Help still wanted at ECISD

The numbers fluctuate, but Ector County Independent School District’s teacher shortage has remained constant the past several years. The district has taken a variety of short- and long-term steps to overcome the vacancies, but officials say they need help from everyone.

“It’s not just Robin Fawcett and Staci Ashley. It’s our whole community’s job to get people to want to come to Odessa. We get a lot of help from the (Odessa Chamber of Commerce). They’re very, very helpful. A lot of our community churches and members are great about helping us promote the great things about Odessa so that people will want to come here,” ECISD Director of Elementary Staff Staci Ashley said.

ECISD Chief of Staff Brian Moersch said the district has 1,936 teaching positions budgeted and 108 vacancies at the elementary and secondary levels.

Some of those losses have come from teachers leaving to care for loved ones. Moersch said that has occurred more in the last year.

Ashley and Fawcett said ECISD is making headway. It has been recruiting from local colleges and universities and through alternative certification programs, which have been very helpful.

Moersch said positions have been added because of growth, which make the vacancy rate look higher.

“Just as we hire a few, we lose a few. Our numbers will get a little better because we’re in the process of hiring some December graduates. They are local from UTPB. We have a couple from the 2+1 program,” Moersch said.

A partnership among Odessa College, Texas Tech University and ECISD, the 2+1 Program is a fast-track, one-year teacher preparation program, combining clinical experiences with applicable online courses.

The first cohort had five teacher candidates in it and ECISD hired all five. The second class started with 10 candidates, but it is down to five, Moersch said.

“Ultimately, our goal is 60 a year. It’s very intensive. They get their associate degree in education from Odessa College in two years. Then in that third year, it’s a partnership with Texas Tech in which they get a bachelor’s degree and there teacher certification through the Texas Education Agency. That last year, they’re earning like 54 or 60 hours, depending on how it’s structured, within one year so it’s very, very intensive. Obviously, it’s a full-time endeavor so they can’t work. Not everyone is prepared for that type of intensity,” he said.

Twenty-eight percent of ECISD teachers have one to five years of experience; 20.9 percent have six to 10 years; 27.8 percent have 11 to 20 years; and 15.5 percent have more than 20 years of experience, TEA information shows.

Having that decline in the middle years is consistent when compared to the state and nation, officials said.

“… We just have a lot of people, it appears, that get into education and three to five years out they’re going into a different vocation or profession,” Moersch said. “We’re working on our strategy.

“Consistently, we’ve had 120-130 teacher vacancies over the last three years. Our strategy is (to) grow our own because recruiting has not been that effective, as far as a long-term solution. And our research shows that our long-term professional educators are those that grew up in the community so that’s really our target and our focus,” Moersch said.

He added that the district will be working with Region 18 Education Service Center and others to develop its own programs and bring local people in to teach.

Moersch said ECISD will still send representatives to Spain for bilingual teachers. He added that there is no cost to the district because the Spanish ministry pays for the flight and associated costs to go to Madrid and recruit.

“That is a hard to fill area throughout the state and really hard for us out here in West Texas. That short-term strategy will continue to be used and we are preparing to go to Spain with the objective of recruiting 30 … teachers,” Moersch said. “We’re looking at around March, tentatively, for that trip.”

Ashley said the long-term substitutes in ECISD have undergone the same training as regular teachers and many are waiting to graduate with their bachelor’s degree and take the certification test. They also know what they’re getting into in the classroom.

“It’s a very smooth transition for those long-term subs to become full-time teachers, so in a way we’re growing our own that way,” Ashley said.

People also look the district up online and contact ECISD. Husbands or wives may get transferred, people want to return to teaching or they may want to move from a hurricane-impacted area, for example.

An obstacle has been perceptions of what Odessa is like. Fawcett said there was a report that Odessa was ranked the No. 1 most dangerous cities among communities its size.

“People here kind of dismissed it. When you Google it and you live in Waco or Dallas, parents have second thoughts,” Fawcett said.

With Odessa’s boom and bust cycle, Fawcett said more positions may be added because of growth, but ECISD loses mostly paraprofessionals when things are going well in the oilfield.

Fawcett said paraprofessionals don’t make much money, but they work to have insurance. If their spouse is able to go back to work, they leave.

“It’s a wash with the number of people coming in that want to teach with the number of people who want to go into the oilfield to make more money,” Fawcett said.

Ashley and Fawcett said they have not had people tell them they won’t come to Odessa because they don’t want to be in a school that’s in improvement required under state accountability standards.

ECISD has eight campuses under improvement required currently. Included in that are three that could be closed or face takeover from TEA. The number of schools in IR has dropped in the last four years from 22 to eight.

Moersch, Ashley and Fawcett said they would request that people promote Odessa and the school district in a positive light.

“Help us stimulate the interest in Ector County ISD. We are very fortunate, as I mentioned earlier, that we have community members that do just that. We want the entire community to be as positive and outgoing and excited about our kids as we are,” Ashley said.

Moersch added that if anyone is interested in being a teacher, they should contact the district.

“… We’ll gladly help them get on board and explain the process, whatever they need. If they have a desire to be a teacher, let us know. If they have a bachelor’s degree, we’ll help them through the alternative certification process,” Moersch said.