For the last decade, IDEA Public Schools has been steadily improving student outcomes in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most educationally underserved areas in the nation. Last year, IDEA received more than $87 million in federal grants to expand its network and deepen its work on college persistence.
Former Chicago charter school principal and New Leaders Executive Director Ana Martinez now plays an important role in IDEA’s expansion. As executive director for IDEA’s Tarrant County region, she is laying the foundation for 10 sites with 20 schools, each including an elementary and a high school building, throughout the Arlington-Fort Worth metro area and nearby communities.
Tell me about Tarrant County. What’s the community like?
There is a distinctly different culture here. There are about 400,000 public school students, served by 13 independent school districts. Fort Worth is the largest, with over 86,000 students. What I am learning is that when most folks think of Dallas, we think big city, fast. When we think Fort Worth, it’s smaller, slower.
Undergirding that is a culture in Fort Worth that truly values relationships and carries with it an expectation that newcomers will do the same. This means that time is invested in building meaningful and authentic relationships. While I can’t personally contrast this with Dallas, I am learning fairly quickly in Fort Worth and Tarrant County that building relationships and trust is an investment worth making.
I would argue that there are two unique characteristics in Fort Worth/Tarrant County that make it prime for us to grow. First, we have a growing population here. That population growth is being driven by families moving here who are looking for options in free, high-quality public education. Naturally that opens up people. I experience a lot of excitement about creating a lot of seats for kids across Tarrant County.
Additionally, charter schools at our scale are a new phenomenon in Fort Worth/Tarrant County. This means we have a unique opportunity to create positive associations of charter schools for multiple stakeholders here.
What is the environment in terms of interest in charter expansion?
It feels like a “Back to the Future” experience for me. Tarrant County does not have a large charter presence. I believe there are more than 20 operators across the county, but no large CMOs (charter management organizations) yet. There are some CMOs here—Harmony, Uplift, International Leadership—but they tend to have a small number of campuses.
There’s also an understanding that as a county, we’re growing and we need to respond to the realities of a growing population. There’s a sense of commitment to each other.
When we think of the charter vs. district debate, that’s an adult-oriented conversation. But here, there is a concerted effort to shift the conversation toward the question: How do we create more high-quality seats for all children in Tarrant County? And how to do that while honoring what makes Uplift unique or IDEA unique or the district unique? Hey, we’re all in the space, we all have growth plans, how can we work together to accomplish our goals?
With IDEA, we serve a very specific demographic: low-income, college-bound Latino students. At scale, we would serve 15,000 kids across the multiple districts that Tarrant County touches. We also have an opportunity to help define how charters are experienced here.
Having joined the Charter Alliance in Tarrant County alongside great local CMOs like Uplift and innovative public school districts such as Fort Worth Independent School District, has provided us with a unique experience to come to the table together to discuss our work, solve for challenges and engage in honest, real talk about the work, the growth, the successes and the challenges.
How do you go about introducing IDEA to a brand-new area like Fort Worth?
It’s no coincidence I’m on the ground 18 months before the schools launch. That wasn’t the case in San Antonio and Austin, our first region (beyond the Rio Grande Valley). It is a lesson learned. IDEA believes in investing resources on the ground with ample time to get to know the community, get to know the values of the people we will serve and use that knowledge to inform our growth plan in Tarrant County.
People experience IDEA very differently when we say, “We’re coming. Let us learn about your passions.”
Relationships matter, collegiality matters. It’s a much more strategic approach than to just plop ourselves down because we found land.
If I’m going to go into a district or a community, there’s a lot of work to get in on the ground and understand what’s happening. I have to honor the community I’m part of. And honoring them means I’m willing to learn first.
I have conversations with the district. I’m talking with city officials, pastors, community leaders. I’m talking to people who love their city. It fascinates me all the time how much time and effort goes into building trust.
I also recognize that conversations are sometimes met with apprehension and skepticism. I owe it to the students and the families we will serve to simply avail myself to all who are interested in learning more about our schools, our model, etc., so that folks have a better understanding of what they are championing or not.
What’s happening with your first school site?
Our first school site is in the neighborhood of Las Vegas Trail. Las Vegas Trail is currently facing a ton of challenges, including those related to human trafficking.
Councilman Brian Byrd has made great strides in putting together a Revitalization Task Force charged with looking at the assets of the community and leveraging those across sectors to make this neighborhood safe and prosperous. He has a committee tackling multiple community issues through focus groups, including K-12 education. We’ve been able to plug into the committee, meet principals of the local elementary schools and learn about the new housing project across the street from our site.
Additionally, we will open another campus in Haltom City, one of the largest suburbs of Fort Worth. We are excited to be a part of this community and bringing choice to families who currently live there. We are also excited about the number of jobs we expect to create—instructional and non-instructional—for Haltom City.
How do you scale up without sacrificing quality?
I have been hired to bake an IDEA cake. There are things that always go in the cake, whether I bake it in Baton Rouge or Fort Worth: the sugar, the eggs, the flour. I won’t negotiate the eggs, the flour and the sugar but I have autonomy for everything else: the icing, the sprinkles, the filing. That comes from the local context.
So what are the non-negotiables? What’s the eggs, sugar and flour?
We’re taking big ideas and turning them into systems, protocols and structures that live across our campuses. We can take a big idea like “data-driven instruction” and embed it in protocols that are replicated across every school.
Our school teams use them to drive toward the outcomes that count for our students, like 100 percent college entrance. This allows people to go from campus to campus, region to region and sharpen their eye for instruction in a way that doesn’t change.
There is also a very concerted effort to build a human capital pipeline. We have a principal residence program. Our folks are training in our schools for one to two years before they launch a school in one of our new regions.
For Tarrant County, and for many new regions, it asks people to uproot their lives and go to another area for one to three years and then come back again and make Tarrant County their home. Not everyone is going to sign up for that. We have had to be nimble and flexible in thinking about how we care for them as people as well as professionals when they go through our program.
I have five folks already in residence for our sites. By the time they launch new sites here, they will have had two years of principal residency. Tarrant County will be the first region to have principal residents that have been in the program for two years. That allows for things we haven’t had before like having a high-performing principal as a mentor, having a coach.
Additionally, we will be launching our Founding Teacher Fellowship this summer in which we will have 12 resident teachers working in partnership with the Relay School of Education and one of our highest performing campuses in San Antonio, to prepare our teachers to launch our first four schools.
And where does the local context come in?
Given that we will be in the Las Vegas Trail area, I have to give thought to how I am going to build in my team and my region the skills and mindsets to work effectively with the community. We’re going to serve a community that needs, at a minimum, to experience our school as a safe place where trust is at the core of the work.