Alamo plans for joining New Tech Network

Alamo Principal Elisha Sessions talks about her school joining the New Tech Network and starting to provide project-based learning in the fall. (Ruth Campbell|Odessa American)

Starting next fall, Alamo STEAM Academy will become part of the New Tech Network, just like George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa.

Principal Elisha Sessions hopes the move will draw more attention to Alamo, which she says is one of the hidden gems in Ector County ISD.

Sessions is just finishing her second year as principal at Alamo. She was assistant principal for three years before that.

She said they had been working for the past year and a half to two years on rebranding Alamo because they would consistently be third choice when it came to selecting a choice school with its STEM program.

With the passage of the bond, New Tech is going to be adding middle school students. Sessions and other district officials had conversations about joining the New Tech Network and everyone was excited.

Ector County Independent School District opened New Tech Odessa in 2011. It is an all-academic college-prep high school aimed at equipping students with 21st century skills, its website says.

“Through the use of technology, project-based learning, and a small learning environment, students who attend NTO will graduate with the necessary skills to compete in a global economy. While attending New Tech Odessa, students fulfill state requirements for recommended or distinguished achievement, as well as earn college credit through NTO’s partnerships with local universities and colleges. In addition, students are provided the opportunity to explore potential career opportunities through internships with local businesses and civic organization.”

Sessions said she reached out to contacts and set the ball rolling last fall.

“Ultimately, we knew we were up against the school of choice window opening because it opens Dec. 1, to be able to make all the changes that we wanted to make before the lottery and before parents had the opportunity to apply,” Sessions said.

“We weren’t really able to do all the things that we wanted to do with that, just because the contract hadn’t been signed within NTN and just different things. When I was having parent orientations for school choice, we expressed that we were going to PBL. We didn’t give it an NTN (New Tech Network) name. We just talked about project-based learning with the parents that were coming for those orientations and expressed that we would be doing that work at our lower grade levels initially,” she added.

Sessions, an instructional coach and two teachers made a site visit to a New Tech Network school in Leander in November 2023.

“We were able to do some training there with them and do a site visit with them. We walked their campus. We saw project-based learning in action there and then we came back and we had some staff meetings; we had some parent meetings, just to make sure that the staff was on board and it was an interest for parents,” Sessions said.

With the passage of the bond in November 2023, it opened the door for a choice middle school at New Tech Odessa.

“It created the opportunity to have a very strong pathway for kiddos to be immersed in project-based learning through NTN from elementary all the way up to high school,” Sessions said.

They did a three-day residency with two days virtual and one on-site. It was centered on lesson planning.

“It’s just an opportunity for kids to learn in a very unique, different way through project-based learning and it makes their learning more relevant to what’s happening here because our projects are centered around realistic issues that our kids are familiar with, that are part of our area. The teachers have the opportunity to plan the projects. … We’ll still follow the TEKS (the state curriculum). We just embed the TEKS into the project,” Sessions said.

So in a project kids are going to be doing reading, math, science and social studies TEKS, depending on how the planning goes. So it’s an opportunity for them to get exposure to the state curriculum in the TEKS, but just through a very hands-on collaborative way with their peers,” Sessions said.

The school was STEAM certified the year before she came to Alamo and there were only two or three teachers who went through that certification left.

“STEAM had very much fizzled out here. We weren’t really using the magnet to emphasize STEAM. That’s one of the other reasons that we were looking for a new programmatic change,” Sessions said.

She added that STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) and project-based learning have things in common, but STEAM is more like an individual experiment where you’re studying a specific topic.

Project-based learning is building a project where you explore reading, math, science and social studies all in one project.

“It’s very intentional planning. The projects usually run (on) about a nine-week cycle,” Sessions said.

In July, she, nine prekindergarten through second grade teachers and an assistant principal will travel to Minneapolis to new schools training with New Tech Network.

Initially, the implementation for this coming year will be prekindergarten through second grade. Next summer, they will train third through fifth grade.

“The reason for that is the timeline of the middle school. The second-graders that are coming in this ’24-’25 school year will be the first group if everything stays on track … that will be eligible to go to the middle school when they leave here in fifth grade, which is why we started with the grade levels that we’re starting,” Sessions said.

At first, they will do a school-wide project where all the teachers will be using the state curriculum at their specific grade level.

You can venture out and have every grade level do different projects, but New Tech Network has encouraged Alamo to do a school-wide project where all the grade levels are impacted.

“That allows the planning for us to be easier. When we were in Leander, the project that they were doing was around natural disasters and their implementation there was second through fourth. Each grade level that we went to in second through fourth, they were learning about natural disasters as it relates to their specific grade level TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). But they all were doing the same kind of projects as a result of their studies,” Sessions said.

Alamo ended the year with 314 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade.

Sessions anticipates 103 more students next year.

She said the feedback from parents has been positive.

“There’s a lot of excitement, especially around the idea of this path of having this choice elementary moving into a choice middle (school), moving into NTO. The parents that have kids who have experience at NTO and know what a positive experience that has been, are very, very excited as well,” Sessions said.

She added that project-based learning, especially the collaborative piece, will likely better prepare students for life after school.

Sessions said Alamo is a hidden gem in ECISD.

“As an administrator here for going on six years now, that’s always been one of my frustrations is that people just don’t know,” she said.

Even today, people still think Alamo is a year-round campus, which they haven’t been for a long time.

“We’re also going to start following the district calendar. We’re not going to have an extended day anymore. We perform consistently in the top three in ECISD. I don’t think that’s something that parents get to hear enough, so I’m excited to have opportunities to bring them in to learn about us and increase our interest,” Sessions said.

She added that ultimately the change is what’s best for kids.

“That’s kind of the scary part because anytime you implement change, like you don’t know how people are going to take it. Once they had the opportunity to talk to some of the leaders that we’ve had in from NTN and once they’ve had the opportunity to hear that this isn’t like a one and done training. We’ll go this summer and then this first year. There’ll be four different meetings scheduled with NTN throughout the year where they come in and support teachers and they come in and help with planning. Two of those meetings are with the leadership team. They come in and they talk to us about how to carry the work forward when they’re not around. But there was a lot of hesitancy initially that we were just kind of get this training and then be thrown to the wolves and NTN has made it very evident that that’s not the case that they’ll be supporting us through this whole process,” Sessions said.

She added that they have also received support from ECISD.

“They’re excited. I’m very excited. It’s a nervous excitement because you don’t ever know. The effects of this probably won’t be seen until the next couple of years when you start talking about state testing and things like that. But I think it’s just being patient with the process and recognizing that there’s going to be growing pains, but that we’re all doing it together,” Sessions said.