NBA’s Robinson builds legacy off the court in San Antonio; Spurs star is giving minorities, poor an elite education at his school

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One in an occasional series

SAN ANTONIO – David Robinson looms large wherever he goes. Being a 7-foot-1-inch multimillionaire and one of the most famous centers in basketball history will do that to a man.

But to an 8-year-old getting a world-class education because of his generosity, he’s even bigger.

“He’s the best,” said Brogan Lozano, a third-grader at the Carver Academy, Mr. Robinson’s multimillion-dollar experiment in bringing elite private education to San Antonio’s poor east side. “He believes in us, and he’ll do anything to help us.”

The Carver Academy opened in the fall of 2001, but it’s already being hailed as a model for how to educate disadvantaged children: lots of reading, lots of personal attention and lots of money.

“The greatest satisfaction I get out of the children at the academy is seeing the excitement in their faces about learning,” Mr. Robinson said. “I think I am a teacher at heart.”

The idea for Carver dates back several years, when Mr. Robinson contemplated ways to give back to San Antonio once he retires from basketball. His initial thought was to found a private high school targeting poor and minority students. But the educators he spoke to persuaded him to aim younger.

“Young kids are so impressionable,” he said. “If you give them hope and purpose early on, they will accomplish great things.”

So the plans for a school began to take shape. It would start by offering kindergarten through second grade, adding a grade each year until reaching eighth grade; it would keep class sizes small, no more than 15 children to a room. It would have chapel every morning and have a Judeo-Christian sensibility; it would have an ambitious curriculum that taught the basics and extras such as Japanese.

“It’s nice to be doing something because you know it’s right, not because it’s what’s always been done,” said Pamela Walls, Carver’s head of school.

Carver sits in a neighborhood of broken sidewalks and weed-choked vacant lots. But it has beautiful facilities, including a technology center and pagoda-style library.

Ms. Walls said she leapt at the opportunity to build a curriculum from scratch. In each subject, school officials searched nationwide for the best methods. In reading, they decided on Spalding phonics, a decades-old method that focuses on the combinations of letter sounds that make up words.

“In a lot of schools, they’re not getting past ‘wh,’ ‘ch,’ ‘th’ and other basic sounds, ” said Cathy Cummins, a longtime Spalding proponent who trained Carver’s teachers in the method. “At Carver they get into advanced material.”

Ms. Walls also wanted to include a strong multicultural element. Students take regular classes in German, Spanish and Japanese. Students take frequent field trips and have partnerships with several area cultural and ethnic groups.

“Last weekend, the children went to an Asian festival and sang songs in Japanese,” said Melissa Ramirez, the mother of a kindergartner. “Would you get that in another school? It’s amazing.”

High operating costs

Unlike many private schools that hire uncertified, young or inexpensive teachers, all teachers at Carver are certified and earn more than $40,000.

All this comes at a steep price. Ms. Walls estimates the school spends $25,000 per pupil per year. That number is inflated because the school is paying for a full-sized administration, even though the school won’t become a full K-8 school for five more years. She estimates the total will drop to $15,000 per student or lower.

That’s not too far from what many top independent schools spend, $12,000 to $14,000, said Walker Buckalew, an independent school consultant who has advised the academy through its birthing process. But it’s far more than the typical public school in Texas, which spends about $6,200.

“It’s an expensive model,” Ms. Walls said, “but it’s designed for student success.”

Parents don’t pay that cost. The school charges $8,000 a year for tuition. However, all but one of Carver’s 70 students is on scholarship. (Everyone has to pay something, and most pay $800 a year.)

“At most private schools, the more kids you have, the more revenue you generate,” Dr. Buckalew said. “At Carver, that’s not true.”

Most of the money comes from Mr. Robinson, who has committed $9 million to the school. But the school’s financial state is far from stable. The strategic plan calls for an endowment of more than $30 million; it’s at $3.5 million.

The school has to raise about $1.5 million a year to support its operating budget, said John Webster, head of school at San Antonio Academy, where Mr. Robinson’s sons attend, and a Carver board member.

“Ordinarily, that’s not doable,” he said. “It would be undoable except for David Robinson, who has the conviction and can convince people this is worth their time and their money.”

Mr. Robinson’s background – unusual for a professional athlete – helps explain his interest in Carver. He played only one year of high school basketball, instead concentrating on academics. He scored 1320 on the SAT. The average for college-bound seniors that year was 893.

He attended the Naval Academy and became a basketball star – not least because of a growth spurt at the academy that took him from 6-foot-4 to 7-foot-1.

Since arriving in San Antonio, he has become perhaps the city’s most beloved resident – both for the success he has brought the team and for his character.

“The more you get to know David, the more you respect him,” said Mr. Webster. “He embodies everything you’d expect of an Annapolis graduate.”

Good test scores

The Carver Academy has been an unalloyed success story. When students took the Stanford 9 standardized tests in May, they scored above the national average in every category – substantially above in many. Considering the student body reflects the surrounding neighborhood – about two-thirds African-American, one-third Hispanic, almost entirely poor – the scores are extraordinary.

Carver officials acknowledge that students who don’t speak English or those with special-education needs the school can’t meet are not accepted. However, they say, the school is otherwise reflective of its community.

“To take those kids and get to the point where they’re performing at the 89th percentile nationally as kindergartners in reading, that’s real progress,” Mr. Webster said.

The children seem almost universally happy, well-behaved and learned beyond their years. “My mom says I’m really lucky to be here,” third-grader Morgan Taplin said. “I like my teacher – she gives us lots of work.”

Mr. Robinson, 37, has announced this will be his final season, and it’s traditional for a retiring superstar to be feted by each NBA city as he plays his final game in each arena. Instead, the Spurs are asking each team to donate to Carver; the Lakers and 76ers have agreed. (The Spurs have given $1 million to the school.)

“When I retire, I will have an office at the academy, and I hope to spend three to four days a week there,” he said, “mostly in the role of a cheerleader.”