Board hears STEM partnership proposal for IR schools

Under a revised proposed STEM-based partnership between the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and Ector County Independent School District, Zavala Elementary School and Ector Middle School would become charter schools with a STEM focus.

The ECISD Board of Trustees heard a presentation on the possibility during a work study session Tuesday in the board room of the administration building. 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.

UTPB Dean of the College of Education Selina Mireles said she and other UTPB officials learned about Senate Bill 1882, which would allow the partnership, at a Texas Charter School Association meeting. UTPB has a charter school, the UTPB STEM Academy that currently has students in kindergarten through ninth grade.

Zavala and Ector would become in-district charter schools designed to meet Texas Science Technology, Engineering and Math (T-STEM) and college and career readiness standards, the board recap said.

Potential benefits from the partnership would be:

  • Zavala and Ector would receive a two-year suspension of penalties from being improvement required under the proposal.
  • Through Senate Bill 1882, more than $1 million of funding is available over the next two years to support the implementation at Zavala.

The STEM implementation will focus on areas relevant to the Permian Basin and at-risk factors for students, the recap said.

  • For UTPB, the partnership would provide research opportunities for its staff; field-based learning for its student-teachers and professors; support for its UTPB STEM Academy in areas like counseling, special education, English as a second language and fine arts.

It would establish a prekindergarten through UTPB pipeline for students.

Under this arrangement UTPB would be the managing partner and have decision-making authority in many instances, although the university officials said they feel it must be a true partnership between the entities.

If the partnership comes to be, the in-district charter status of Zavala and Ector would have to remain in place for 10 years.

This raised many questions among the trustees about details on how this would be put in place.

Mireles said those would have to be negotiated by the university and the school district, the recap said.

The Texas Education Agency is developing a model contract for agreements like this, but that it has not been completed yet.

Both sides want to arrange more meetings to discuss details that would have to be worked out before moving into the proposed pact.

Mireles said conversations with the school district about the proposal came about around the same time. UTPB learned about Senate Bill 1882 and Superintendent Tom Crowe was talking to TEA. She added that UTPB President Sandra Woodley is very supportive of the proposal.

“We just started having discussions about it, so it was sort of at the same time,” Mireles said.

She said prior to this initiative she didn’t think there was any flexibility for fifth-year IR campuses.

“I know that the commissioner is a very strong proponent of charter schools,” Mireles said. “I think somehow, some way we were blessed with the legislative opportunity to support this kind of initiative.”

Crowe said a different plan is being formulated for Noel if the campus doesn’t make it out of IR, although he is confident they will.

“The board has directed me to put a plan together for all three schools. We’re still kind of working on the one for Noel. We’re looking at some other possibilities for it,” Crowe said.

He said UTPB chose the STEM theme for Ector and Zavala and approached ECISD with the idea of the partnership.

“I put some sort of a proposal together previously that involved a lot of movement without going to an outside agency and then they came with this proposal and I felt like the board needed to see this proposal, as well,” Crowe said.

He said if districts partner with an outside charter school, they can have some flexibility on improvement required penalties.

Crowe said it was interesting that the state would grant charter schools leeway, but not ISDs.

“It’s a little bit frustrating, but it is what it is so we’ve got to deal with it,” Crowe said.

He added that ECISD is trying to have discussions at the state level to tell them about the progress being made and how far

Zavala, Noel and Ector have come, particularly in the last four years.

“Is it really right for you to come in and take those over, or make us go with a charter … or would it be better to give us the two extra years?” Crowe said.

Originally, there was flexibility until the legislature changed them in the last session and the district found out last summer.

“That’s not right. You should at least grandfather those that hit the five year (mark) because there are campuses right now that have eight years. Midland has one at seven years. Houston has one at eight years,” Crowe said.

He said he has talked to Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and “hopefully they’ll be on our side as we talk to the commissioner.”

“If we were just sitting by doing nothing, that would be one thing but look at the changes we’ve made over the past five years in leadership at those campuses, in the direction at these campus, in everything. You’ve got to let us finish that out before you come in and say, ‘We’re taking over,’” Crowe said.

On separate items:

  • The board received a monthly update from Noel Elementary, Zavala Elementary and Ector Middle School.

Ector representatives told trustees about moving to a sixth-grade block schedule for the spring semester, providing support for some gifted and talented students who are underperforming and providing more reading support, the recap said.

Zavala Elementary went next and highlighted third-grade reading where the percentage of kids in Tier 1 (high) is up and the percentage in Tier 3 (low) is down, and in fourth grade 86 percent of the students involved in tutoring have shown growth.

Noel Elementary Principal Stacy Johnson said that most areas are growing and they are continuing the interventions and activities they’ve been using, the recap said.

  • Trustees also received a report on Bonham Middle School’s campus turnaround plan.

TEA requires each campus in the improvement required process to complete a turnaround plan that outlines the school’s approach to producing significant and sustainable gains.

Principal James Ramage talked to school board members about the root causes of the school’s struggles being a lack of quality Tier 1 instruction and improving classroom management.

The school is looking to implement AVID school-wide, meaning AVID strategies and activities are incorporated into all classrooms not just the AVID elective classes, the recap said.

It includes an AVID Excel component which would focus on English language learners. Components of AVID Excel include coursework, professional learning, family connections, and biliteracy, the recap said.

  • The board reviewed a request for the Odessa High School Bronchettes to travel to Orlando, Fla. The trip will be from June 9-13 and will include a performance/workshop in addition to sightseeing, the recap said.