The Academy of Stone Oak is a proposed public charter school that, once approved, will open on the far north side of San Antonio in August 2019. The charter school promises to continue the rigorous, well-rounded education offered by the elementary and middle school programs at the Buckner Fanning School at Mission Springs (BFSMS), a Christian private school that opened in 1998. The proponents of the new charter school recently held a community meeting to discuss the charter application process and the school’s new form after the transition.
Transition from Private School to Charter School
As a private school, BSFMS currently serves grades pre-K 3 to 12. The classrooms are clustered in small buildings on a hilly site dotted with live oak trees. The campus is located at 975 Mission Springs, San Antonio, TX 78258 (map), north of Loop 1604, in the Stone Oak area of far north San Antonio. The school’s namesake, Buckner Fanning, was a well-respected pastor who died in 2016.
Principal Sharon Newman is a veteran educator and school leader; before joining BFSMS in 2012, she was principal of Hardy Oak Elementary in North East ISD. Newman has a queenly presence, wise and serene, but also no-nonsense and precise.
Dr. Steve Dellenback, a vice president at Southwest Research Institute, served as facilitator at the community meeting about the charter school application. Dellenback’s tone was calm and analytical, but also optimistic. Board president Broolynn Chandler Willy is the CEO of a financial advisory firm.
BFSMS has strong academic offerings, but a dwindling student body. Newman cited Stanford test results showing students performing 2–3 grade levels higher in reading and math. The school offers small class sizes, and the current student-teacher ratio is 16:1. Current enrollment in grades K–8 is 160 students, but the campus has a capacity of 324 students. The teachers have an average of 20 years of experience, and Newman has 18 years of administrative experience.
Dellenback and Newman were frank about their reasons for applying for a charter: the cost of private education is increasing, but they are losing students to tuition-free public charter schools. They referred to Families Empowered data showing over 13,000 students on charter school waiting lists in San Antonio. The school leaders feel that as a charter school, the Academy of Stone Oak can offer the quality of education of a private school, but at the cost of a public school. They acknowledge that North East ISD and Northside ISD have good schools, but do not have schools to serve everyone. Currently, there are no charter schools located above Loop 1604 in San Antonio, and traffic patterns make it difficult for families to reach the closest charter schools, Great Hearts Northern Oaks, BASIS San Antonio Primary North Central, EKHLA, or Anne Frank Inspire Academy.
Charter School Model
The school leaders at the Academy of Stone Oak community meeting sought to explain to families what the new charter school will be like and how it will continue the traditions of BFSMS. The mission statement declares: “The Academy of Stone Oak empowers all students through an integrated educational experience inspiring them to discover, cultivate and live their passion.”
The charter school curriculum will retain key elements from BFSMS, including Core Knowledge, Singapore Math (K–5) and Saxon Math (6–8). For language arts, the charter school will adopt Spalding Phonics. Technology will be present in the classroom. Character development will be taught through literature, whereas the private school used Bible passages. Students will participate in community service.
The Academy of Stone Oak will continue BFSMS’s enrichment programs, including theater and drama, horticulture, music, art, library studies, foreign language, and physical education. Newman spoke about how enrichment programs help the school to educate the whole child. The school will offer competitive sports and plans to join the Texas Charter School Academic & Athletic League (TCSAAL).
The charter school will continue to offer small class sizes and a low student-teacher ratio. In grades K–2, classes will have a maximum of 16 students; in grades 3–5, maximum 18 students; and in grades 6–8, maximum 20 students. Newman believes that keeping class sizes small will allow for more individualized instruction. Since charter schools receive less funding per student than traditional public schools, maintaining small class sizes will be a challenge, but it’s essential to the school culture.
BFSMS prides itself on offering STEAM: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) plus A for Arts. Newman cited research showing that exposure to the arts helps students build skills in creativity and critical thinking, and those skills carry over when students are using technology.
As a public school, the Academy of Stone Oak will not offer Christian education during school hours. Without going in to detail, school leaders assured concerned BFSMS parents that they would call on local pastors to organize a Christian education program on campus outside of school hours, either in the morning, in the afternoon, or both. “We are still fleshing it out,” said Newman.
