Ector College Prep Middle School has a new principal and is offering a variety of extracurricular activities and electives for its 1,397 sixth through eighth grade students. The campus is a charter school within Ector County ISD that is operated by Third Future Schools in Aurora, Colo. Third Future has a charter in Midland as well at Sam Houston Collegiate Preparatory, an elementary campus.

Ector College Prep Academy was previously operated by Ector Success Academy Network. The CEO/Superintendent was Robert Bleisch.

The contract with Ector Success Academy Network was not renewed by the Ector County ISD Board of Trustees in January 2021 because the campus did not meet its goals.

The school is considered to be failing under state accountability standards. The state can close the school, and/or remove the school board and appoint its own board to oversee the district, Ector County ISD Chief Communications Officer Mike Adkins said in an email.

Sandi Massey came on board as acting principal of Ector College Prep in September. She had been with Dallas ISD for nine years when Third Future hired her as director of instruction in schools for Colorado. But she wanted to come down the Permian Basin and take on the challenge at Ector.

Massey will be at Ector through the end of the school year. The principal job was posted Feb. 1, said Zach Craddock, executive director of schools. Massey said she will stay through June 30. “It needed to be done and we want this school to be successful, so it was important that we do what needs to be done,” Massey said.

Keysha Carden teaches a students how to braid during Ector College Prep Middle School’s cosmetology DYAD program Tuesday morning, Feb. 1, 2022, at Ector College Prep Middle School. (Jacob Ford|Odesssa American)

Craddock said they just finished MAP testing and the results were sent to Assistant Superintendent of Student and School Support Alicia Syverson and Chad Crowson, director of planning and school choice, Jan. 29. Craddock said he anticipated Ector would share its progress with the school board at its meeting in February or March. He said the school averaged 1.26 years of growth in five months. Most people want a year’s growth in a year, Craddock said. He added that he is very proud of the students, staff and faculty at Ector.

Including learning core content teachers, elective teachers and learning coaches, the campus has 90 instructional staff. They also have auxiliary staff, special education teachers and English language development teachers. Massey said there are 18 learning coaches and eight assistant principals — two for every grade level and one that manages all the electives and English language learners and special education — and one that supports the office.

“We know we need to be self-sufficient. Right now subs across the country are scarce and so we’ve had to develop a model that No. 1 is going to maximize student instruction and student learning …,” Craddock said. “… Learning coaches are not held to lower standards than teachers because at any time they’re going to have to step up and our principals have done an excellent job of communicating that and maintaining that level of effectiveness,” he added.

“The model itself actually pushes really high leverage around instruction. We do instruction all day long, except for when they’re in electives or DYAD. They’re constantly reading, thinking, writing,” Massey said.

DYAD classes offer students experiences that they might not normally get from community experts in that field, such as Taekwondo or cosmetology.

Craddock said Third Future schools know their instructional fundamentals and they try to be excellent at them. “I told principals last week or two weeks ago, no trick plays. We don’t do trick plays. We focus in on those fundamentals and every school leader, all of our administrators, it’s about leadership, culture and instructional feedback. Those are the three things they focus on. We don’t have a lot of initiatives. We really know what the fundamentals are and we work crazy to get them right,” Craddock said.

Sebastian Cruz, 14, spins a bo staff during Ector College Prep Middle School’s martial arts DYAD program taught by Former teacher and certified martial arts instructor Sr. Master Laura Zant Tuesday morning at Ector College Prep Middle School. (Jacob Ford|Odesssa American)

Massey said they did lose some students in the fall that didn’t like the model. But they have gained probably 25-30 students in just the last six weeks, she said.

“Some are moving here from other places whether this is their attendance zone or not. But there are a few transfers from other middle schools and we traditionally take a transfer. If we think we can help them, we will accept them,” Massey said.

The campus is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Craddock said. Massey added that they are open on snow days so parents can depend on them and there won’t be a delayed start.

Craddock said Ector also offers a variety of electives and DYAD experiences. However, Craddock said if parents think conditions are unsafe then it is an unexcused absence.

“All of our teachers teach through Zoom all day. So we provide synchronous instruction every day. If they stay home, if they’re sick they can just log into Zoom. If the roads are unsafe and mom and dad can’t get them here, then they can do that. But we know some of our families have to work. They don’t have an option and we’re here,” Craddock said.

They found they can have Zoom on all the time. “We have PROCAM. It doesn’t cost us any more money,” Craddock said. “We already bought the tech. We have the tech, so now it’s just an instructional expectation.”

