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UTPA Alumna Gama named to presidential advisory group
Posted: 07/11/2011
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JoAnn Gama is working to change statistics.

Gama, a Houston area native and an alumna of The University of Texas-Pan American, was determined to not be among the high percentage of Hispanic students who do not obtain a higher education degree. Instead, she earned a bachelor's degree from Boston University in 1997 and her master's from UTPA in educational leadership in 2004.

She also co-founded IDEA Public Schools, a public charter school system that's goal is to have 100 percent of its students - who are mostly Hispanic -graduate high school and attend college.

The public charter school system, which began as an after-school program in Donna, now expects to have 24 institutions on 12 sites from Brownsville to Mission opened by fall 2012. Ninety-three percent of its alumni currently are enrolled in a four-year college or university, according to IDEA's website.

Her success with IDEA Public Schools has garnered her a national reputation of being a leader in education.

Gama was selected to be a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The commission was created to provide advice to the White House on increasing the educational attainment of Hispanic students. In May, she travelled to Washington, D.C. where she participated in discussions with fellow members - which included The University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and UT San Antonio President Ricardo Romo - about the issues facing Hispanic students.

Gama said the experience helped her realize how important IDEA Public Schools' goal of preparing all of its students for college is in helping the country meet its objective to produce the most high school graduates in the world by 2020.

"I think we get so grounded in our work that we don't step back, so I feel that, professionally, it was a good step back to really think about the work we're doing here in South Texas and how that work relates to the broader spectrum," she said.

After receiving her first college degree, Gama joined Teach for America (TFA), moved to the Rio Grande Valley, an area with which she was familiar, and taught at an elementary school in the Donna Independent School District. It was there that she met fellow TFA member Tom Torkelson, with whom she founded IDEA Public Schools. Gama, who is now IDEA's chief schools officer, said she felt she needed to go back to school to become an even more effective leader.

"A part of me felt I needed to have certifications to back up what I was doing. I didn't want anyone to ever say, 'She didn't have a master's in education, she's not a certified principal,'" she said. "It was also really important to me to change the statistic, the percentage of Hispanics who have a post bachelors degree is very dismal."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60.6 percent of Hispanic Americans aged 25 years or older had at least a high school diploma, 12.5 percent had at least a bachelor's degree and 3.9 percent had an advanced degree in 2007.

She enrolled in UTPA's master's program in educational leadership.

"The great thing about the educational leadership program at Pan Am is that it's in the evenings and a lot of people in that program were already assistant principals or had already been in some type of leadership in the district," she said. "Most of the professors in the program had been principals in school districts in the Valley, had been superintendents, or were school board members. I was just a sponge with my notepad because they were able to talk about real-world experiences, things that I was experiencing right then and there as a leader."

Now that IDEA is about to fulfill its original goal of opening two dozen schools by fall 2012, the charter school system is developing its 2020 plan, which includes expanding its campus throughout Texas and keeping track of alumni who attend college to make sure they complete their post-secondary studies.

"We're inspired by the fact that we're sending off these kids to college who might otherwise not have gotten there, and that we were able to do that through the hard work of our schools and through the hard work of principals, teachers and college counselors at those campuses," Gama said.

Learn more about UTPA's educational leadership program.