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Big IDEA: Blending the Valley

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IDEA Public Schools is a high performing K-12 charter network with 30 schools with a current enrollment of over 15, 000 serving low income communities in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Austin. Virtually all of their students graduate and go to college.

With support from Charter Schools Growth Fund and others, IDEA will grow to 60 schools in 2017.

The secret sauce is equal parts expectations and execution. Banners in every school make explicit what you see in every classroom: closing the achievement gap, whatever it takes, team & family, sweating the small stuff, no excuses, and 100% every day.

As fourth grade teachers, JoAnn Gama and Tom Torkelson founded an after school program in Donna Texas in 1998. They received a charter in 2000 and opened a school with grades 4-8. When I first visited the K-12 campus in 2004 they were preparing for rapid expansion. The ambitious strategy of using the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum to prepare first generation student for college was compelling. They've grown and improved every year since.

Elementary blend. For the last three years, IDEA has been rotating elementary students through a computer lab at least three times a week to supplement core instruction and personalize learning. In math, students use Dreambox, ST Math, Reasoning Mind, and ThinkThroughMath. Core math instruction includes rotations of Khan Academy.

In reading, the Direct Instruction core is supplemented by lab use of Imagine Learning for some ELL students. Intermediate grades stay current on the news and practice critical reading with Newsela. This year, for struggling students IDEA added blended intervention services including a 90 minute block with Sylvan tutors using adaptive reading software on iPads with groups of three students. IDEA students also read a lot of books in the Accelerated Reader Zone.

Pablo Mejia, Director of Individualized Learning, reports typical challenges--the need for single sign on and unified reporting. They wish it were easier to link learning lab data with classroom assessment. The tech team is also searching for ways to monitor student progress and evaluate all systems for effectiveness.

Talent development. With the aggressive growth plan, more than a third of the teachers are new each year. Valley native Audrey Hooks, Chief Human Assets Officer, leads the recruiting efforts. She is proud of their track record of leveraging local talent--78% are Hispanic. Audrey is a Teach for America alumni and sourced about 12% of the IDEA teachers through TFA.

IDEA makes some use of co-teachers in primary grades to reduce the size of reading groups. The paraprofessionals with degrees can become Teacher Fellows--a pathway to a full teaching position for those that are interested and capable.

Before opening a new school, administrators serve as Principal in Residence for one intensive year.

Next. IDEA's track record makes it one of the best school networks in America. It made our Smart List of top school networks. Like other great Texas networks YES, and KIPP, IDEA sends all of its grads to college but not all of them stay and earn a degree--suggesting an opportunity to improve persistence and preparation.

IDEA secondary schools achieve good results with traditional methods. Teachers work very hard. A blend that boosts student engagement and agency may be part of the solution and will be explored through the work outlined in the RTTD grant.

IDEA won a RTTD grant and is using the grant to explore options to "ensure that all elementary school students perform at or above grade level by grade six" and boosting college readiness and success among secondary students.

The next iteration of their blended learning plans will enable further differentiate instruction and pacing for students and better support improve practice by educators.

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