Fast-growing charter school network making Houston inroads
Houston’s newest charter school emerges like an oasis on East Orem Drive, a freshly constructed four-columned Georgian-style building on a sparse stretch of the city’s southeast side.
An estimated 1,200 students on Thursday will fill the campus, home to International Leadership of Texas’ newest outpost. Each day, students will speak Spanish, learn Mandarin Chinese and get 45 minutes of physical education from “fitness coaches” resembling personal trainers. They will learn from educators driving home messages about character, civic duty and servant leadership, echoing a military-style ethos pushed by charter founder and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Eddie Conger.
It is a curriculum unlike any other in Texas, one that serves as the center of Texas’ fastest growing charter school network.
“It sounds corny, but in combat, Marines will do just about anything to save a fellow Marine on the battlefield. And the battlefield of education is littered with kids’ lives,” said Conger, 59, who previously was a teacher and principal in Dallas-area traditional public schools for about a decade. “We make every excuse under the sun of why it’s the kid’s fault or the family’s fault for why they’re not successful.”
Six years after opening its first campus, IL Texas, as it commonly is known, quietly has joined the ranks of the state’s largest charter operators, ballooning from about 2,500 students in the Dallas area to nearly 20,000 in four regions. Now, after growing rapidly in the Dallas-Fort Worth and the outskirts of Houston, IL Texas is venturing into Houston ISD’s territory for the first time with its Orem campus.
Its arrival marks another challenge to the state’s largest school district, where 78 charter schools serving about 37,500 students already operate. HISD loses revenue and increases its state “recapture” payment for each student lost to a charter school — though the district also does not have to spend money to educate the child. In recent months, some HISD trustees have lamented the loss of students to charter schools, questioning whether the district should do more to attract families enticed by other educational options.
“I think the charter schools, they have very aggressive marketing plans to attract our students,” HISD Trustee Sergio Lira said. “We need to be more proactive. … We need to demonstrate the things we’re most proud of.”
Statewide, roughly 6 percent of public school students are in charter schools, with enrollment increasing each year since charters first were authorized in 1996. After handing out dozens of charters in the late 1990s and early 2000s, only a few organizations have received charter authorizations in recent years. As a result, much of Texas’ charter enrollment growth has been fueled by larger organizations adding campuses.
For many years, the Houston area’s powerhouse charter organizations — KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony Public Schools — have grown at steady rates, typically adding 1,000 to 2,000 students each year.
IL Texas has taken a more aggressive approach.
Largely by selling about $111 million in non-rated bonds and inking lease-to-own deals with an Idaho-based for-profit charter school company, IL Texas has opened 19 campuses in six years. Nearly all of its schools are housed in stately-looking, newly constructed facilities, which bear a uniform design that has become part of IL Texas’ brand.
Through advertising, community meetings and strong word-of-mouth, IL Texas has attracted thousands of families to its new schools, often opening at capacity. IL Texas’ leaders credit the network’s three core tenets — a trilingual curriculum, emphasizing servant leadership and strengthening the mind-body-character triumvirate.
“I like the languages they have to offer, that they are going to have physical education every day, and that they have a state-of-the-art facility where they’re able to do all this,” said Meshelle Smith, whose daughter just completed fifth grade at IL Texas’ East Fort Worth K-8 campus.
As IL Texas has grown, criticism about its test scores, inexperienced teaching staff and low special education enrollment have followed. Such shortcomings, common to many charter schools throughout the country, have prompted calls from the NAACP and some teachers’ unions to halt charter expansion.
“There needs to be a lot of questions asked on charter schools, their impact on segregation, their impact on finance,” Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, told legislators at a state education hearing last week .
IL Texas officials concede they must improve test scores, pay teachers more and find ways to appeal to parents of students with special needs. They also admit to overextending financially, prompting a temporary halt on new campuses.
Still, administrators are confident they will restart growth plans in the next year or two, eyeing an ambitious enrollment goal: 100,000 students in the next decade.
“The big, hairy, audacious idea is for our Texas kids to be so comfortable with all three languages and cultures that they can fly to Mexico City, then fly to Beijing, and be absolutely comfortable there,” Conger said.
A Marine’s vision
At its heart, IL Texas is Conger’s vision.
After 20 years traveling the world as an infantry officer, Conger left the Marine Corps at age 42, choosing to enter the education field in 2001. He taught public elementary and middle school math in the Dallas area, then rose quickly in the administrative ranks.
