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An Unusual Pairing: In This Texas District, Public School Kids Mix With Charter School Kids

Bill Zeeble
In Spring Branch ISD's Landrum Middle School, ISD kids and KIPP charter kids take combined gym classes. The ISD/charter partnership is among a handful in the country

Public schools and charter schools often have relationships that range from wary to downright hostile. But in the Spring Branch school district, covering parts of Houston, they’re co-existing -- in the same buildings. Could this unusual partnership -- one of just a handful across the country -- be a model for North Texas? 

One recent school day, students sang “I want to be happy, but I won’t be happy 'til I make you happy too…” -- it seems like a typical fifth-grade boys choir class in Spring Branch’s Landrum Middle School.

Jaime Trigo led students through the lyrics and dance steps for an upcoming concert.

What’s not typical?

Some students are public school kids, but others belong to the KIPP Courage charter school. Students from both are in the same building.

That doesn’t happen in Dallas because of friction between public schools and charter schools. Maybe that’s because charters don’t offer teachers the same employment benefits. Or because teaching methods are different. Public schools also accuse charters of cherry-picking better students.

To Trigo, the choir director, kids are kids.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Landrum choir director Jaime Trigo led a fifth grade boys class consisting of both public school and charter students. He says it's "awesome."

“And once they get in my class, they sing," Trigo says. "We got both kids coming in here all the time and so we see all the KIPP kids coming over here. It’s awesome.”  

"A great partnership"

Two years ago, Spring Branch ISD formed a partnershipwith two charter schools. Under that partnership, charter students started attending classes in public middle schools. All the kids come from the  surrounding neighborhood, which is low-income and home to Hispanics and blacks.

These partnerships are still relatively rare in Texas and across the country. In Texas, there are similar collaborations in Aldine and Austin. The Spring Branch partnership has received $2 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 2010, the foundation has invested in public school-charter school collaborations in about 20 cities across the country.

In Spring Branch, Trigo likes having a larger choir.

“My choirs are great, but with having [these]extra kids in here, so it’s like a huge group, it makes a great partnership," Trigo said.

But teachers weren't always accepting of this type of partnership.

“KIPP used to be ‘come to KIPP because we’re not them,’" said Eric Schmidt, the KIPP principal at Landrum Middle School. "Which is not OK in the partnership we have. Our spiel is [now]: 'Come to KIPP, it’s a different opportunity.' Every kid needs a different option.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Eric Schmidt is principal of the KIPP Courage School in Spring Branch ISD's Landrum Middle School. Landrum has 650 students in the building. KIPP has about 200.

"Meet the needs of my own children"

The change in the spiel came from the top -- from Spring Branch superintendent Duncan Klussman, whose three children taught him about school choice. He says they have different needs. While they're close in age, they attend different public schools. He’s the one who welcomed the charters into his schools.

“I just wanted to meet the needs of my own children,” Klussman says. “And I think that’s what any parent wants in a public school setting. So I really look at it in those terms and a parent can look at our three programs, they can dive deep into them and say which one best fits the needs of my kid.”

The two charters both have longer days, teach motivational skills, and emphasize college. Spring Branch has more arts, sports, and special education options. Math or English are taught in separate classrooms. But some classes, like physical education, blend kids from both schools.

In the gym, students stretched and warmed up while chanting multiplication drills borrowed from KIPP schools. Klussman, the superintendent, also borrowed some core values from the charters, such as kindness or grit.

“It’s as important to teach culture before you jump into teaching content,” Klussman said.That if you just want to jump into teaching content and you don’t pay attention to culture, that has an effect on the campus and a classroom and a whole school system.”  

"We're aiming at the same goal"

Longtime Landrum art teacher Andres Bautista adopted some KIPP values, too.

“The character strength we’re focusing on is grit, and it’s getting toward the end of the school year," Bautista said. "So the kids are always ready for summer. I said: 'Wait, we need to finish this, show grit, until you accomplish your goal.'”

Partnership leader Mandele Davis hopes the schools are accomplishing the goal of working together so kids can benefit.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Mandele Davis directs the SKY Partnership that integrates and coordinates the KIPP and YES Prep charters in two Spring Branch ISD schools.

“So instead of having a charter put in a building in our neighborhood to take our kids, let’s go ahead and work together because we’re aiming at the same goal," Davis said. "So we’re not competing against each other. We’re competing and cooperating.”

Concerns from teacher groups

Craig Adams doesn't share in the excitement. For years he was a classroom teacher. Now he’s president of the district’s largest teacher group, the Spring Branch American Federation of Teachers.

“I know for a fact there are teachers that could do just as good a job, if not better, than any charter school,” Adams says. “I’m not picking on KIPP or YES. I’m just saying we already had those resources, so what was the reason we had to bring in charter schools? I don’t understand why we went outside of the district, nor do I see the need for it.”

Instead of investing time and resources into the charter partnership, Adams says school leaders should improve academics, starting with the reduction of high teacher turnover rates. He says at some Spring Branch schools, as many as half the teachers left last year.

“I find that troubling and inexcusable that half the faculty are not returning to that campus or that 30 percent are not returning to some of the campuses," Adams says.

Rena Honea, president of Dallas ISD’s largest teacher group, the Alliance/AFT, is also leery of public-charter school partnerships.  

“The research on charters shows that the charters, in large, are not as effective as our public schools," she says.

Honea says charters compete for valuable public resources -- another reason she’d be suspicious of a partnership.

“If we’re going to have a public neighborhood school system, which is a bedrock of communities and families, then those dollars need to be there," Honea said. "If they want a charter district or school, let outside funders fund those and be accountable to them.”

Dallas’ superintendent and trustees aren’t openly talking about a partnership that would put charter schools under the same roof as public campuses. But board members and administrators across the state may be watching what’s underway in Spring Branch ISD.

See the PBS News Hour'sstory on the Spring Branch-charter school relationship.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.