In the past four years, a philanthropic organization called “Choose to Succeed” in San Antonio raised more than $35 million to attract some of the nation’s highest-test-score-producing charter schools to a city that already had many charter schools. The group brought in Great Hearts and BASIS from Arizona, IDEA, and Carpe Diem, while helping KIPP to expand.
Some of the new charter operators are planting campuses in the well-regarded Northside, North East and Alamo Heights independent school districts, indicating that the initial rationale some expressed for Choose to Succeed — that families needed an alternative to underperforming public schools — has evolved into something broader.Their quality is changing the local education landscape. Their locations and students are changing the local debate over school choice.
Scores of charter schools already operated here when Choose to Succeed went looking for its high performers. It lured four new networks — IDEA, BASIS, Great Hearts and Carpe Diem — and helped the established KIPP to expand.
When classes start next month, those five charter networks will have about 8,500 students, more than the enrollments of some smaller local school districts….
If they grow as planned, almost 40,000 students will be in Choose to Succeed-launched schools a decade from now, more than in 13 of Bexar County’s 16 independent school districts….
Great Hearts is known for a liberal arts curriculum built around “the Great Books.” Before graduation, every student acts in four plays (two of them by Shakespeare), sings in a choir, learns a musical instrument, paints, draws, sculpts and takes Latin, Greek and two years of calculus, among other requirements. High school students participate in two-hour Socratic seminars, and every senior defends a thesis before a faculty panel. Uniforms are blue and white; high school boys wear neckties.
Great Hearts Monte Vista was the network’s first venture out of its based in Phoenix. It opened last year and now teaches grades kindergarten through 10 at leased facilities at Temple Beth-El and Trinity Baptist Church.
Monte Vista is an affluent neighborhood, but the school’s location close to downtown and on bus lines makes it accessible to an economically diverse community, said Roberto Gutierrez, senior vice president of advancement for Great Hearts Texas.
Last year, however, only 14 percent of Great Hearts Monte Vista’s 572 students were considered economically disadvantaged. Hawthorne Academy and Cotton Elementary, nearby San Antonio ISD campuses, have economically disadvantaged rates of 89 and 97 percent, respectively.
The disparity is central to what detractors of Great Hearts claim is its tendency to exclude low-income families. More than half of Arizona’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but only two of 19 Great Hearts schools in the Phoenix area participated in the National School Lunch Program and received federal Title I funding for at-risk populations.
In five years, the network hopes to have 6,000 students in six schools here. Great Hearts Northern Oaks will open to about 640 students in grades kindergarten through seven.
NEISD Superintendent Brian Gottardy drives by the construction site every day.
“If they’re a public school and they’re using public tax dollars and the North East Independent School District is at 48 percent economically disadvantaged population, then a public charter school located in the heart of our district … should educate a diverse population,” Gottardy said. “They need to educate the masses just like we do.”
Great Hearts picked its Northern Oaks site based on available land and the cost to build a campus for 13 grades with parking and athletic facilities, but future campuses around Loop 410 and downtown will attract people from all parts of the city, Gutierrez said. The network will advertise in Spanish on the South and West sides, he said.
The CEO of Great Hearts Texas, Dan Scoggin, said he knows the impression that opponents have of Great Hearts: prep schools of tie-wearing students discussing Plato and Aristotle.
“There has been this narrative built that the charter school movement is just only exclusively for low-income kids,” Scoggin said. “Great Hearts also serves middle-income families who we feel are deeply underserved because they don’t have access to a college prep education in a public school setting.”
Both low-income and middle-income kids “don’t have options, in many cases,” he said.
When BASIS San Antonio opened in the Medical Center two years ago, it attracted families interested in its rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. The network opened BASIS San Antonio North last year near Loop 410, just inside Alamo Heights ISD.
Both schools started with grades five through eight and will become high schools, adding a new grade each year. Students begin Latin in the fifth grade and can choose other languages, including Mandarin, in the seventh. They must rack up at least eight Advanced Placement courses and six AP exams by the end of their junior year.
The network will seek a charter amendment to enroll grades kindergarten through four so it can shift both schools to elementary and middle grades and build a high school between them by 2017, near Castle Hills, said Peter Bezanson, CEO of BASIS’ for-profit management company….
Last year, 10 percent of BASIS San Antonio students were economically disadvantaged, compared with 58 percent at the closest Northside ISD elementary school. At BASIS San Antonio North, 12 percent were economically disadvantaged, compared with 21 percent at Alamo Heights ISD’s Cambridge Elementary.
Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD, and Kevin Brown, the Alamo Heights ISD superintendent, echoed Gottardy’s concerns about charter networks serving relatively affluent populations. Woods said their projected ramp-up could create “further socioeconomic stratification in the city.”
“Schools that receive public funds ought to work to the good of all the kids in the community,” Woods said. “And if you can’t show that you’re doing that, then I’m not sure that you should be eligible to receive public funds.”