Clock ticking for IR schools

The Texas Education Agency has extended the deadline for Ector County Independent School District to let the agency know if it plans to partner with anybody to help get its schools out of improvement required status.

Superintendent Tom Crowe said ECISD has to let TEA know by Feb. 15 if it is going to enter a partnership with any other entity, but it doesn’t have to say who with.

Then the district has until April 30 to turn the contracts in. Previously, Crowe said the deadline was March 1.

Representatives from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin presented a proposal to the ECISD board of trustees in January where Zavala Elementary School and Ector Middle School would become charter schools with a STEM focus.

Zavala, Ector and Noel Elementary School are in their fifth year of improvement required status under state accountability standards.

ECISD has eight campuses on improvement required status under state accountability standards. With Zavala and Noel Elementary schools and Ector Middle School in their fifth year of improvement required, if they don’t come off, the campuses will face closure or the Texas Education Commissioner will appoint a board of managers over the whole district.

Under a law passed by the legislature in 2015, TEA must take action if campuses cannot get off IR after five years. Crowe said it used to be up to seven years and then they “may” close the campus or campuses or put in a board of managers. That language has been changed to must.

A sample contract for a partnership was supposed to be available Jan. 1 from TEA, but it was not available until Jan. 25, Crowe said.

In a recent conversation with TEA, Crowe said they were told the agency is “locked in” to what they have to do if those campuses don’t get off improvement required.

“It’s close them, or a partnership with somebody, or board of managers comes in. They said the law is pretty clear on that …,” Crowe said.

Crowe said Wednesday the only campus he’s interested in alternative arrangements for is Ector Middle School.

For Noel, Crowe said he would probably talk to the school board about making it an early childhood center for prekindergarten through first grade and have them work with Pease Elementary and another elementary tying them together.

He added that he thinks Noel will get off IR.

Crowe said he would likely propose doing the same with Zavala.

As for the UTPB proposal, Crowe said officials are still reviewing it and “looking for more meat to the bones, so to speak, because we need to see more detail, I think, before we agree to say that’s what we’re going to do because it’s kind of vague.”

While acknowledging that ECISD is not where it needs to be, Crowe said the district also will keep working with legislators and telling them that ECISD has made great strides. When Crowe came on board more than four years ago, there were 22 campuses on IR. Now there are eight.

Having a partner or the state come in would be a setback for ECISD. Crowe said it’s not possible to close Ector Middle School, which has 1,600 students because there would be nowhere for them to go.

Board member Delma Abalos said she would like to see more substance to the plan and that her main concern is undoing neighborhood schools. Abalos added that she would like to have more community discussion about the idea because a lot of people like being able to have their students walk to school or their children to be able to walk to school.

“When I wasn’t on the board, they really changed the magnet schools around. To me that was a choice. I really liked the magnet schools because they were real choices for people. I don’t know enough to say whether support because he hasn’t told me enough,” Abalos said.

And even if the schools are regrouped, Abalos said, the issues of learning and test scores are still there.

Board Secretary Donna Smith said there are lots of ideas being discussed, but things are still in flux. She said she likes the one for Zavala and Noel and the UTPB proposal, but she would like more detail about how it’s going to work.

“One of the problems in the district is that we have an awful lot of kids who come to kindergarten who are not kindergarten ready and a lot of parents who simply can’t afford preschool,” Smith said. “There are not enough spots that ECISD offers to accommodate all of the kids who really need that kind of help.”

“If it could work out, I think that it would pay long-term dividends because if you can do early childhood education well, if you can get those foundations established strongly then a lot of the work later on in school becomes easier because the foundations are there,” Smith added.

An analysis of student performance presented to the board before Christmas showed the district’s early childhood centers did well. Smith said if a way could be figured out to get “good, standardized curriculum” into the hands of everyone who takes care of young children, that might be a “giant boost” to performance.

She noted that there is a lot of data showing that children from higher socioeconomic families hear more and different words than those in families that are economically stressed.

Crowe said he’d like the state to leave ECISD alone for a while and let it progress.

Asked if TEA would tell the district that they have been left alone and still haven’t gotten the campuses off IR, Crowe would say he would tell them and he has said to local legislators that he has gotten 14 campuses off IR without using a hammer.

“We’re trying to do it as a process. We’re trying to do it where it’s a lasting deal,” Crowe said.

When the campuses come off of IR, they don’t go back in, Crowe said.

Crowe said the district could have gotten the campuses off for a year by having them do nothing but take practice tests, but they would have fallen back in and the five-year process would have started again.

“I think any superintendent can tell you, ‘Yeah, we could have gotten them off by hammering tests down their throat …,’” Crowe said.

But lasting change has to be made through curriculum, training teachers and helping families understand how to help their children, he said.

He said he has mentioned partnering to other local entities of higher education, such as Odessa College and Texas Tech University, but he is waiting to see if they are interested.

“I’m trying to keep all our options open,” Crowe said.

On separate items, the Curriculum and Instruction Department has been working with representatives from WLK Educational Consultants on writing English language arts curriculum for grades kindergarten through second.

Crowe said two more meetings are planned with the consultants in March and the department is moving forward with the lesson plans.

“They are narrowing down the materials for the teachers, particularly the beginning teachers and long-term subs. We think it’s helping our teachers,” Crowe said.

On a separate report relating to student performance, the same thing is being done with lesson plans.