Ana Martinez Shropshire, the executive director of IDEA Public Schools Tarrant County, is proof that teachers and the impact they have on a student matters.
Shropshire was an El Salvadoran undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 4. She lived in California with her mother and her side of the family. With what was an equivalent of a GED, Shropshire’s mom had the highest level of education on her side of the family. For much of her childhood, Shropshire lived under the poverty line.
Two experiences in school changed the trajectory of Shropshire’s life. The first was when a trusted teacher showed she cared for Shropshire not just as a student, but as a whole person. The other was a teacher in high school who saw potential in her and set high expectations for her, like applying for and getting into college.
These life experiences left their mark on Shropshire, who went on to earn a political science degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and serve as an educator and administrator around the nation before leading IDEA Public Schools Tarrant County. They also provided her a mission in life: to give students a chance to experience what she had growing up — tough, caring teachers who want to see their students succeed.
Ana Martinez Shropshire
Education: Bachelor of arts in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a master’s in elementary education from Loyola University Chicago
Experience: Teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District; led recruitment for a region for Teach for America; founding principal of Rowe Elementary School in Chicago; executive director of midwest regional programs at New Leaders for New Schools.
Family: Married to Christopher Shropshire, who works for the Rainwater Foundation, and they have two daughters, Cataleya and Zinnia.
“I fundamentally believe that my story should not be the exception, and that every child should be able to frankly have access to a really good education,” Shropshire, 40, said.
After leading IDEA Public Schools in Tarrant County for more than four years, Shropshire is leaving to work for the Opportunity Trust, a nonprofit advocating for charter schools in St. Louis.
She announced her plan to leave IDEA on Tuesday. Shropshire and her family plan to stay in Fort Worth. She decided to take the new job because a former colleague from Teach for America, who now works for the Opportunity Trust, told her about an opening at his organization.
“I’m excited to take (what I learned in Tarrant County) to then really support the Opportunity Trust and its vision to do similar work in the city of St. Louis to build a really strong ecosystem that is in service of kids in schools, but also in service of the economic development of the entire city,” Shropshire said.
‘Kids can achieve at high levels’
Two years before IDEA opened its first Tarrant County campuses in 2019, Shropshire moved to Fort Worth to begin laying the groundwork for the school. Creating a school is not just about constructing a building and recruiting students and teachers. She needed to understand the context of why these charter schools were needed and to become familiar with Fort Worth.
“For all intents and purposes, I’m an outsider to Fort Worth; I didn’t grow up in Fort Worth. I’m an outsider to Texas; I didn’t grow up in Texas. Even though I’ve done similar work in different parts of the country, local context matters,” said Shropshire, who previously worked for Teach for America, New Leaders with New Schools and a charter school in Chicago.
One of the first sites IDEA honed in on for a campus was in the Las Vegas Trail area in west Fort Worth. At the time, the neighborhood was frequently in the news because of its high rates of crime and poverty. City leaders, though, started a project aimed at revitalizing the Las Vegas Trail area, and part of that puzzle was education.
Shropshire joined a committee looking at education in this part of west Fort Worth. She toured the neighborhood schools, which did not have the best grades, and started building relationships with principals, community leaders and residents.
The Las Vegas Trail campus, one of four IDEA schools in Tarrant County, opened in 2019. The school is called IDEA Rise, and is split into two campuses, IDEA Rise Academy is the elementary portion and IDEA Rise College Prep is the middle and high school part. All IDEA schools are split like this.
IDEA Rise’s inaugural year coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which started impacting life in March 2020. Despite that, Shropshire said the charter school outperformed nearby schools in the Las Vegas Trail area.
About 48% of middle schoolers at IDEA Rise met grade level on this spring’s state standardized tests. At nearby Leonard Middle School, only 9% of students met grade level.
“It’s the same demographics, same community, same COVID — and kids can still achieve at high levels,” Shropshire said.
Charters vs. ISDs
In Texas, charter schools are public schools that operate through contracts approved by the State Board of Education. While they are privately managed, they are funded entirely by the state or donations.
