During one of her regular visits to schools, Dolores Gonzalez perches in a miniature chair with a group of 4- and 5-year-olds gathered around their teacher.
“What’s the name of the school you go to?” the teacher asks. “IDEA Public Schools,” the children respond in chorus in English—a language many of them barely spoke at the beginning of the school year.
Gonzalez extends her hand to high-five a little boy for answering correctly. He slaps her hand off-center, but enthusiastically.
Even in this prekindergarten classroom, the expectation is clear. Students work in small groups named after universities, and their blue uniforms have “no excuses” embroidered in yellow on the chest. Like many large charter school networks, IDEA Public Schools serves mostly poor, minority students, and its mission is to send them all to college after high school.
As IDEA’s chief program officer, it’s Gonzalez’s job to shape the academic programs to make that goal a reality. She’s in charge of everything that’s taught in one of the nation’s fastest-growing charter networks, with 51 schools that are mostly located in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, along the U.S.-Mexico border.
From the network’s pre-K program to its initiative to get all IDEA’s high school students taking Advanced Placement courses, Gonzalez takes a holistic approach to academics and college prep.
“Pre-K eliminates the achievement gap for us at a very, very young age, all the way to AP, which is the other end of the spectrum,” says Gonzalez, whose brown eyes widen when she’s emphasizing a point. “If I were king of the world, I would have every single school district have pre-K.”
The AP program, she says, gives students not only the skills but the confidence that they can do college-level work. Like Gonzalez herself, many of IDEA’s students are first-generation college-goers. And most of the network’s 30,000 students come from low-income Hispanic families. A third of them are English-language learners.
But nearly every student who graduates gets accepted into a college or a university. The six-year college-graduation rate for IDEA’s alumni is 35 percent, which is not high, but it’s more than three times the national average for low-income students who are the first generation in their families to attend college, according to the Pell Institute, a research group that focuses on college attainment among low-income and first-generation students.
The network was recognized last year with the prestigious Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, an annual award that singles out high-performing charter networks that serve large proportions of low-income students and students of color.
Motivation to Teach
Gonzalez, 39, didn’t originally plan on a career in education. She went to school to become a psychologist, a career path, she jokes, that she abandoned after she saw the movie, “The Silence of the Lambs,” the 1991 thriller that features a brilliant former psychiatrist in prison for serial murder and cannibalism.
Shortly after Gonzalez graduated from college, her older sister began teaching kindergarten, and Gonzalez started tagging along to some of her classes. She loved what she saw. She also had a deeply personal motivation for considering teaching as a career.
“At the same time I was thinking a lot about my younger brother Rudy, who has special needs and was in a special ed. classroom his entire education career, and thought, ‘I could marry the two together. I could be a teacher and I could teach kids like my brother,’ ” Gonzalez says.
She switched gears and returned to Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she got her master’s degree in special education and a teaching certificate. Gonzalez landed her first job as a special education teacher in San Diego, Texas, about an hour west of Corpus Christi.
It’s been nearly 15 years since she taught at a small school in San Diego, where Samuel Bueno was principal at the time, but he remembers her well.
Now the superintendent of the San Diego Independent school district, Bueno says Gonzalez possessed rare qualities in a teacher, and he’s not surprised she’s now in charge of academics at a large charter school network.
“Dolores was the type of teacher that could impact those kids that nobody else could reach,” Bueno says. “And she understood that paramount to being a special ed. teacher was to collaborate. Not everyone gets that. But a leader is going to reach out and collaborate with their peers and make the school better for everybody.”
On a recent autumn morning, Gonzalez launches her day with a series of meetings and a large Starbucks coffee, before heading out for a school visit in the afternoon.
From IDEA’s newly built headquarters in McAllen, Gonzalez drives narrow two-lane roads with eroded shoulders, through farmland and past businesses with Spanish names.
Her destination is IDEA Pharr Academy, which sits three miles from the Pharr International Bridge, a major point of entry into the United States from Mexico.
Gonzalez selected this school to pilot the network’s first pre-K program in 2014 because it presented some of the network’s biggest challenges.
“They had a 99 percent ELL population of kids coming in having no English at all—just completely Spanish-dominant,” Gonzalez says.
