As a young boy growing up in Denton, Texas, Cameron Cook never imagined he would dedicate his life and career to education.
“My parents were second-career educators and wanted for my sisters and me to get a great education,” he says. “It was important to be challenged no matter what, so I went to a variety of school settings growing up: a traditional public school, homeschool and finally the private school where my parents were teachers.”
Cook admits he was an average student until a high school science teacher with high expectations gave him the inspiration he needed.
“I had a science teacher early in high school, and we had an exam where we had to memorize as many bones in the body as possible, and I remember studying for the exam and enjoying it,” he says. “When I went in for that practicum, there were bones set out everywhere in the lab, and I loved it and did well on the exam.”
Cook says the experience made him realize he enjoyed studying. Inspired by this, he approached his teacher and said he wanted to become a doctor. What happened next stuck with Cook throughout his career.
“She could have said, ‘You don’t have the class rank or the GPA to go to medical school,’” he remembers. “But instead she told me, ‘I think you’d be a great doctor, Cameron. So let’s talk about how to get you there.'”
“She did something that every educator has the power to do — inspire a young person to be the best they can be,” he continues. “I was inspired and worked hard to graduate in the top 10% of my class and received a full scholarship to Texas A&M.”
As a student at Texas A&M University, Cook volunteered as a youth basketball coach and camp counselor, where he found he had a knack for connecting with and leading young students.
During his junior year, Cook attended a presentation by Chris Barbic, founder of YES Prep Public Schools.
“His presentation inspired me, but the data was staggering,” he says. “To know that only 7% of students from certain zip codes were going to college was astounding and unfair.”
Cook joined Teach For America after graduation and relocated to Colorado to work on turnaround middle schools.
“In my first year, we were part of the middle school that achieved the most growth on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) in the state,” he says proudly.
After relocating with his wife to Cochabamba, Bolivia, for a year to learn Spanish and teach at Carachipampa Christian International School, Cook returned to the U.S. in 2014 as a teacher and coach at Eastside Memorial High School in Austin, Texas.
“I fell in love with Austin. It’s a great community blessed with passionate educators, but I saw some of the same statistics Chris [Barbic] had spoken about,” he says. “In East Austin, less than 10% of students were getting four-year degrees, and a lot of decisions concerning education were bureaucratic. And I thought, ‘Can’t we just do what’s best for these kids?'”
Cook echoed the sentiment during a phone call with an IDEA Austin board member and soon learned about charter schools and IDEA’s mission to close achievement gaps and get every student to college.
“I applied for IDEA’s Principal in Residence program and was fortunate enough to be under two very gifted educators, Nate Lowry at IDEA Montopolis for my first two years and Taylor Nichols at IDEA Rundberg for my third year in residence,” he says. “I was given a longer launch time to prepare for a new IDEA campus specifically tailored toward health professions.”
IDEA’s stellar track record of success and desire to provide families with specialized programs and individualized learning fueled plans for a campus focused on health professions.
“We got to dream up this fantastic school geared toward STEM and healthcare programs and were even awarded a $14.1 million grant by the Magnate Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) to not only make a school for health professions but also one that was diverse by design.”
Launched in August 2019, IDEA Health Professions in Austin serves approximately 468 students interested in STEM and healthcare careers in grades K-3 and 5-7. While some parents may question directing their child toward a healthcare career while they are still very young, Cook says it’s more about giving students a strong educational foundation in which to explore their interests.
“Of course, parents would love to see their child become a doctor, but we don’t know what our kids are going to be,” he explains. “But as my science teacher did for me, we can get our students excited about something so they work hard to explore different health professions while getting a great foundation in STEM careers.”
Cook says it’s one thing to think about getting students to college but that the real focus needs to be giving students the tools and skills they need to be successful throughout college and in life — a formula IDEA has worked to perfect over the last 20 years.
“What are the skills that our kids are going to need in college and the current workforce?” he asks. “Austin’s number one job market is tech, and coming in second is healthcare. We want to give students a chance at careers that are in demand and have economic mobility.”
When it comes down to it, Cook and his team are working hard to give the families of East Austin the ability to dream bigger than they ever thought possible.
“When you look at doctors, surgeons and dentists throughout the state, it is overwhelmingly white,” he continues. “Dell Medical School is arguably one of the best medical schools in the country, and its founding class didn’t have a single person from East Austin. That’s why IDEA Health Professions is here — to invest in our community and change that landscape.”
“One of our students could discover the next medical breakthrough or even cure cancer someday. ” Every child deserves a chance at success regardless of where they come from.