Women We Love: IDEA Public Schools co-founder a pillar in education community

JoAnn Gama, co-founder of IDEA Public schools, poses at the IDEA Public Schools headquarters on Wednesday, Mar. 6, 2019, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Editor’s Note: In observance of Women’s History Month, The Monitor is recognizing local women who inspire us. This is the third of eight profiles on those who made our 2019 list of “Women We Love,” a series we’ll publish every Monday and Thursday in March.

IDEA Public Schools co-founder JoAnn Gama helped build an institution that prompted school districts in Texas to transcend their models.

Gama, an accomplished educator who expanded a nationally renowned curriculum, recalled Wednesday her roots when pushing the next generation to succeed.

Gama helped build IDEA Public Schools’ initial campus in Donna, serving fourth through eighth grade in 2000 to a network of over 70 campuses across Texas and Louisiana.

IDEA now helps move students toward college and supports them after graduation.

She said growing up in a low-income area on the north side of Houston made an impression on her with regard to approaching education. These experiences helped her address the struggles of her students first in Donna, and later throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Now, the headquarters for current operations are located in Weslaco.

Implementing those similarities during her childhood experience helped her reach out to students as a teacher and later an administrator.

“Kids in those communities, like the community in which I grew up, they can learn, and they can do well and they do want to be taught,” she said.

There are systems she considered unfair that led to students failing, and she wanted to change that, Gama said. She, along with CEO Tom Torkelson, founded IDEA Public Schools together via the first campus, IDEA Academy in Donna, to close the gap in student success and provide college preparation.

However, she did not always pursue a path toward being an educator.

Gama attended Boston University on a scholarship after graduating high school in 1993. After finishing college, she was not entirely sure of her future, but saw an advertisement for Teach For America, an organization where teachers commit to educating students in a low-income area for two years.

She applied and took a position with the organization, expecting to leave after the initial two-year period. She decided to stay long-term in the profession after a few months into the job.

Shifting from a teacher to an administrative role was a slow transition for her, with direct involvement in the classroom decreasing over time. Gama said maintaining a personal relationship with students is important but new responsibilities inhibit the amount of face-to-face time toward facilitating that connection.

Although she doesn’t teach in a classroom anymore, she guides those who will be leaders and role models to children to ensure standards are met for IDEA Public Schools.

The program gives parents and students a say in their future.

“I want communities to know, I want families to know, I want people to know that you do have options; there’s choice,” Gama said.

There is some stigma that charter schools are in the profession for the wrong reasons, but Gama said they are just educators looking toward student success and development like their colleagues in independent school districts.

Although there are strides made in student success, the program is not entirely where it needs to be, she said. The college graduation rate for low-income students attending these schools is higher than the national average, but Gama believes it can improve.

Gama provides a consistent record between expressing her personal beliefs and action, Chief College and Diversity Officer Phillip Garza said. She provides an example to women, her family and to those working under her leadership, he said.

“My expectations are high, because I know they can achieve them,” Gama said.

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