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Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: How IDEA Public Schools is Closing the Gap

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and Secretary Duncan’s visit to South Texas, today we are highlighting IDEA Public Schools, a Texas-based Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) grantee that’s been recognized for helping Latinos, particularly English language learners, make strong achievement gains. Just last month, the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for Hispanics named IDEA a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education.

In 2012, IDEA won a Race to the Top – District (RTT–D) award aimed at personalizing student learning and closing achievement gaps. IDEA is also a past recipient of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant and grants from OII’s Charter Schools Program. IDEA’s network serves approximately 24,000 students in 44 public charter schools across Texas. More than 90 percent are Hispanic, and a third are still acquiring English speaking, reading, and writing skills.

For nine consecutive years, 100 percent of IDEA’s graduating seniors have been accepted to college, and achievement scores have consistently been above the state’s average. We checked in with Tricia Lopez, IDEA’s Director of Special Programs, about what’s behind the network’s success and how the RTT–D grant has been helping the network meet its goals.

Meeting Local Needs and Personalizing Learning

Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco speaks to IDEA Public Schools students in Texas’ Mid-Valley.

Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco speaks to IDEA Public Schools students in Texas’ Mid-Valley.

The 2012 RTT–D grant came during a critical period for the network. Around that time, IDEA was experiencing increased demand for its schools, particularly from students with limited English proficiency, according to Lopez. “The grant came at an important time, and it helped us to really step back and think strategically about how we were serving this population,” she said.

To help their English language learners, IDEA educators and leaders have created personalized learning experiences that differentiate instruction for each English language learner. IDEA uses adaptive technology designed for kids learning English and assesses their individual reading, writing, and speaking skills and helps them improve at the appropriate pace.

“This differentiation is critical. I could have 50 English language learners in a grade. They can range from having not one word of English to being pretty far along in terms of their language acquisition, but not quite fluent. It only makes sense to vary their instruction, but that doesn’t always happen in schools,” Lopez said.

Supporting Teachers

The RTT–D grant has also helped IDEA with teacher training, particularly making sure educators have the tools and background they need to close gaps between English language learners and their peers. The grant has helped pay for teachers across grades to receive in-person and online training in “sheltered instruction,” which gives general education classroom teachers specific training in working with students still acquiring English language skills to access grade-level content.

“It touches on things like: what kind of materials you should have in your classroom; what kind of strategies you should use for math; the value of word walls; having more frequent checks for understanding; and giving students more time to answer questions,” Lopez said. “These are common sense but not necessarily intuitive, especially for teachers early in their careers. It has to be on your radar, and the training helps with that.”

These efforts are paying off. Scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) for ELL students rose by double digits over the past two years, faster growth than for any other subgroup of students in the network. As it continues to progress, IDEA is proving that when given the right supports, all students—no matter their background or first language—can learn and succeed.