Compass Rose Academy founder Paul Morrissey could have moved to a number of great cities to start his new charter school, but he said he chose San Antonio for two key reasons: it is a great place to grow a family and a great place to grow a charter school network.

“There are a lot of really good people doing really good work for kids who really need it,” Morrissey said. “San Antonio felt like the best place to be part of a community.”

Morrissey is a Massachusetts native, but he grew up visiting family in San Antonio. He met his wife while they were working for high-performing charter network BASIS schools in Washington, D.C. Morrissey has also led a BASIS school in Arizona. After Washington, Morrissey led school turnaround efforts in Lawrence, Mass. He and his wife lived in six houses over a span of five years. They were ready to start a family, and San Antonio seemed like the right place to do that. “We wanted to find a place that could be home,” Morrissey said.

San Antonio also seemed like the right home for a new charter school. Morrissey was immediately welcomed by the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, the philanthropic force behind San Antonio’s explosion of charter schools in recent years. During the 2016-17 school year, 74 charter schools inside Loop 1604 registered with the Texas Education Agency. Charter schools vary in quality, and the Brackenridge Foundation’s chairperson Victoria Rico is an experienced vetting agent. By providing network and financial support, the Brackenridge Foundation has helped open the city to school leaders like Morrissey, KIPP’s Mark Larson, and IDEA Public Schools’ Tom Torkelson, all of whom have ambitious visions for their networks.

“I think San Antonio attracts that kind of person,” Morrissey said. His own growth plan is steady and manageable, adding more campuses each year, but keeping his eye on consistency in the network.

The Brackenridge Foundation also recruited charter networks Great Hearts and BASIS, which provide a model that attracts many middle-class families and those who might otherwise place their children in private schools or homeschool them. Morrissey said his model will look more like KIPP or IDEA, targeting parts of town with lower-performing school districts and families without the resources for private school.

“Our vision gets its DNA from those schools,” Morrissey said. 

Compass Rose School Leader Paul Morrissey.

Morrissey also points to the changes in San Antonio Independent School District as many charter schools set up shop within the district’s borders. The shift toward urban living over the last 10 years created demand for competitive school options. “Charters came in and it was sort of a sea of change,” Morrissey said. SAISD has risen to the occasion, he added. The district is now providing a variety of internal charters and neighborhood school improvements.

In 2015, Morrissey began the three-year Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship in Boston. The fellowship helps charter school entrepreneurs design and launch their first school over a three-year process of learning and doing. When Compass Rose opens its doors to 150 area sixth and seventh graders this month, Morrissey will still be mentored and supported by BES.

Right now BES fellows have more than 100 schools across 15 states and the District of Columbia. Compass Rose will be the first in Texas.

In addition to local success stories and experience gleaned over his career, Morrissey’s BES also informed the design of Compass Rose. BES trains fellows to design schools according to 10 principles:

  • An unwavering belief that all students can, must, and will learn at high levels
  • A clear, college-bound mission understood/supported by all
  • Inspiring and demanding leader(s) focused on academic results
  • Teachers who are strategic, engaging, knowledgeable, and focused on academic results
  • A structured organization and culture that embraces urgency and efficiency and celebrates achievement
  • Deep and rich curriculum, from skill mastery leading to college prep work
  • Frequent and rigorous assessments with data analysis connected to immediate action plans
  • Clear and frequent communication with parents on academics and behavior
  • A consistently applied discipline system with high behavioral expectations for all
  • Extended time for learning with multiple layers of student support

Compass Rose will move into a building formerly occupied by Brooks Estrella Academy on the city’s Southeast side. The location and mission of the school led Morrissey to expect a wide range of student performance, including special education and English language-learners. Serving special populations has become a “sticking point” for him personally, Morrissey said. He’s not waiting to see if those services are necessary, he’s planning on it.

“It’s really important to me to do that well,” he said. “’Underserved’ is not even the word for [the options those students currently have]. It’s shameful.”

Compass Rose will be a high-tech college prep school with liberal arts at its core, Morrissey explained. The school will scale up through high school with the initial sixth and seventh grade classes.

Four steps will move students toward the school’s ultimate goal: to employ technology in the service of others. “We want them to be producers of technology, not just consumers,” Morrissey said.

Step 1 will be to teach students to think of the world in terms of design-based problem-solving. When they encounter problems, teachers will guide them through empathetic perspectives and discussion of potential solutions. As they learn to code in Step 2, the possibility of technological solutions will seem more and more natural.

In Step 3 students will be able to use robotics and engineering to create products that address the problems they want to solve. By high school, Morrissey hopes to see students immersed in Step 4, a STEM-based small business focused on community improvement and, he said, “changing the world.”

The college prep and liberal arts core should guide many students into college. However, launching tech startups or taking more jobs in the tech sector will be another option presented to Compass Rose students. Like a college education, entrepreneurial skills could allow students to excel beyond the limits of a single industry.

The curriculum may be tech-forward, but Morrissey plans to keep family at the core of Compass Rose’s culture. Parent engagement is one of his top priorities. He wants to create multiple avenues for parents to hear from the school, and give feedback to teachers and administrators. Compass Rose will provide parent training sessions in curriculum content so that parents can support their children.

Morrissey is realistic about parent engagement. While he plans to actively communicate with parents and give them tools to support their children, one of the keys to closing the achievement gaps is to eliminate the burden for parents to become curriculum experts and instructors. 

He does not envision late nights at the kitchen table with parents scouring the internet for their children’s homework assignment. That’s not realistic for many families without internet access. He knows that when parents work long hours and have limited education, dependence on their involvement can exacerbate the gaps between low-income kids and the children of highly educated parents who may be more available after school. 

Each student brings a unique set of challenges and strengths, and the world provides countless problems available for solving. With these two variables, Morrissey believes that in Compass Rose students will find not one, but many paths to success.