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Top Academics but Little Diversity at New Charters

Two new charter school operators have come to Texas promising a collegiate atmosphere. But along with their academic goals come extra fees for parents and a record of serving disproportionately affluent and white students.

Parents look over books and ask questions about curriculum during a parent information session for the new Great Hearts Monte Vista Charter School to open in San Antonio at Temple Beth-El, October 29, 2013.

On an evening in late October, several hundred parents crowded into a Temple Beth-El auditorium near downtown San Antonio to learn about a new school opening next fall.

They were told of a campus culture that makes the cultivation of “wisdom and virtue,” not standardized test scores, a top priority — but still sends most students to top colleges and universities. There would be a strict uniform policy and an atmosphere in which parents could feel safe dropping off their children for the day.

During a roughly 90-minute presentation that name-checked Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Herodotus, John Locke and Dostoyevsky, the parents heard about a liberal arts curriculum steeped heavily in the Western classical canon that tackled the “primordial human questions,” nourishing intellect and character.

“The people in this room, you have an opportunity to get into this school, not the wait list,” Dave Williams, the school’s executive director, told them.

Williams was not describing an elite private academy but a publicly financed charter school, the Phoenix-based Great Hearts. In addition to its San Antonio location, the school is awaiting the state’s final approval to open a campus in the Dallas area.

Along with Basis, a second Arizona-based school that opened its doors in northwest San Antonio this year, Great Hearts’ presence signifies the emergence of a new kind of charter school in Texas. Often dependent on infusions of private money and parents’ contributions to supplement their programs, these schools go after students seeking intensely focused academics in a collegiate atmosphere and acknowledge that they do not serve every kind of child. But the reliance on additional fees and other policies at the new schools have amplified an already contentious debate over what it means to provide a public education.

“The schools are academically rigorous. Any kid can go, but these schools aren’t going to be for every kid, just as Harvard or Princeton isn’t for every kid,” said Phil Handler, a spokesman for Basis. “If your kid is there, we’ll do everything we can to help them keep up, but for some kids it’s not the kind of education they want.”

Unlike many Texas charters, particularly KIPP and IDEA public schools — which both formed with a mission to reach economically disadvantaged communities — Basis and Great Hearts tend to end up with student bodies that are disproportionately affluent and white.

At the 16 campuses that Great Hearts operates in the Phoenix area (where nearly 60 percent of public school students are Hispanic or black), 69 percent of the nearly 7,000 students are white. Only two of Great Hearts’ Arizona campuses participate in a federal program that offers free and reduced-price meals for low-income students. Of the almost 5,000 Basis students in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, roughly 12 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are black. None of the eight campuses in Arizona offer free and reduced-price meals, which is also the case at the San Antonio school.

Both Basis and Great Hearts have come to San Antonio as part of Choose to Succeed, an effort backed by a coalition of local philanthropic foundations, in a bid to increase the city’s number of charter schools. The operators, recruited particularly for their success in sending nearly all of their graduates to select colleges and universities, have received about $3 million each through the year-old campaign, which aims to establish a minimum of 80,000 new seats in charter classrooms — or more than 20 percent of Bexar County’s public school population — by 2026.

Choose to Succeed has committed about $30 million so far to expanding the operations of six charter school networks in the city. To date, most of that money has gone to the Texas-based KIPP and IDEA Public Schools. About $5 million is earmarked for Rocketship and Carpe Diem, which are known for their virtual-learning programs.

Taken together, all six charter networks reflect the diversity of the families that Choose to Succeed wants to serve, said Matthew Randazzo, the group’s president and chief executive.

“As a community, about two-thirds of our kids in San Antonio are low-income, and we wanted to build a movement and a set of operators that really mirrored our community,” he said.

But some practices at Great Hearts and Basis have raised doubts about their commitment to economically disadvantaged or otherwise academically challenging children.

Concern over Great Hearts’ model led the Nashville school district to deny its charter application last year because of what one official described as “serious and persistent questions about their definitions of excellence, and reliance on selectivity and mission fit for success.”

Both Great Hearts and Basis are what Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, refers to as “à la carte schools,” because while they are tuition-free, they charge fees for uniforms, field trips, extracurricular activities and athletics. In some instances, that can amount to more than $1,000 per student annually. On top of those fees, parents are also encouraged to assist the schools financially through personal donations. With neither school providing transportation to their campuses, parents with limited financial means could face an additional obstacle.

In Texas, charter operators may exclude students only based on their disciplinary history. They cannot consider factors like socioeconomic background, race or past academic performance in the application process. But those prohibitions can be insufficient to prevent a practice some education policy experts call “creaming,” in which charter schools pull in only the highest-achieving or most dedicated students from traditional public schools. That can also happen after students enroll in charters, where a lack of remedial support and rigorous curriculum can lead weaker students not to return.

“Some charters have perfected the art of creating barriers to low-income kids,” Heilig said. “If you have to run a steeplechase to get into a school, most low-income parents aren’t able to do that, especially when they are working two or three jobs.”

Peter Bezanson, Great Hearts’ chief academic officer, said that in Nashville, the school board had manufactured complaints about the school’s plan for diversity because it did not want the competition.

He said the school’s financial inability to provide transportation created a challenge, but that parents organized car pools and distributed bus-route information. He also said the school never allowed financial need to keep a student from participating in a trip or extracurricular activity.

"For us, diversity is really hard,” said Bezanson. “It's been something that is really important to us, and we've worked really hard to increase our access to diverse student populations and markets." 

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