One of the fastest growing charter school operators in north Texas is Uplift Education. This August, it’ll open its first Fort Worth schools and its newest Dallas campus in Deep Ellum. KERA Bill Zeeble wondered, who is Uplift Education?
In the hallway of Peak Preparatory elementary school, near downtown Dallas, the walls display Peak’s scores from national tests. There’s the Iowa Basics and the Common Formative Assessments. Here teachers push performance. Peak’s Primary Director, Chris Garcia, says college is the constant focus.
Chris Garcia, Primary Director of Peak Preparatory: So whatever college the teacher went to, that’s what its named for. Aggies, Longhorns, and Red Raiders in the corner. Every single day I walk into the classrooms and say “Good morning Aggies, good morning Longhorns,” and we start talking about our day and, today we talked about persistence and what does persistence mean? It means never giving up.
Garcia and I walk into a 4th grade class.
Sean Swift: Welcome to Peak Academy, my name is Sean Swift, where every second counts.
K through 12 Peak Prep opened almost 221 million seconds ago - in 2005. Since then, every student has graduated and gone to college. It’s the 12th ranked high school in the nation, according to the Washington Post. And the 2nd charter school opened by Uplift Education. The first was North Hills that opened two years after Texas authorized charter schools in 1995. North Hills ranks 10th in the nation, say Newsweek and the Washington Post.
Uplift says it succeeds because 100 percent graduation and 100 percent college acceptance is the goal. Not 90 percent, not 95 percent. As charter schools, Uplift’s now nine campuses are public, with some leeway. For example, Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia says Uplift does not have the same kind of teacher contracts that public schools have. So she can, and has, fired teachers.
(Uplift Education's overview-video covering North Texas schools)
Bhatia: And so if there is a teacher who is not as effective as they can be and it happens to be in the middle of the year, we can make a change in who their teacher is, where that’s not as easy in a traditional ISD.
Bhatia says she’s also free of an elected school board.
Bhatia: …and all the implications that come along with that. Our board is a non-profit organization-board. And so we are able to screen board members to make sure they are mission-aligned and also our board is structured so that way they are governing vs. a managing board and really is an enabler for us.
What’s a “plus” for charter schools counts as a knock against them to David Lee. He’s with the Alliance/AFT, DISD’s largest teacher group.
Lee: I believe in local control and charters do not answer to any local board or any local elected officials.
Lee says if parents have a problem with an Uplift school that cannot be solved by the teacher or director, the only option is to complain to the Texas Education Agency. Lee says that can be daunting. He also says that despite charter school’s open enrollment, through a lottery system, charter schools can and do influence who attends. It starts with parents submitting their child’s name to get in.
Lee: Our contention is that you’re already self-selecting students with involved, motivated parents. Whereas in a public school, they accept all students regardless of parental involvement or direction at home.
Lee says Uplift also has a student/parent contract. Break it, and the school can dismiss the student. Lee says DISD cannot do that. Public high school teacher Dan Williamson, who used to teach at North Hills, also wonders about students who don’t want to pursue college.
Dan Williamson, science teacher: I’ve had several students grumbling. I talked to a friend of mine who has a friend there who’s planning on going into the military after he graduates this year. This kid, they’re giving him a hard time because he’s not planning on enrolling in college.
CEO Bhatia says Uplift has some students like that every year. It might be someone who just wants to work on cars.
Bhatia: If you want to go into a specific trade, great. Would it be helpful to have two years at a community college so you know how to run the books if one day you have your own auto shop? So we try to draw those connections for individuals.
Bhatia says there’s also nothing like peer pressure, especially when every graduate will announce at the ceremony where he or she will attend college in the fall.
Bhatia is aware of those who say Uplift competes with and hurts DISD. After all, most of Uplift’s $45 million budget comes from the state, through its students. If they weren’t enrolled in Uplift, most of those 6,000 students, and the funds they bring, would be in DISD schools.
But Bhatia says Uplift and DISD have a partnership, and both systems – though different - want the best for all students. In the case of charter schools, however, there’s only room for a tiny fraction - three percent - of DISD’s population to attend.