Yasmin Bhatia,CEO of Uplift Education, shares an office with her chief financial officer and five other people in one of the charter school network’s old primary school classrooms in Dallas.
The space sharing is an example of how some charter school operators in North Texas are working to keep administrative and overhead costs low while ratcheting up student achievement.
“I office out of a classroom with six other people,” Bhatia said. “It really speaks candidly to how frugal we are.”
In a study of how schools and districts get academic results with budgets tightening, the Texas comptroller’s office singled out what it defined as four North Texas charter operators as being five-star operations, the highest rating: AW Brown-Fellowship Leadership Academy in Dallas, Children First Academy of Dallas, North Hills Preparatory School in Irving and Peak Preparatory School in Dallas. The latter two are run by Uplift Education.
At AW Brown-Fellowship Leadership Academy in southwest Dallas, an experienced staff and an eagle eye on the bottom line provided the combination to qualify for the operator’s five-star rating, Principal Paula Brown said. The academy has 1,350 students, an accountability rating of “recognized” and a spending index of “very low” at $5,969 per student, according to the comptroller’s statistics.
“As charter operators, most of us came to education with a business background, so there was already that element of understanding that any school is also a business,” Brown said. “Even though it’s nonprofit, it’s still a business that has to be run with fiscal responsibility and foresight.”
James Montfort, the chief financial officer at the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade academy, said the school has set up a “gain sharing” plan, similar to profit sharing in the private sector, that incentivizes employees to meet certain targets. If the school performs well academically, parent satisfaction ratings are high and the school exceeds its budget, a portion of the excess is returned to employees, he said.
“We use a different model than is customary in the public school system,” Montfort said. “We look at our organization as if we were in business, and our business is educating students. That produces a different mindset.”
North Hills Preparatory has an enrollment of 1,335 students, an “exemplary” accountability rating and a “very low” spending index at $5,789 per pupil, according to the comptroller’s statistics. Peak Preparatory has an enrollment of 898 students, an “academically acceptable” accountability rating and a “very low” spending index at $6,549 per pupil. Both are kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools and are run by Uplift Academy, which has seven campuses in the broader Dallas area.
North Hills Preparatory and Peak Preparatory have had 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rates for the past two years, and Uplift expects them to repeat the trend this year, Bhatia said. She credited the schools’ committed staffs, small classes, rigorous curriculum and intensive tutoring and counseling with the perfect graduation and acceptance rates.
“We are very intentional about our spending, and we truly prioritize putting as many dollars as possible toward classrooms and students,” she said, “whether it’s teachers’ salaries, textbooks or other things that help toward instruction and student learning.”
Setting high expectations — including the expectation that every student will go to college and be successful there — is part of the formula at Uplift’s schools as well, said Philip Montgomery, founding chairman of Uplift Education.
“The culture part is so important,” Montgomery said.
Uplift’s counselors help students develop competitive college applications, prepare for college admission tests and interviews and find scholarship money, then they follow through with encouragement and help after the students get to college, Montgomery said. Uplift and other charter schools attract teachers who are passionate and committed to the cause and willing to work longer hours, including nights and weekends, he added.
Uplift’s mission is serving economically disadvantaged students, meaning the charter operator locates its schools in areas in which 70 percent to 90 percent of students are eligible for the free lunch program, Bhatia said.
“The only way we know how to exist is on lean dollars,” she said. “Charters receive about 20 percent less funding than a traditional public school from the state. So in the entire history of the organization, we’ve always had to operate lean and mean.”
Children First Academy of Dallas has an enrollment of 318 students, a “recognized” accountability rating and a “very low” spending index at $5,954 per pupil, according to the comptroller’s statistics.
Statewide, demand for charter schools is growing, with applications from those who want to build open-enrollment charter schools rising to 49 this year, compared with 32 applications last year and 28 two years ago, according to the Texas Education Agency. About 130,000 students attend the 206 open-enrollment charter schools that exist statewide.
Many existing charter schools have waiting lists and are growing to meet the demand. For this school year, existing charter school systems opened 52 additional campuses — up from 44 new campuses opened during the 2010-2011 school year, according to the TEA.
Bhatia said she expects demand for charters to continue to grow as parents seek out alternatives.
“We’re filling a need,” she said. “We’re getting results.”