IDEA Public Schools ranks as most challenging in the nation

IDEA Public Schools was recognized by the Washington Post America’s Most Challenging High School list for the second consecutive year with four campuses ranked in the top 20.

IDEA College Prep in San Benito was ranked 16th on the list.

Schools are rated on what Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews calls “the Challenge Index,” which is “total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June,” according to his piece titled “How the America’s Most Challenging High Schools List Works.

Matthews highlighted IDEA in a column also published yesterday titled “That’s the Idea: Some schools serving low-income students believe in a challenge.”

IDEA Frontier College Prep was ranked 15th, IDEA College Prep San Benito was 16th, IDEA College Prep Mission was 11th, IDEA Quest College Prep was 17th and IDEA College Prep San Juan was 28th. Science Academy of South Texas was 49th while South Texas High School for Health Professions and School Texas Academy for Medical Professions tied for 53rd. IDEA College Prep Donna came in 106th.

Percentages of students coming from families qualifying for lunch subsidies are also included on the list and are substantially higher for IDEA schools than others in the top 20.

“What we’ve tried to do with IDEA is ensure parents of very modest means, who cannot afford to live in a nicer part of town with a fancy school or private school tuition, still have access to a very high-quality school that is completely free of charge,” said Tom Torkelson, the district’s founder and CEO. “That’s our moral imperative. That really is our mission: to ensure all children have access to great schools.

“Right now, children from low-income families are graduating college at an 11 percent rate. Students from upper-income families, the top quartile, are graduating college at a 77 percent rate. My goal, by the time I retire, is to make a significant dent in that number nationally.”

Measurements used by the Washington Post’s list align with IDEA’s push for AP courses within last few years, which are available to all students and represent the core curriculum beginning in ninth grade.

“What it means is our students will take at least 11 AP courses by the time they graduate,” Michael Franco, vice president secondary program at IDEA, told the Monitor last September.

If students are to graduate college, preparing them for college-level work is crucial, Torkelson said.

“That’s where Advanced Placement came in,” he said. “We want our students to succeed in college because we know that a college degree is the best inoculation against poverty that we can possibly provide young people.”

Initially, the AP passing rates weren’t great, which necessitated a reassessment, he said.

“Instead of … saying our kids can’t do it, (we asked) ‘what do we have to do differently?,’” Torkelson said. “We realized we had to improve the rigor of our middle school, invest in teacher training and support and we had to focus on this goal like we never had before.”

Torkelson calls himself a competitive person, and was motivated to have more IDEA schools on the Washington Post list.

“I said, ‘My God, our kids need access to schools that are just as rigorous and challenging,’” he said. “The schools that were ahead of us on the list spurred my team and our principals.”

Competition in education is healthy and even within IDEA schools, he said, while they share and collaborate, they’re also competitive.

“Our schools aren’t talking about being in the top 50,” Torkelson said. “They’re talking about which of our schools is the highest rank, what are they doing and how can they learn from their peer so hopefully they can beat their peer next year.

“Hopefully, we can provide that incentive and motivation to others as well.”

IDEA launched 15 years ago with 150 kids and will have 50 schools with 30,000 students by this fall.

“We’re showing that it is possible to grow rapidly and continue to incrementally racket up the level of quality,” Torkelson said.

Children wave through an open window on a school bus at the end of school Monday at IDEA Public School campus in San Benito.