By Joe Louis Gomez
photo by Frank Martinez
From an early age, IDEA Public School’s co-founder JoAnn Gama has always known that the gateway out
of poverty has to start and end with education. Growing up in inner-city Houston, and attending a high school nearly bursting at the seams with more than 5,000 students, a personal philosophy toward the importance of education was fostered even before she stepped foot on campus as a freshman, she said. “I feel like I entered high school probably a little more mature than most thinking ‘I’m here for four years, after this, I’m going to college and going away,’ Gama said. “I always just knew from an early age that if I wanted to better myself, if I wanted to ensure that I was never going to struggle financially and have a better life options, the way out was through education. That was instilled early on.”
An opportunity to join Teach For America as a senior at Boston University brought her to the Rio Grande Valley for the first time in 1997 where she taught 4th and 5th grade English as a second
language (ESL) classes in Donna.
Just one year later in 1998, she co- founded the IDEA Academy as a ‘school within a school’ inside the Donna Independent School District, along with fellow TFA corps member Tom Torkelson. She and Torkelson applied for a state charter and opened up the IDEA Academy Charter School with grades 4 – 8 in August 2000.
The goal, then and now, she says has always been to change the stakes for low-in- come youth in the Valley. Every year, IDEA puts more students on the path to higher education and a better life, she says.
“If you look at the demographics here, no matter what town or district you’re in, you’re going to be facing a large population of low-income Latino youth,” Gama said. “I’m really committed to my work at IDEA and staying here for the long haul and ensuring we serve more students, so we can ensure more kids are on the path to a college graduation.”
Among the Hispanic population, five out of 10 will graduate high school. Three of those five will be prepared for college, and only one would actually graduate college, according to Gama.
“The real work begins when we start thinking about how we change those statistics and those numbers that are facing our people,” Gama said. “The way to get people out of poverty is to ensure that they have a college education.”
IDEA is a system of tuition-free public charter schools with a focus on college readiness. Beginning in 2000 with one school and 150 students, IDEA now begins the fall semester with 24 schools and nearly 13,000 students from Mission to Brownsville, and four more schools in Austin and San Antonio. Nearly 75 percent of those students are low income, according to IDEA leaders.
IDEA touts a 100 percent rate of students being accepted to at least one college or university. More than 70 per- cent of students are accepted to three or more universities, and about 30 percent are accepted to five or more schools.
The “game changer,” Gama says, will be when IDEA ensures that 85 percent of their students in college graduate within four years. Out of the 314 IDEA alumni, about 40 percent graduated within four years she said.
“It’s not as high as we would like it to be, but it is way higher than the national average for low income Latino youth,” Gama said. “The good thing is that over 90 percent are still in college today. They may not graduate next year, but at least they’re persisting, and they’re still committed to that college education.”
Accountability, tracking students through college and communicating with the 314 alumni who graduated college will be key, Gama said.
“If we can figure this out, I think we can just change the world,” Gama said. “The real work begins when we start thinking ‘how do we change those statistics and those num- bers that are facing our people?’ The way to get people out of poverty is to ensure that they have a college education. If I can figure that out, I really feel we can change statistics for our people.”