By 2008, Conger became principal of Dallas ISD’s Thomas Jefferson High School, one of the district’s most troubled campuses. After instituting a longer school day, a Chinese language program and a culture of higher expectations, Conger and his team produced strong academic results in two years.
Conger hoped to scale his model within Dallas ISD, but his vision met resistance in the state’s second-largest school district.
“There are just so many different stakeholders in those large traditional districts that sometimes it gets to be more focused on the adults than it does the kids,” Conger said.
While still serving as Thomas Jefferson High School’s principal, Conger submitted an open-enrollment charter school application. The Texas Education Agency approved it in 2012.
Initially, IL Texas expected to enroll about 3,000 students, growing to about 6,000 by its fifth year. In their application, IL Texas’ founders planned only to serve students in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Demand proved enormous. After opening with 2,500 students in 2013-14, IL Texas’ enrollment doubled by 2015-16.
IL Texas’ biggest jump came the following year. The network’s leadership convinced 14 investors to bet on the group’s vision for growth, leading to the bond sale. At the time, it was believed to be the nation’s largest sale of non-rated charter school bonds.
The network then struck lease-to-own deals with Athlos Academies, an educational curriculum and construction company based in Boise, Idaho, to build new several new campuses. Athlos has sought authorization to open its own charter schools in Texas, but the state has rejected three applications from the group, often citing its lack of Texas ties. Conger was listed as a proposed board member for Athlos’ charter network.
IL Texas ventured south to the Houston area after three parents approached the network about opening a campus in Katy. Manya Leach, one of original Katy parents, said IL Texas’ language curriculum drove her interest.
“It was nice to see it was kindergarten through 12th grade,” said Leach, whose son will attend ninth-grade this year at IL Texas’ Katy-Westpark High School. “As far as the language piece, we would never have to fight to have Spanish or Chinese taught.”
IL Texas had reached 16,000 students by 2017-18, a five-fold increase from five years earlier. During that stretch, no other charter network grew at a faster rate. In the Houston area, IL Texas already has campuses within the boundaries of Alief, Fort Bend, Katy and Pasadena ISDs.
The growth trade-off
The network’s rapid growth, however, has come with financial costs — potentially to the detriment of students.
IL Texas spent a greater share of its revenue — about 20 percent — on bond debt service and leasing costs compared to similarly-sized traditional independent school districts. The charter district already receives less revenue per student, about $9,500 in 2016-17, than its peers, which get about $11,000.
To pay for buildings and its trilingual curriculum, IL Texas has skimped on teacher salaries, resulting in more inexperienced teachers in its classrooms. State payroll databases show the average IL Texas teacher earned about $47,200 in 2017-18 and had 2.5 years of experience. By comparison, Houston ISD teachers, who rank among the lowest-paid in the region, averaged about $53,500 and 10 years of classroom experience last year.
Compared to similarly-sized traditional independent school districts, IL Texas also spent significantly less in 2016-17 on students with disabilities, $3.5 million versus $10.5 million, and transportation, $630,000 compared to $4 million.
To date, IL Texas’ methods have not produced stronger-than-expected standardized test scores, particularly given that it serves a slightly lower population of economically disadvantaged students than the state average. Reading proficiency marginally exceeded state averages, but math results and academic growth rates were fractionally lower.
IL Texas officials said they are “not satisfied” with the exam results, though they noted that Texas does not test for proficiency in foreign language or physical fitness, two tenets of the district’s mission.
“We’re thinking long-term,” IL Texas Chief Academic Officer Laura Carrasco said. “We know when it comes to research on language acquisition and students in dual-language programs, it’s not short-term. It’s long-term.”
In 2015, the network successfully petition the Texas Education Agency to raise its enrollment cap to nearly 30,000 students. It also received TEA approval to open 10 new campuses in 2019-20: four in the San Antonio area, four in the northeast outskirts of Dallas and two in Harris County.
For now, though, IL Texas is pumping the brakes. After breaking relatively even in its early years, the network ran a $7 million deficit in 2016-17. To date, the network has only purchased four of 17 buildings on lease-to-own deals.
“We’re kind of relishing the opportunity to relax and breathe and see where we are academically, what kind of resources we can provide, what kind of support we can give to our teachers, so that we can, hopefully, get a real clear picture of what a year would be when we just have our kids,” said Alan Seay, IL Texas’ CEO.
Conger, for his part, has no intention of backing off his 100,000-student goal — with an eye on expanding its Houston footprint.
“Yes, I sound like a crazy person,” Conger said. “Getting to 100,000 in 10 years still can be done, but we’re going to have some help along the way to get there.”