Kayleigh Colombero

Middle school is hard for students: a whirlwind of hormones mixed with school stress, social stress and all the stresses in between.

But Kayleigh Colombero, founder and superintendent of Etoile Academy Charter School in the Southwest Management District, is working to create a space where each middle school concern is met with utmost care and consideration.

“Middle school is critical in a student’s education and also can be very challenging,” she said. “We pride ourselves on three pillars that really help successful middle schools: disciplined classrooms, caring and involved staff, and academic support for all learners.”

During its five years in operation, Etoile Academy has been providing a customized education to students of all cultural expressions and economic backgrounds.

“Our mission has remained the same: ensure that all students have the academic and character foundation necessary to succeed in high school, graduate from college, and pursue ambitious life goals,” she said.

The emphasis on ‘all’ is not just for show. With zero tuition, free breakfast and lunch, free after school programs for all 620 students — such as tutoring, extra-curriculars, sports, dinners, and Saturday academy sessions — Etoile seems to have cracked the code when it comes to narrowing the educational gaps among students of various backgrounds.

The key? The Texas charter schools system, in which individual, privately founded schools qualify as public schools that receive state funding while maintaining greater flexibility than most schools that operate as part of a school district.

“After years in different districts, I felt that Etoile (the French word for “star”) needed to be a charter school to allow us the freedom and flexibility to respond to families and student’s needs,” Colombero explained. “Basically, our board can make quick decisions and course-correct a lot faster than an established district can.”

“We also completely control our own budget and fund-raising, which really allows us to ensure we maximize our funding and get the most out of it for all students.”

The ability of charter schools to adapt quickly was shown clearly at Etoile as all schools had to adapt to the challenges of the COVID epidemic.

Etoile jumped into action, handing out laptops and internet hot spots to students within the first week of nationwide school closures. Then, the allocation of Etoile’s funding to heavy health and safety precautions made it one of the first schools in Houston to reopen for in-person classes.

Etoile has also funded an extensive social work program for students, focusing on tackling cultural, racial, ethnic, and financial diversity on top of the many other issues middle schoolers face.

“Our students are dealing with a lot. Our world is much more challenging, even with just the addition of social media,” said Colombero. “We listen to our families. They are the experts here. We ask them what would be helpful.”

In response to feedback, for example, the school provided a daily 2 p.m. prayer time for observant Muslim students.

“We stay in constant contact with parents to ensure we know what their student is experiencing,” Colombero explained. “Every two weeks, we send out a parent survey that asks two to three short questions to give us feedback.”

“We have family nights on a monthly basis with different events and programs at the school,” Colombero said. “We had an excellent Literacy and Math night with teachers and leaders engaging parents and students in activities to help support our curriculum.”

Etoile shares five core values — Respect, Excellence, Ambition, Community and Hard Work. R. E. A. C. H.

And things are just getting started. The opening of a second campus this August is part of a much bigger plan — a 10-year initiative to open five new campuses in the Southwest Management District of Houston.

Colombero wants to ensure that each campus maintains the top-notch quality of the first one.

“We will take it one campus at a time to ensure we maintain our quality and remain responsive to families. However, we are excited to open more seats and more opportunity to students and families.”

Etoile Academy Charter School
Hornwood Dr., Houston 77074

— By Caroline Cabe