned to a failing school. There is a way that you can get a world-class education and go to college.”
IDEA is a public school. There is no tuition and no admission requirements, Solis said. They also educate special education students.
There has been some controversy with IDEA in the past year or so. There were media reports such as spending on private jets and getting grants through political favors.
Solis said Torkelson, who was also CEO at the time, stepped down. Gama, who had been leading the organization alongside Torkelson, has stepped into his role.
“We over the past almost year have made lots of changes, so our governing board has enacted about 30 different financial oversight policies to make sure, again, that there is full financial oversight and that we are always using the funds that we’ve been entrusted with by the public in a way that engenders public trust,” Solis said. “I think the change in leadership also signals important change and that really sums it up.”
In July 2019 at the start of IDEA in the region, a group of Permian Basin companies, foundations and individuals from Ector and Midland counties contributed nearly $55 million in start-up funds for IDEA Public Schools to establish a presence in the region.
The Scharbauer Foundation donated $21 million; Abell-Hanger Foundation, $5.5 million; and The Henry Foundation, $2 million. Odessa businessman Collin Sewell is leading efforts to raise up to $10 million from individuals and organizations in Odessa, a news release said.
Permian Strategic Partnership, a group of 20 Permian energy companies, committed $16.5 million.
The funding will support the opening of 14 schools at seven sites across Midland and Odessa by the 2024-2025 school year, the release said.
Solis said they don’t think they will ask for anything more.
“When we raised $55 million,” she said, “it was because the financial model at that time, given labor costs, given cost of living, construction costs here in the region, that was the start we needed to see us through five years of operations. Our model at IDEA is in any given region to be self-sustaining financially by the fifth year. Then we continue to fundraise, but it’s for supplementary needs.”
“We partnered with an international teacher recruitment agency so we’ve got about 10 teachers lined up from the Philippines and they were actually going to come teach at Travis but there was a whole visa moratorium, first the U.S. then the Philippines, it just got lifted two days ago. They’ve already been trained they spent several weeks of training virtually over the summer and we’re hoping that many of them can come teach in Odessa as well as fill some vacancies in Midland.”
“We have talked to OC about their partnership with Hutch and their teacher education program. We also have relay residency that’s been our top source for top teachers for attracting them from outside the region in its partnership with the relay school of graduate education and there’s a two year residency when high performing new teachers earn their master’s while training in a very supportive residency situation. Our experience has been they’ve been the best new teachers that we’ve ever had they’re just so high performing and ready in ways that new teachers normally aren’t.”
Solis said the partnership with MISD has been “wonderful” so far.
“I’m very, very open to more partnership opportunities across the region. Partnerships always have hiccups. They’re tough. When you have two organizations that work together that have different approaches and styles. Given that, I could not have asked for a better partner than Midland ISD. They’re doing it for all the right reasons. They invited us because they knew, they agreed, like we did, that children in the Travis attendance zone in Midland deserved something way better than what they were getting. And when you have two organizations as similar or different as they may be that are working together truly for students really amazing things can happen. It has been a really remarkable partnership thus far.”
Asked what it thought of a new charter school coming to Odessa next year, Ector County ISD Communications Officer Mike Adkins said the district is focused on what it is doing.
“Ector County ISD is proud to offer parents many academic choices for their kids, and give students opportunities to be part of award-winning extra-curricular activities. We have 45 campuses, nearly 32,000 students enrolled, and we are focused on a number of strategic initiatives we believe are going to transform our school district and our community,” Adkins said in a statement.