Before heading into a classroom, Principal Giovanni Outram sits down and does his homework.

He does all the assignments a teacher expects students to have completed. He even takes an occasional math test and learns the power in having those crucial skills. This all gives Outram insight into what his students at IDEA Achieve Academy have to do day in and out.

This practice also helps Outram understand how his campus was able to perform better than expected on the standardized tests that Texas mandates students take. The school was widely considered to be a failing campus when Outram started leading it in October 2021. About a year later, the school is expected to earn an A when the state issues ratings Aug. 15.

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.

Outram’s campus is one of many schools seeing a bounce back from pandemic-induced academic setbacks. Third- to eighth-grade students in charter schools across Fort Worth made gains on this year’s state standardized test, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, over their 2021 performances. However, state data shows a mixed bag of results when compared to Fort Worth ISD. Some charters had several grade levels that performed worse than the statewide average. 

Five charter schools performed better on both the math and reading tests than Fort Worth ISD: Great Hearts Lakeside, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts Elementary, Texas School of the Arts, High Point Academy Fort Worth Elementary and IDEA Edgecliff Academy.

Three charters performed worse than Fort Worth ISD: International Leadership Texas East Fort Worth, Uplift Ascend and Uplift Meridian. Uplift Elevate and Uplift Mighty performed worse than Fort Worth ISD on the math test.

Harmony Science Academy-Fort Worth and IDEA Rise Academy saw fewer students fail the math test than Fort Worth ISD. And East Fort Worth Montessori Academy performed better than Fort Worth ISD on the reading test.

Making the grade is critical for any public school in Texas, but especially for charters. If a charter school has low academic accountability ratings — or financial performance ratings — for three consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency can revoke its contract.

‘A little bit more time’

A shock to the system. That is how Remy Washington, the president of Uplift Education, described her charter network’s 2021 STAAR results.

When the state released 2022 results, Washington said, she was glad to see her Fort Worth schools had gains in reading and math. Still, math did not see as much growth as reading.

“We felt that we were trending in the right direction,” she said.

Still, Uplift is one charter that performed worse on reading and math than Fort Worth ISD. The differences on the reading assessment are in the single digits, while they are larger on math. The charter has four campuses in Fort Worth: Uplift Ascend, Uplift Elevate, Uplift Meridian and Uplift Mighty.

Students in the third through fifth grade at Uplift Ascend and Uplift Meridian had higher failure rates than Fort Worth ISD on the reading test. On the math exam, all campuses performed worse than Fort Worth ISD.

Part of why Uplift is behind the traditional public school on reading is that the charter is still shifting its literacy curriculum, Washington said. The change started in 2019 — and was immediately disrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to go virtual. Teachers also had to learn how to deal with this hybrid approach to their classrooms on top of figuring out the new curriculum. 

Uplift also revamped its math curriculum in 2019. The subject is now conceptually based rather than a more old school memorization approach. Students have to explain why and how they got their answers. Sometimes this means students grapple with understanding a concept, such as multiplication, and how it works.

Two years later, Washington says Uplift is beginning to see the fruits of the reading curriculum changes. 

Washington acknowledged that math will take longer to see better results. The differences in how reading and math are taught and learned explain that, she said. Students first learn how to read then shift to reading to learn. On math, though, students stack concepts on top of each other every year.

The math shift was tougher than the reading changes, she said.

“It’s going to take us a little bit more time to get our teachers used to teaching in a way that has a more enduring understanding of mathematics concepts,” Washington said.

Another factor that explains Uplift’s results is that all students are in International Baccalaureate, a model of classes that prepares students for college, Washington said. Classes tend to be more rigorous and college-like. 

Other schools typically require students to test into IB classes. Because all students are in IB classes, some will be challenged more than others, Washington said. However, Uplift provides support to ensure students, regardless of their IB performance, can perform well.

“It definitely pays off typically by middle school, where I think our scholars demonstrated greater strength in English and literacy,” Washington said.

Washington knows her campuses have a long way to go, but she believes they can reach a district-set goal. By the 2025-26 school year, Uplift wants 70% of students to score at grade level or mastering grade level on STAAR tests.

‘We do it hand in hand’

Anika Perkins is the chief academic officer at the Texas Center for Arts + Academics. The charter operates the Texas School of the Arts and the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, two of the best performing campuses in Fort Worth.

At Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, no third-grader failed the reading test. In fact, 92% of third-grade students met grade level. All 38 students in the grade passed the reading STAAR test. Nearly all students in fourth, fifth and sixth grades passed the reading exam. The same is true of students at the Texas School of the Arts, which has third through 12th grade.

Both schools saw higher rates of failing students on the math test when compared to the reading exam. However, most passed the exam.

Perkins attributes her students’ success to the charter having a smaller enrollment compared to a more traditional public school. Texas School of the Arts had about 300 students last year, while the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts had about 620 students.

This all means students in Texas Center for Arts + Academics have a more intimate learning environment, Perkins said.

“We have the opportunity to have a small learning environment that provides a little more attention to each student’s needs than what you may see in other ISDs and even other charter school districts,” she said.

What Perkins sees as setting this arts-focused charter apart from other schools is how it can target individual students and meet their needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that larger schools have to use.

To ensure students did not slip further, the Texas Center for Arts + Academics identified students who needed tutoring. This was a requirement under Texas House Bill 4545, a measure lawmakers passed to give more learning time to struggling students. Perkins pointed out a flaw with that law: TEA cannot ensure school districts follow it.

On top of tutoring, Texas Center for Arts + Academics started using the testing group NWEA’s exam called MAP. The assessment is administered at the beginning, middle and end of a school year, and tracks students’ academic growth. The test allowed the charter to help students faster and reteach some lessons. The assessment tends to have a close correlation to how students will do on their state assessments.

Many of these strategies will continue in the 2022-23 school year, Perkins said. 

The new school year also will mark the start of a more rigorous STAAR test that is exclusively administered online. Teachers have spent the summer preparing their lessons for the new version of the state test.

Despite all of the changes in the past few years, Perkins is hopeful for the new school year. She thinks the Texas Center for Arts + Academics is positioned for success.

“We don’t just focus on academics, but just as our name states, it’s academics plus arts. We do it hand in hand, and I definitely know that plays a part in just how our students are able to perform so well,” Perkins said.

New year, new test

An IDEA Public School class is seen on May 3, 2022. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Aug. 8 was the first day of classes in IDEA Public schools. Outram, the principal at IDEA Achieve Academy, was prepared for a busy, hectic day. It was anything but that, Outram said.

Outram has told his teachers to focus on building a solid foundation for the new school year. Students need to feel safe and supported, he said. They need to know their work will be celebrated. But most importantly teachers and students need to build relationships with each other.

This is how Outram plans to keep his school’s level of academic performance high in the 2022-23 school year. The academic achievement component will come in time as the campus focuses on small reading groups and ensuring students understand conceptual math.

Outram sees all of this as crucial as the new school year will mark the start of a new version of the STAAR test. The exam is expected to be harder and more rigorous. Any school leader would rightfully be nervous, but Outram isn’t. In fact, he’s looking forward to the shift because he sees the state’s changes as skewing closer to IDEA’s approach to education.

“I’m really excited for us to continue to just build on what happened last year and make our school even stronger and grow,” Outram said.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org 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

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.