It all began with an idea. What started out as an after-school program at Donna ISD has now become the most sought after school system in the area.
With over 6,000 children currently on the waiting list to enroll at IDEA Public Schools, its founder, CEO and President Tom Torkelson knows many in the Valley share the same beliefs he does about education.
The mission behind IDEA Public Schools is to prepare students from underserved communities for success in college and citizenship offering core classes like math, English, writing, social studies and language arts. Now, since its doors first opened in 2000, IDEA Public Schools has over 5,000 enrolled students in 12 campuses around the Valley — from Brownsville to Mission.
In December 2008, IDEA Public Schools was ranked as one of America’s Best High Schools by U.S. News & World Report. It was ranked as the number one school in the Rio Grande Valley, ranked the number two high school in Texas, ranked sixth as the best charter school in the nation and ranked number 19th best high school in the nation. IDEA Public Schools has also been rated as “Recognized” by the Texas Education Agency in 2008.
The dream for a better education for children is what motivated Torkelson to begin a new school system that would both challenge and prepare area children for college. Torkelson, 34, was a college graduate from Georgetown University in 1997 and enrolled in Teach for America. Teach for America is a national teacher recruitment program that seeks college graduates to teach in under resource communities who have a shortage of teachers in the classroom.
For three years, Torkelson taught fourth and fifth grade at Moya Elementary in Donna ISD. Within that time, he began to notice that students were behind in grade level and not being challenged enough in the classroom.
“The more I began learning about the schools in our community, it was obvious that students were not being challenged,” he said. “The expectations weren’t high enough and the curriculum was not rigorous enough…and it just seems completely un-American that a zip code determines the quality of education a student can receive.”
Torkelson was enraged and became motivated to make a difference in the education system. “I think it’s really easy to complain about all the problems. It’s really on us the citizens to help think of solutions to the problems that face our community,” he said.
Then the idea of opening a school was brought to life. Torkelson, along with JoAnna Gama, created an after-school program within Donna ISD and by 2000, the after-school program was granted a charter from the state of Texas.
At just 24 years old, Torkelson had gone from a teacher in the classroom to the creator of a new school system in the Valley. He was then summoned to Austin to the Board of Education to defend the charter application.
Torkelson said talking to state board members was an intimidating process, but he was glad they listened to his reasons for opening a new school. “They saw the results we achieved as part of school district,” he said.
By March 2000, the Board of Education had approved the charter, and within six months, the doors to IDEA Public Schools were open.
“We started off with 150 students, and we were located on the second floor in a tiny church in downtown Donna,” he said.
IDEA Public Schools has had three graduating classes since its door first opened, and every graduating senior has been accepted to a four-year university. Graduating seniors have been accepted to different universities throughout the United States, including Cornell University and Tuffs University, as well as the local schools in the area.
“Every single student showed up to their first day of college as freshmen and all have remained in college,” Torkelson said with a smile on his face. “That has been our mission, to get every child through and through a four-year college or university.”
Torkelson said the mission of the school is not just to send as many students to college as possible, but to prepare them and challenge them to be ready to succeed. “Anyone can go to college, but actually preparing the students to be ready to succeed once they are there is what it’s about,” he said.
Now with the success and growth of IDEA Public Schools, Torkelson remembers the tough times when they had no funding to buy materials for the school. “It was challenging,” he said. “We had no funding, so we had to convince people to take a chance on us and give us what we needed on credit.”
Torkelson said a significant challenge when he first opened the school was that he didn’t think he inspired much confidence in people when he went out looking for funding. “I would go to them and tell them I was the founder, president and CEO, and they had that ‘Ok, you look really young, I don’t think you know what you are doing,’ look,” he said jokingly. “But we found people who believed in us and supported us.”
Another big challenge for Torkelson was convincing students and parents to stay in the school. Students would come to the school and would see that it was challenging and hard, and would think they were not IDEA school material, he said. Torkelson would tell them to wait a few years and to stay in the school.
“We are not going to give up on you, so you are not going to give up on yourself,” Torkelson would tell the students. “It was putting that belief in parents and children that with hard work over weeks, months, years, they would close that achievement gap,” he said.
The belief to not give up is what has kept the school so successful. Torkelson said the support from the community has reached beyond their expectations.
Torkelson said IDEA Public Schools is working to have 22 schools in 11 communities by the year 2012; this is their 2012 Expansion Plan. The cost is $30 million and they are $4 million away from their goal.
“This means that every child in the Valley will have access to a free college prep education, this is our vision,” he said. “We will serve as proof that our kids are college material and other schools will begin to up their standards.”
By reaching that goal, IDEA Public Schools will serve 15,000 students across the Rio Grande Valley and by 2018 send 1,000 students to college every year which will radically change the trajectory of the Valley.
“To get more students in to college, through college and then back in our community taking on the roles that we need — weather it be civic leadership, economic leadership or family leadership — we know that that is what it’s going to take.”