Westlake Academy celebrated its ninth year as the only municipally operated charter school in Texas this year and its ranking as the sixth best charter school in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report.
Its distinction — which was also noted in The Washington Post and Newsweek's national rankings this year — has helped to attract the attention of businesses and outside residents looking to move to Westlake.
However, it has also brought some challenges for town officials, who are considering an expansion of the school and grappling with education funding cuts.
"Being a public school, we face the same challenges of any other independent school district with funding," said Tom Brymer, superintendent of Westlake Academy and Westlake town manager. "We are not allowed to charge tuition, so we rely on state funding and donations. The parent body has been incredibly supportive and it has helped us weather the storm."
Westlake Academy receives 84 percent in state funding for its estimated $6.7 million operating budget, but in the past two years, the academy has seen a roughly 8 percent cut from the Texas Legislature.
Other sources of funding come from the Town of Westlake, which handles the school's debt service as the owner of the building and land; the Westlake Academy Foundation, a nonprofit established to raise money for the school; and donations from parents and area businesses.
"For the last several years [Westlake Academy] has generated over $500,000 a year from donations primarily from our parent body," Mayor Laura Wheat said. "It is absolutely incredible."
Westlake Academy opened its doors in September 2003, shortly after charter school legislation passed. It was a lengthy process to become the first city-owned charter school in the country, town spokeswoman Ginger Awtry said, but area residents had the support of former state Rep. Vicki Truitt.
"The concept was brought to the forefront by the individuals who served back in the early 2000s on the Board of Aldermen and the previous town manager as a method to promote community development and provide the students in Westlake with a local alternative for their education," Awtry said.
The academy opened its doors in 2003 with 195 students in first through sixth grade. The following year, the academy added kindergarten and seventh grade, and it has added a grade each year since. This year, the academy will serve about 675 kindergarten through 12th-grade students, and the district will go after its seventh exemplary rating in 10 years.
Although no tuition is charged, Westlake Academy fights the charter school perception as a private school with selective entrance. Westlake residents are automatically admitted into the school, as are the children of Westlake and Westlake Academy employees. But only about 30 percent of students are Westlake residents, Brymer said. With any remaining spots, the academy turns to its waiting list. Children from more than 30 area districts are allowed to apply to the school, per its Texas Education Agency-approved admission boundary, and an annual lottery process establishes the order of the school's extensive waiting list.
To accommodate future student enrollment growth, town officials are considering a possible expansion of the academy. It is a good investment for Westlake, Wheat said.
"The biggest positive, in my opinion, is the very reason the school was pursued in the first place — to build community and also to create an amenity that would draw residents to Westlake," she said, "and we are doing that."