Why Westlake Academy Won't Stop Rising

A small Westlake charter school becomes a national contender.

About 35 minutes from Fort Worth, nestled between winding roads, stately houses and stretches of open land, a school sits on top of a hill. The campus, covering about 23 acres, is not out of place from its surroundings – the buildings are noted for their wood and stone architecture, reminiscent of a vacation lodge. Cattle graze just directly across the street, and geese have been known to roam the school's athletic fields.

Then, in the midst of the country-like serenity, come reminders that this place is indeed a school. Sounds of children playing on the playground. Backpacks sprawled across a walkway. Cardboard milk boxes and lunch bags on a picnic table. All the things any other school would have.

But this is Westlake Academy – a town-owned, K-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) charter school in Westlake, Texas.

Being an IB charter school means Westlake Academy follows both the state requirements and format of the IB curriculum. And being owned by the town means elements of the school and the Town of Westlake overlap. The superintendent, for example, is the town manager. The town council, including the mayor, are all part of the school board.

And somehow, it all seems to be playing together in Westlake Academy’s favor. The school has a waitlist of more than 2,300 students (830 students were enrolled this past school year, and 856 are expected for next year). It’s getting national attention too. This year, U.S. News and World Report gave Westlake Academy a “gold” medal, ranking it as the No. 253 high school in the nation and No. 43 high school in Texas – a drop from No. 9, but only because the IB organization didn’t submit its data to U.S. News as it had done in previous years.

But while rankings are nice, the school isn’t putting too much stock on its laurels, says superintendent and town manager Tom Brymer, who went on a retreat with administration shortly after the school year ended to discuss what’s next for Westlake Academy. Among factors the school has on its radar are growth, meeting the needs of struggling students, and additional facilities.

In short, the work at Westlake Academy is far from over.

“The communities of the future that are going to be successful are the ones that are based on knowledge,” Brymer said. “Not just information, but knowledge.”

Any Given School Day It's the last week of school. Westlake Academy's executive director Mechelle Bryson steps through the momentarily quiet halls of a PYP/MYP building (that is, Primary Years Programme and Middle Years Program, as the IB divides grades by Primary, Middle and Diploma). From the lobby, the building resembles a cabin. Long wooden beams stretch across a high ceiling. A modern, circular chandelier hangs overhead. Two lounges, used as study spaces, each have its own fireplace.

The design is meant to let the “outdoor influence the indoor,” Bryson said. The school is surrounded by open field after all.

Bryson stops at a sixth-grade classroom and peeks inside. A student in glasses and a bright orange polo shirt immediately recognizes her.

Dr. Bryson asks how the student is.

“I am well,” he responds – notably, a grammatically correct response, as opposed to the typical “good.”

Bryson asks what he is learning, and he explains the scientific method – one of the last lessons before classes break for the summer. They wave goodbye as Bryson floats through the rest of the campus. It’s not uncommon for a student to say hello, or simply tell her that a class is in session or out on a field trip when she pokes her head through the door.

Elements of Westlake Academy’s teaching methods are well in play. In one room, each student is using an iPad – as part of the school’s 1:1 iPad program, which provides all students with iPads for academic purposes – as a guide to construct animals with plastic shapes. In another room, students examine a work by modern artist Marc Chagall on a projector and are prompted to draw their own personal interpretation of the work. In another, exercise balls act as desk seats for students who get a little fidgety.

Westlake Academy Board President / Mayor Laura Wheat, Trustee / Council Member Michael Barrent, and Trustee / Mayor Pro Tem Carol Langdon pitch in to help students plant vegetables in the new garden.

But it’s not all fun and games. Fifth-graders, for example, take part in Exhibition – a required culminating project in which Primary students synthesize all elements of the IB Primary Years Programme curriculum, spending months preparing a presentation for peers and community members. Sophomores spend the year working on a Personal Project, required for graduation from the IB Middle Years Programme, in which students must complete a year-long independent project of inquiry into any area of interest, whether it be writing a book, interning at a hospital, or becoming an “expert” in the subject matter of their choice.

By the time students reach their junior and senior years, they’re expected to take at least three higher level courses (along with courses titled Theory of Knowledge and Creative Action Service), complete a maximum 4,000-word extended essay within two years, and spend about three weeks taking the IB Diploma Programme exams.

Bryson said she likes to think of the curriculum in this way – the state requirements dictate “what” needs to be taught in each grade, while IB guides “how” it should be taught. Writing is heavily emphasized throughout the curriculum, as well as the concept of “deconstructing” knowledge, Bryson said. 

“It’s not enough just to know,” she said. “You have to know how you know.”

According to the school, 100 percent of Westlake Academy graduates since 2010 have been accepted into college. This year’s valedictorian will attend the California Institute of Technology, while the salutatorian is going to Yale. Westlake Academy keeps up with its students too, using the National Student Clearinghouse to track how many students are actually staying in college, how long they are enrolled, and how many are graduating with a degree. According to Bryson, about 90 percent of Westlake Academy’s first graduating class (2010) has a college degree.