The charter school, as a public school, will offer bilingual education and special education services. Newman added, “Our school will have rigorous standards for academics and behavior. It will be up to the parents to decide if it’s a good fit for their special needs child.” Likewise, as a public school, the charter school will administer standardized tests, including the STAAR. Newman elaborated, “Students will take the STAAR test but we will not focus on test preparation. Doing well on the standardized tests will be the natural result of good instruction.” The students I met, including our campus tour guide, Caden, were excited about the deeper learning in their classes, including middle school science teacher Justin Hartshorn’s dry ice apparatus (pictured) and variety of animal dissections.
The school day will last from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and the school calendar will include enough days to meet the state required number of minutes of instruction. As a public school, the Academy of Stone Oak will have an attendance policy—after all, the school receives state money based on student attendance. Students will continue to wear school uniforms, as they do at BFSMS.
If the application is approved, the Academy of Stone Oak will begin operating as a charter school as early as August 2019. In year one, the charter school will serve 324 students in grades K–8 in two classes per grade level. The goal is to expand to four classes per grade level by year five. Dellenback showed drawings of what a facility expansion might look like, provided that enrollment continues to grow. After five years, the school may amend their charter to add grades 9–12, but the cost per student is higher for high school, so they will continue to operate as private school for now. Pre-K for three- and four-year-olds will continue to operate as a private school.
All the current faculty will be invited to teach at the charter school, and there will be new roles to fill with highly qualified teachers. Newman spoke passionately about her ideal teacher: “A principal surrounds herself with great people and lets them do their job. We hire teachers who love to teach.” As I toured the campus, I met teachers who were humming with excitement about their jobs, including first grade teacher Julee Evans (above) and middle school history teacher Cynthia McDaniels (below). These are the kind of teachers that students toast at their weddings years later.
Newman also spoke about the school culture she tries to create: “Joy in learning is possible for us [teachers] and for the children. We must do what is right for the children, not what is easy for us.” A school should also be inclusive: “We must be driven to help all students succeed.”
The leadership of the new charter school will be substantially the same as the private school. That continuity makes it likely that the charter school will continue the private school’s tradition of high quality and close-knit school culture.
The Academy of Stone Oak leadership team will include several members of the BFSMS administration, including Principal Sharon Newman, Director of Admissions Griselda Reyna, Business Manager Paula McCain, and Director of Development Lindsay McGrath.
The Academy of Stone Oak board, which also overlaps with the BFSMS board, will include officers Brooklynn Chandler Willy, President; Maria Araujo, Vice President; Alan Madera, Secretary; and Lauren Garrahan, Treasurer; members Erach Songadwala, Andres Munoz, Keven Horne, John Tafolla, Steve Dellenback, Cindy Dellenback; and advisors Mark Boussy and Jason Garrahan.
Parent involvement has been a strength at BFSMS, and Newman assured parents that their involvement will be welcome at the Academy of Stone Oak charter school as well.
The Academy of Stone Oak is preparing its charter application for submission to the Texas Education Agency in December 2017. If the application is graded highly enough, they will be invited for an interview at the State Board of Education in March 2018. In June 2018, the Commissioner will make a decision about whether the application is approved. So, August 2019 is the earliest possible date when the school would operate as a charter school.
School leaders reassured families that the enrollment process for 2018-19 would proceed as usual, and the school would continue operating as a private school. Assuming the charter application is approved, the school would choose a date to hold open enrollment for 2019-20, perhaps in January 2019. There will be no lottery; rather, applications will be received on a first-come, first served basis. Newman spoke about using an online system that would add a time-and-date stamp to each application. If more students apply than there are spaces at the school, those students will be added to a waiting list in the order in which they applied. The enrollment system will recognize sibling preference: if one sibling is enrolled, all other siblings will move to the top of the waiting lists of their respective grades. Students enrolled in the private pre-K program will not have preference to enroll in the public kindergarten, but students in K–8 will not need to re-enroll every year.
To stay up to date, follow the Academy of Stone Oak Facebook page and group. You may email questions or messages of support to Charter@TSAMS.org. The main number at BFSMS is 210-721-4700. A page of the BFSMS website is set up to accept questions about the charter application.
If the Academy of Stone Oak successfully makes the transition from private school to public charter school, then it will give families on the north side of San Antonio another high-quality, free education option. I will be following the progress of their charter application and sharing information about enrollment opportunities with my readers.