As seen in many of IDEA’s schools, the majority of students at Pharr Academy were starting kindergarten already behind in basics such as letter and number recognition. Despite all the catch-up work that needed to be done, Gonzalez opted to make the program a half day so that it would be completely funded by the state and be of no extra cost to the network.
But half days led to another challenge—parents didn’t know what to do with their children for the other half of the day they weren’t in school. So Gonzalez found a solution, partnering with nearby childcare centers to look after students for the time they weren’t in school. Pharr Academy and the child-care centers swap students midway through the day, so parents don’t have to worry about transportation. Although parents must pay for the childcare, they are often charged a reduced rate as part of the partnership with IDEA.
Also key to the pre-K program’s success, says Gonzalez, was preparing teachers through specialized training, which focused on issues such as managing classrooms of 4-year-olds and how to encourage good attendance among families, a particularly tricky issue for half-day programs.
Since then, the network has opened pre-K programs at 11 additional schools and plans to launch nine more next year.
Before it launched pre-K, half of IDEA’s students were entering kindergarten behind. Now, those going through pre-K programs are starting at grade level, which, Gonzalez says, is essential to keeping students on track for later coursework.
“Now when they leave pre-K, they are ready to start kindergarten at lesson one, and many are starting at lesson 20 now,” Gonzalez says. “We hope to see that trickle effect all the way up to our pre-AP courses in middle school and our AP courses in high school.”
Insight From Former Students
In 2014, Gonzalez also launched her Advanced Placement for All initiative, an ambitious program that requires all of IDEA’s high school students to take 11 AP courses before they graduate.
The impetus came from IDEA’s recent alumni, many of whom say they didn’t feel like they were prepared for college-level coursework. Gonzalez described their feedback as “devastating” but a clear signal to her and her team to change what they were doing in high schools.
In response, they implemented the AP for All program, which has a twofold goal: to better prepare students for the rigor of college courses and to help ease the financial burden of higher education by allowing students to earn college credits before leaving high school.
Gonzalez says the higher expectations were a shock to students and teachers in the first year. Again, she smoothed the transition by providing extra training for teachers during summer break. That support continued into the school year, with Gonzalez brokering a partnership with the National Science and Math Initiative to provide individual mentors for teachers.
Students also start taking courses in middle school to prepare them for AP-level classes in high school.
In the program’s first year, 13 percent of IDEA students qualified as AP scholars, a recognition for students who score high enough on at least three AP exams to receive college credit. The second year, that number nearly doubled, and Gonzalez expects it to be even higher this year. At Pharr Academy’s high school alone, 29 percent of incoming seniors were AP scholars.
It’s too early to know if the AP for All program is improving college-persistence rates, but Gonzalez hopes the program will push that number up as well.
Pre-K eliminates the achievement gap for us at a very, very young age, all the way to AP, which is the other end of the spectrum.
Gonzalez credits the nimbleness of a charter school network’s structure for her success in being able to pilot and launch both the pre-K and AP programs in the past four years. She’s not sure she could have had the same impact in a traditional district.
While she came to her education career through her family’s experience and connections, she came to her leadership role at IDEA by accident. She thought she was interviewing for a special education teaching position; instead, IDEA offered her a job as the network’s first special education director.
“The first thing I noticed was mission fit,” says JoAnn Gama, IDEA’s superintendent and one of its co-founders, of her first impression of Gonzalez. “We had this big goal that every student goes to college, and we were asking, ‘what does that look like for students with special needs?’ Dolores had a vision for what that would look like.”
But Gonzalez wasn’t sure she was up to the task. She figured if she couldn’t handle the job, IDEA could fire her in a year and she could transition back to the classroom.
This is now Gonzalez’s 11th year with the charter network.
“When I got connected with IDEA and found out that the mission is to get 100 percent of our students to and through college, I thought about how my parents pushed us to go through college,” she says. “We need to make sure that we are talking about this with our students as young as pre-K. … I think that we have a responsibility to make sure that we are talking to our first-gen college students and teaching them the skills they need, teaching them what college is going to be like, so they can achieve that goal of graduating from college within four years.”