Massey said there might just be one or two students in a class that are on Zoom. If many students were absent on Thursday due to bad weather, Craddock said they could request a waiver from TEA for low attendance. “But we’re here for our kids. We’re open and if it’s unsafe, the parents, that’s their call as mom and dad. We’re still there for them online as well,” Craddock said. He added that the school has added extracurricular activities and DYAD has 97 sections.

Craddock said none of the after-school sports were eliminated and Ector has had a strong athletic record this year.

They still have Mariachis, band and choir. Massey said DYAD goes “outside the box” offering things like pastry, coding, Taekwondo, engineering, leadership and community service.

The elective teachers are employees of Third Future with the district. The DYAD professionals are independent contractors that have been through a background check and they are community experts, he said.

DYAD experiences are held for 90 minutes twice a week. Students also take electives every day, Massey said.

Jenifer Leyva, 14, braids Ailiane Manzon’s, 14, hair during Ector College Prep Middle School’s cosmetology dyad program Tuesday morning, Feb. 1, 2022, at Ector College Prep Middle School. (Jacob Ford|Odesssa American)

Craddock said students learn more about DYADs through word of mouth and some social media. “We’re going to do a little marketing campaign in the spring for it. Also part of DYAD. … We think kids can learn anywhere, anytime and so there’s several criteria for student trips. The seventh graders at Ector that qualify will be going to (Washington) DC and the eighth graders that qualify will be going to Costa Rica in May,” Craddock said.

Massey said they have to qualify for attendance, grades and discipline. “Then we’ll select no more than 50 students, if there are 50 that qualify. If there are less than 50, then all of them will have the opportunity to go,” Massey said.

Craddock said this will be the culminating experience for the year and it will be an educational experience. For Washington, he said, it could be a social studies/civics trip.

In Costa Rica, he said, it will be more of a science/cultural diversity journey. Students will learn about the cultural and environmental differences because it is a rain forest setting, so science will tie into the trip.

“It will be an educational base, but they’re going to get to have a really fun, unique experience that they may not get otherwise,” Craddock said. Third Future will pay for the trip, he said.

Overall, Craddock said they are very proud of the middle of the year data Massey and her team have achieved. “Her faculty and staff, they’re getting better every day. She’s got a great group that want to be here. They believe in Ector College Prep. They believe in these students. I’ll say just on a personal note, these are some of the best mannered, best behaved students I’ve ever worked with in 25 years,” Craddock said. He added that the students are “exceptionally good, solid kids and they work hard.”

Massey said the only way students are weeded out is if a parent makes that decision. “But we don’t traditionally weed kids out. We do everything we can to work with them, even in the hardest of circumstances to get them to have some sense of getting on track and catching up,” Massey said. Craddock added that they do all that, but they don’t lower their standards.

The schools have a dress code and are requiring everyone to wear masks. “… We only have three rules. Do not disrespect staff; do not disrupt the learning environment, the classroom; and no bullying. If you can’t abide by those three rules, (it’s) probably not a good place for you because we’re not changing those rules. We run a tight ship instructionally; discipline wise. And we don’t compromise on those at any of our schools. Those are non-negotiables,” Craddock said.

Massey added that you don’t see students with cell phones until the bell rings at Ector. “… They follow the rules. But we also don’t give leniency. When we say it’s a no phone policy, we mean it. We’ll collect your phone and give it back to your parents. And kids now believe it and it’s just not a big issue here at all,” Massey added.

She said the school is very structured. All administrators and learning coaches wear blaze orange safety vests. “… You can watch a transition and see how structured it is. We keep our cohorts together. They walk in lines down the hallway to their next class and we’re all over the place. This is my office and I’m there at like six in the morning and I leave it at 6:45 in the morning and I’m not back in that office until the end of the day. We are out and about monitoring 24/7. Every person you see in one of these orange vests is an admin or an LC that’s supporting, so we are everywhere,” Massey said.

She added that it has helped. “Just looking all the way down this hallway, how long it is, you know if you have support at the end of the hallway or not. I don’t need to know who it is. I just see this orange vest and I know I’ve got three people down there that are supporting this next transition. So it makes all the difference,” she said.

Massey said they have lost teachers and staff in the changeover to Third Future.

“I think that’s pretty common, though. No model is for everyone and that’s okay. We don’t apologize for who we are, but we also don’t expect everyone is going to love what we do and that’s okay. So a decision made on the teachers part to walk away is okay …,” she said.