A nationally prominent charter school organization setting up shop in Louisiana is already well-staffed considering its first two Baton Rouge schools won’t open for 15 more months.
IDEA Public Schools has hired six administrators but also, in a less common move, 12 teachers for its planned schools in north and south Baton Rouge. Starting in mid-June, they will all head to Texas, most of them spending the 2017-18 school year working in the schools in the Rio Grande Valley, where IDEA built its reputation.
“I’m excited about the culture and the food and just to try something different,” said Cecilia Broussard, a Baton Rouge native who has left a job at an engineering firm to teach kindergarten. “It will be completely different for me because it will be a different career.”
The charter management organization operates 51 schools and has plans to expand to 172 schools by 2022.
Its south Texas schools in particular have earned accolades for high academic performance with a largely poor, Hispanic population. Five IDEA high schools are in the top 10 of The Washington Post’s most recent annual list of America's Most Challenging High Schools. IDEA did well, though not as stellar, on the much differently determined U.S. News and Reports’ Best High School list; three of its schools made the top 100 with its Edinburg, Texas, school leading the way at number 43.
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In May 2016, IDEA Public Schools won a charter with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system to open two charter schools in Baton Rouge in fall 2018 followed by a third in 2020 and a fourth in 2021. They will be K-12 schools divided between an elementary “academy” and a secondary “college.” Its contract allows IDEA to enroll as many as 6,144 students, and state law would allow the organization to enroll another 1,228.
The initial 12 Baton Rouge teachers for these schools are being hired as part of a new Founding Teachers Fellowship program, which is partially funded by an $11.9 million federal charter school expansion grant. The money is helping underwrite IDEA’s expansion into Louisiana as well as into the city of El Paso, Texas.
Ken Campbell, executive director for IDEA Public Schools Louisiana, said he’s hired a mix of first-time teachers like Broussard and ones with more experience as a part of a strategy of “growing our own.”
Many new charter schools hire a school director well in advance of opening, and IDEA is no exception. IDEA has six potential school administrators it’s training to work in Baton Rouge and also possibly at two schools IDEA was recently approved to start in New Orleans in 2019 and 2021, but Campbell said the organization has yet to settle on which administrator will end up where.
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Hiring teachers so far out from the launch of a new school, however, is a rarity. Typically, teachers are hired months ahead of time, in some cases, just days. Campbell, former director of charter schools for the Louisiana Department of Education, said he’s not aware of any program quite like it and said its new this year to IDEA.
“We think the key to being successful in our schools and making the progress that our kids need us to make is going to be largely dependent on having quality teachers,” Campbell said. “We know there is some competition out there for quality teachers.”
“We want them all to be great teachers, and we hope this is a first step towards allowing them to do this,” he added.
Broussard and two other newly hired IDEA teachers joined Campbell this week at IDEA’s downtown Baton Rouge office to talk about the adventure ahead. None has ever visited, much less lived, in the Rio Grande Valley, and none of them speaks Spanish.
Debricca Webster, a 10-year veteran educator, has spent the past several years working at the same school in Pineville and was looking for a change. Webster saw the job ad, and as she researched IDEA, she grew excited about the opportunity. She said she will be at IDEA Frontier College Preparatory Academy in Brownsville.
Selling her two sons, though, on moving 500 miles away to a town on the Mexican border for just a year wasn’t so easy. She had to work especially hard on her oldest son, who just finished ninth grade.
“It was really hard convincing him to change anything let alone switch schools, leave his football, his baseball, his soccer team, leave all his family, leave everything,” Webster said. “I really sold him on it and told him how great it’s going to be. I imagine a year from now he’s going to be mad again because we have to leave.”
Her younger son’s reaction was much different. After breaking the news a few months ago, the 11-year-old asked if they could leave right away. More recently, he went to a Books-A-Million and bought a book for the trip.
“He was like, ‘Momma, look! ‘Spanish For Dummies.’ I’m going to learn and I’m going to teach you.’”
Tanyatta Mayo, a native of Opelousas who spent three years teaching in charter schools in Baton Rouge, is headed to McAllen, Texas, ahead of her peers. She wants to catch the last week of school at IDEA North Mission Academy. She will work there full time next year as a sixth-grade math teacher.
Mayo said she’s already getting constant communication from her prospective faculty. The welcoming, support-filled atmosphere of IDEA was evident to her during the first phone interview she had with an IDEA representative when that individual told her: “The thing with is, we want you to retire with us.”
Those were the words she wanted to hear.
“I was like" — Mayo belted out a high note worthy of an opera singer — “'Say it again!'”
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Campbell said he wants to see a blend, where these teachers bring back the best that IDEA has to offer but then translate that for children in south Louisiana. In IDEA’s original schools, the educators live in the communities of the children they educate, and he wants that to happen in Baton Rouge too.
“The goal is not to send them there and to have them teach exactly the way they teach in the valley,” Campbell said. “The goal is to make sure they are familiar with this system, they know what it takes to be successful, but then we hope that people bring it back and they put it in the right context for Louisiana.”
Broussard said the fellowship program should pay dividends.
“You get to go with 12 other people from Baton Rouge and the area, and then you get to come back after having this whole year’s worth of experience and start a school,” she said. “It’s a cool sense of community.”