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Life as an Alum

Founding & Launching a New School System in Texas

After touring top schools across the state of Texas, 1997 Rio Grande Valley alums Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama were inspired to do more for their students by launching an innovative school system.

By Tom Torkelson

April 2, 2019

Launching IDEA Public Schools

Tom Torkelson (Rio Grande Valley ‘97) was relentless about improving his teaching during his time in the corps. After learning from some of the best teachers at his school and touring the most effective schools in Texas, he was motivated to launch his own school and incorporate the best practices he observed. He and his fellow TFA alum, JoAnn Gama (Rio Grande Valley ‘97) founded IDEA Public Schools in 2000, with the goal of providing students in underserved communities with the same opportunities as their more affluent peers.

I was a first-year teacher. I was grasping for any help I could get so I was visiting all sorts of teachers on the campus and I went to JoAnn's classroom. She was a first-year teacher. She was one of the best teachers on our campus and I thought, this is somebody I'm gonna have to stick close to 'cause I can learn a lot from her.

She and I toured some of the top schools across the state of Texas. We were benchmarking our classroom against some of the best classrooms in the state of Texas and as much as our students were learning, as much as they were achieving, we realized that we weren't demanding enough. That the quality of work, and the rigor of work, and the challenge of work that we were requiring our students to do, simply wasn't on par with what the most affluent students from across the state of Texas were getting.

We decided to do something about that. I launched IDEA in 2000 with JoAnn Gama. Today we have 45,000 students across the Rio Grande Valley and it was the power of the Teach For America network that really opened those doors for us.