Independent school districts also receive funding from the state and can levy a property tax. Elected board of trustees provide oversight for traditional public schools. Charter schools have an appointed board of directors.
Traditional public schools must offer services, such as lunch, transportation and special education, to fit the needs of all students. In most cases, charters are not required to do so.
Like ISDs, charters must meet state accountability requirements and will receive an overall letter grade for the network, as well as a grade for each campus in its system.
Fort Worth ISD leaders argue a fairer comparison would be to compare their schools of choice, such as its early college high schools, to charters. Traditional public schools have to take all students in, while charter schools have an open enrollment application process. To attend IDEA, families apply and then are picked through a lottery.
Willie Rankin is the executive director of Las Vegas Trail Rise, the private-public collaboration trying to revitalize this area. He said not only are students better off with IDEA, the school has begun to change the neighborhood’s identity. Many of the buildings around it were built in the 1970s.
Through its physical presence and infusion of education, Rankin said, the school is a bright spot in the neighborhood.
Councilman Michael Crain, whose wife works for IDEA, has known Shropshire since she first came to Fort Worth. At the time, he was then-Councilman Brian Byrd’s district director and helped introduce IDEA to the idea of building a campus in west Fort Worth.
Through IDEA, Shropshire has given so many children a life-changing opportunity to get an education and become first-generation college students, Crain said.
“Being an outsider, she came into Tarrant County and said, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and has worked hard with stakeholders and parents,” Crain said. “I don’t think anybody else besides her could have done it.”
‘A strong educational ecosystem’
Although IDEA Public Schools Tarrant County is fairly new, the larger organization is not and has recently been embroiled in controversy.
In May, IDEA, the state’s largest charter network, fired two of its top leaders for misusing school funds. State leaders, including one of Fort Worth’s representatives on the State Board of Education, have called for more accountability for charter schools.
Shropshire said what has happened at the top of IDEA is unacceptable and has hurt the charter network. However, she did not expect that situation to hurt IDEA in Tarrant County. IDEA is new to this area and is hundreds of miles from the more established networks in the Rio Grande Valley.
“For many of our families, their connection to our school is by way of their child and their child’s first connection is their teacher,” Shropshire said. “The physical separation, along with the historical separation, in many ways, is something that we have benefited from in terms of the impact the top would have on a parent or a child.”
A strong, thriving school system needs support from community and city leaders, Shropshire said. Without it, the area will not be able to achieve its economic development goals and bring more people to Fort Worth.
“We need to have a strong educational ecosystem, and it cannot just be one approach,” Shropshire said. “It has to be high quality, high-performing traditional school districts; high quality, high-performing charter systems; high quality, high-performing private schools. There is space in the ecosystem for multiple entities to do the work.”
Even in the middle of a pandemic, Shropshire believes students can achieve at levels never seen before. Parents and educators must be empathetic yet direct in achieving success, she said. It’s tough, but she knows it’s doable for her students because she knows what it feels like to be behind in a foreign place.
She thinks about the year she spent in her home country, El Salvador, with her father. Her mother sent Shropshire to their home country because she was about to lose her. Their home life was rough. El Salvador was an unfamiliar place for Shropshire, and her father was basically a stranger. His side of the family was the opposite of her mother’s; they were all college educated and had the means to send Shropshire to private school.
She was 14 and entered school academically behind and with a language barrier. Shropshire could not speak nor write in standard Spanish. A teacher at the all-girl private school helped her and showed her she needed to hit smaller milestones, filling in the gaps, before she caught up to her classmates.
“(My teacher) would acknowledge my truth. She would empathize with my truth, but our time wasn’t spent solely on that,” Shropshire said. “She spent a lot of time on building my skill that created a beautiful space for my truth to exist while I was growing.”
Not only did that year in El Salvador give another life lesson to Shropshire, but it showed her what education should be like for children, especially for those who come from a similar background.
“That then really taught me the power of what an educational experience can be like for someone who has access to an experience that is rigorous, ambitious, full of high expectations and hope,” she said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.