When charter schools do well, they often have a lot to brag about. The best-performing charters boast of well-behaved students who earn top grades, high scores on standardized tests, and astonishing college-acceptance rates compared to neighboring district schools. Charter school critics, however, attribute many of these gains to the practice of cherry-picking students.

When a charter can choose only top-performing students through selective admission or else cull under-performing students through arbitrary zero-tolerance behavior policies, they can better control the students that ultimately matriculate. This claim has been discussed at length, but remains a hot topic among charter school communities around the country.

At George Gervin Academy in San Antonio, Texas, the conversation has never been about competing with the city’s best schools by selecting the students most likely to succeed—in fact, quite the opposite.

The academy actively seeks out the city’s most challenging students, the ones who might otherwise fall through the cracks. A full 100 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a metric commonly used to mark students from lower-income backgrounds. Minority enrollment is pegged at 96 percent.

If George Gervin Academy cherry-picks students, it is to select the ones who need the most support.

The Impact of Serving At-Risk

Opened in 1995 as a dropout recovery high school and one of the first generation of charters in Texas, the George Gervin Academy is actually six campuses in one—with five campuses in San Antonio and one in Phoenix. There are traditional elementary and middle school students spread across the charter district’s five campuses, as well as an alternative credit recovery. The alternative programs offer special services for pregnant students and actively reach out to the juvenile justice system to recruit students. All told, the schools serve about 1,500 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Serving so many at-risk students has certainly had an impact on the Academy’s evaluation scores.

Just two years ago, the school met state accountability standards, but the school leadership was not happy with the performance of certain population sub-groups. According to Jesse Villanueva, the Principal and Director of Schools at the Academy, “the mobility of students and teacher retention were the major problems.” Mainly because the new teachers wanted the traditional school experience and salary, 35 to 40 percent of teachers were leaving the district each year.

With this rate of turnover, Villanueva says, “Academic scores were up and down, not stable, because one year you had a good teacher, the next year you had a poor teacher.” And, he adds, “It takes a special person to take on the responsibilities of working with an at-risk population. When students come from low-income families with one person working, it made it hard to get parents involved.”

(Next page: How the charter district began to thrive)

Reaching Success

In 2015, the district addressed this last issue by launching a major outreach effort within its community. It began building better relationships with parents, formed a data-management committee to develop and track academic goals, and created partnerships with local businesses to provide work and technical education opportunities.

But the Academy knew that, if it wanted to make real gains and close the achievement gap, it was going to have to address its teacher retention problem. It began by tightening teachers’ relationships to their students’ lives.

The academy implemented a looping model for grades 3-5, where the same group of students stay together for all three years with a single teacher. It also started encouraging—but not mandating—home visits to help teachers connect more directly with parents. Villanueva recalls one teacher who visited students who had discipline and attendance problems. Inspired by the resulting 100 percent passing and attendance rate, “that teacher came up with a system to encourage other teachers to make home visits.”

At the same time, Gervin began working with the Educator Effectiveness Process (EEP), a five-year, Teacher Incentive Fund grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IIA designed to improve teacher quality. The funding came via a nonprofit, called Youth Empowerment Services (YES), which works directly with teachers and their administrators to identify and tackle problems associated with equity gaps, to help teachers acquire effective solutions to everyday problems, and to set performance measures that help gauge progress.

Specifically, though, the EEP initiative is designed with teachers in mind. The cornerstone of the grant, and YES’s involvement, are base salary increases, one-to-one coaching for teachers and robust professional development focused largely on increasing educator effectiveness based on the needs assessed at the high-needs schools. Teachers meet with coaches on a weekly basis, have three formal observations each year, and receive additional support and mentoring as needed. To maintain a cohesive culture of feedback in each school, new principals get coaching as well.

Teachers also are exposed to data and analytics gathered from their classrooms. They meet with peer groups to discuss what’s working and what isn’t, but Villanueva is quick to stress that it’s all conducted in a nonthreatening environment that doesn’t punish teachers for mistakes. The emphasis is on teachers learning from teachers.

In the same way that the district encouraged teachers to engage parents in the community, the Academy has engaged its teachers in more decision-making outside of the classroom. “Teachers sit on committees that move schools in a certain direction,” says Villanueva. “They take more ownership and are starting to view the school as a career.”

The EEP grant has helped teachers follow a career path by offering both money and options. In the first year, the grant upgraded the salaries to be more competitive with the local public school districts’. Based on their observations and the data gathered from their classrooms, teachers were scored on a scale from 1 to 5 and earned bonuses for 5s.

The grant also helped the Academy create the positions of career teacher leader and expert teacher leader, which offer new responsibility and additional pay. Villanueva says career teacher leaders spend 80 percent of their time in classroom, while also leading meetings and conducting walkthroughs for other teachers. Expert teacher leaders only spend 10 percent of their time in the classroom. As Villanueva puts it, they are “more administrator than teacher.”

Measurable Success

By all accounts, the opportunities that the collaboration with YES have provided are having a powerful impact. In a state where one in six teachers leaves their jobs each year, George Gervin Academy now boasts of a near 100 percent retention rate for teachers in grades 3-12. Its high school graduation rate has climbed, to 96 percent, and its state school rating has been upgraded to an A-.

In 2016, the district won five of a possible seven Gold Distinction designations from the state of Texas and boasted a zero percent dropout rate. When compared to the top 40 schools in the state, it has been ranked #1 as a school making progress and #2 when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

As the schools improve, they’re able to put a new emphasis on preparing students better for college and careers, with plans to open a new trade-based high school that will offer students a diploma plus credential or hours towards a license in careers such as HVAC, plumbing, or construction and the medical field.

The Academy is also introducing a new gifted and talented track and launching a robotics program in middle school. With the help of YES, the district has been able to widen its focus beyond teacher retention, student attendance, and discipline to issues like the sustainability of academic initiatives. As Villanueva looks to the future, he says, “We want to make sure our students are successful and take on new opportunities.”

About the Author:

Stephen Noonoo is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant covering the intersection of education and technology.