IDEA Public Schools: Fastest-Growing Charter Network Celebrates 20 Years of Impact for Students, Families, Staff and Communities

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IDEA public charter schools student

You may have heard of IDEA Public Schoolsfor its graduating classes’ record 14-consecutive years of college acceptance. But did you know IDEA (short for “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement”) was first incubated as an after-school program in Donna, Texas? Founded by Teach For America teachers Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, the extra-curricular program helped students catch up on academics and prepare for college. 

“There was a need and we saw no one else was meeting that need,” says Tom Torkelson, CEO and founder of IDEA Public Schools. “We said ‘Why not us?’ If we don’t do it, then no one else will.”

As the program began to show promise, it was granted a charter on March 3, 2000 to build expand as a public charter school. What began as a small school with only grades 4 -8 eventually became a full-scale PK-12 grade campus that became home to the network’s first graduating class in 2007.

“What gets me up every day is knowing that because of the work of our teachers, leaders and staff, we have more kids that are graduating from high school and are graduating from college,” says JoAnn Gama, co-founder, president, and superintendent of IDEA Public Schools. “Then they are coming back to their community and not only are they changing their trajectory, but the trajectory of their families."

Thanks in large part to CSP funding,  IDEA Public Schools has grown from a small school with 150 students to 96 schools serving 53,000 students throughout Texas and Louisiana. By 2022, more schools will open in Houston, Permian Basin, Florida, and Ohio which will result in IDEA Public Schools serving 100,000 students across the country.

IDEA is the quintessential example of the impact of CSP funding on replicating successful charter school models. In 2018, the National Alliance was proud to induct Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama the Charter School Hall of Fame.

Other accomplishments from IDEA’s past twenty years, include:

  • Nearly 100 percent college matriculation for 13 consecutive years
  • National Rankings on U.S. News & World Report Top High Schools List
  • As a network, IDEA ranks in the top 25 percent of all schools in Texas in the 2019 TEA Accountability Ratings
  • In 2019, nearly 90 percent of eligible IDEA schools in Texas received an A or B rating from the Texas Education Agency, in addition to eight IDEA schools earning an A in all eligible distinctions
  • Eight high schools within the IDEA Public Schools network in the Rio Grande Valley were ranked among the most challenging high schools in America by Jay Mathews, formerly recognized as The Washington Post Most Challenging Schools List, six of which were ranked top 25 in the nation

Jennifer Flores is the Regional Communications Manager at IDEA Public Schools. 

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