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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

#1 school for rigor is charter on Mexican border

At IDEA McAllen College Prep, a charter school near the Mexican border, 77 percent of students come from low-income families and nearly all are Mexican-American.

IDEA McAllen ranks first in the nation on Jay Mathews’ 2022 Challenge Index, he writes in the Washington Post. The index measures the percentage of students taking rigorous courses and exams, rather than test scores.

Alejandro Castillo, a student at IDEA McAllen, won first place for microbiology at a University of Texas-sponsored Science and Engineering Fair and the Naval Science Award. He plans to become a doctor.

“It has by far the highest percentage of disadvantaged students of any school” that’s made the top of the index, writes Mathews.

Principal Robert Garza IV, who like his students grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, believes hard work will pay off.

Students must take 11 Advanced Placement courses and tests, starting in ninth grade, to graduate.

In addition, writes Mathews, “juniors start the International Baccalaureate diploma program while also taking APs. By the end of senior year, all students have taken six IB exams (some longer than three hours) and written an IB extended essay, a research paper that must be 4,000 words long.”

IDEA high schools have an 8¼-hour day. That may explain why four IDEA charters make the top 10 on the index.

Two young teachers started the nonprofit charter network in 2000 in the Rio Grande Valley. IDEA now runs 137 schools with 72,000 students in Texas, Florida and Louisiana.

BASIS charter schools, which started in Tucson in 2001, also require all students to take multiple AP classes. Parent demand is high: There are 34 BASIS schools in Arizona, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C.  Students excel. However, most students come from relatively advantaged families.

IDEA took the AP idea from BASIS to build the network’s reputation, founder Tom Torkelson told Mathews. Admission officers thought “our students weren’t smart, they were just the smartest students at a low-income, minority school.”

IDEA mandated a minimum of 14 AP courses and exams. At first, it was “a disaster,” Torkelson recalls. 

“We invested in fanatical teacher training and support and we required each new teacher to take AP exams as part of their selection process,” he said. “We often hired teachers who only scored a 1 or 2 [on the 5-point grading scale], but they were smart, passionate, and we knew that if we put them through rigorous training where they both learned the content and the best ways to teach it clearly, they could succeed.”

The percentage of IDEA students passing AP or IB exams took eight years to reach 50 percent, writes Mathews. “The national passing rate for all AP students, most of whom are not low-income, is about 60 percent.”

When Mathews started the Challenge Index in 1998, 16 of the 20 top schools enrolled students from middle- and upper-middle-class families. This year, charters comprise 15 of the top 20, including eight schools in the IDEA network and four in the BASIS network.

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