“We try to teach our students to stay curious longer,” Bryson said.

Bryson reports to the town manager (that is, Brymer) since Westlake Academy is owned by the Town of Westlake. It’s a concept known as a “shared service model,” or as Brymer likes to call it, “a plate of spaghetti or marble cake.”

“You can’t treat them as a dichotomy,” he said. “They’re very blended, so you have to work closely together.”

Executive Director Mechelle Bryson

Welcome to Town Working for both the town and the school can be a matter of juggling, as “no two days seem alike,” says mayor and school board president Laura Wheat. Wheat’s day can start at 6 a.m. and end at 11:30 p.m. Her schedule shows a mix of school and town functions, from speaking at an awards ceremony to leading a town hall meeting. But she still makes time for herself, squeezing in a little Peloton and learning Spanish through online programs Duolingo and Fluencia.

“The school board piece is probably more challenging than the town piece because you’re dealing with people’s most precious assets – their children,” Wheat said.

The Town of Westlake offices sit about 10 minutes from the school, inside the modern and manicured Solana office complex. It doubles as a school administration office, since both the school and town share the same finance director, human resources director, facilities director, communications director and other various employees.

“Westlake Academy is very much a department of the town, in much the same way that the utility department is a department of the town, or fire and EMS,” Wheat said. “It’s who we are.”

The shared service model had been the plan for Westlake Academy since day one. Westlake Academy was the brainchild of former Mayor Scott Bradley, who began conceptualizing the school around the late ‘90s. The school opened in 2003.

The integration of town and school creates a “different type of mentality,” since both staffs work together, Wheat said. Brymer said sharing employees helps avoid duplication of service and cost to both school and government.

The key to making it work, Bryson said, is to maintain a close relationship between both entities.

“It really is a beautiful model,” she said. “Those relationships become very critical – those relationships that the teachers have with the municipal staff, and that the municipal staff has with our teachers… It’s very important that we cultivate those relationships and remember that we’re one school together, but we’re also one organization together.”

Aerial shot of Westlake Academy campus. Photo by William Gibbons

An Uphill Climb Managing growth is currently one of the school’s priorities. While most classes are held in the school’s main facilities, some are still held in portable metal buildings within the school’s campus. The Board of Trustees is currently revisiting its facilities plan to find ways to accommodate more students.

Along with facility growth, Bryson said Westlake Academy continues to tackle issues like instructional scaffolding – how to support both the struggling students and the students who are ahead. She also said the school wants to better connect students with Westlake Academy’s history and give students a “Westlake Academy identity.”

“When you’re taking people from different communities and making them one community, that is the challenge,” she said. “We’re an open enrollment charter school, bringing in students and helping them academically get to where they need to be, so that at the end of the 12th grade, they truly are college ready.”

One of the school’s most recent additions is an outdoor learning center, which opened in May. According to Westlake Academy, the $116,000 project was funded entirely by the Westlake Academy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for the school. Brymer said the school’s funding comes primarily from both the foundation and the state, with 80 percent of revenue coming from the state, and 20 percent from the foundation.

Leading up to the outdoor learning center is a concrete path lined with painted rocks and animal footprints. The half-acre plot of land features planter boxes in which students can grow and study plants, conduct experiments and work on projects. The second phase of the project will include a large sundial, compass and 35-foot ruler.

It’s all situated on top of a hill, overlooking the vast, open fields encircling the campus. Bryson, while sitting on a bench near the planter beds, said the outdoor learning center also makes for a picturesque study space.

Still, she says, the pretty spaces and fancy resources are ultimately meant to serve Westlake Academy’s bottom line: learning. And while Westlake Academy may look like it’s on top of the hill – both literally and figuratively – the climb is just getting started.

“Every day when I get up and drive here, my goal is to help Westlake Academy become the best place for teachers to teach and for students to learn,” Bryson said. “I believe that we have all the tools to make that a reality.”


How to Get In:

Westlake Academy is an open enrollment school, so the main requirement for getting in is one’s area of residence. Students who live within the boundaries of Westlake town limits get priority enrollment, and students living in approved surrounding areas are placed on a lottery and notified in August as to whether they have a spot or not. Still, the majority of Westlake Academy’s students don’t actually live in Westlake. Approximately 30 percent of students are from the town, while the rest are from approved surrounding areas.


What is IB?

International Baccalaureate, or IB, is a nonprofit educational organization that provides a specialized, and often more rigorous, curriculum to schools in more than 140 countries. The curriculum focuses on six main tenets: Who We Are, Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves, and Sharing the Planet. Schools must become authorized in order to offer IB, and Westlake Academy is one of just four Texas schools to offer the curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

| photos by Alex Lepe |