Future looks brighter for Ector after first year

For a school that was once on the verge of closure or takeover by the state, the future is looking brighter for Ector College Prep Success Academy after its first year.
Reading and math scores are up for students who went from seventh to eighth grade, attendance has consistently been at 97 percent and the campus culture has improved.
Ector County Independent School District has eight campuses on improvement required status under state accountability standards. Ector Middle School was in its fifth year last year and if the campus didn’t come off the list it would have faced closure or the Texas Education Commissioner would have appointed a board of managers over the whole district.
Ector was one Partnering with CEO/Superintendent Robert Bleisch’s Ector Success Academy Network was a way to stay sanctions from the Texas Education Agency against the middle school for two years. The principal is Charles Quintela.
The partnership between the nonprofit and ECISD could potentially last for 10 years. The campus emphasizes course performance, attendance and behavior, bolstered by interventions, incentives and enrichments.
Bleisch said attendance was a non-negotiable requirement. When he proposed the in-district charter school to parents, he said they were going to have high expectations, extend the school day and allow time for teachers to collaborate and plan.
They have also created extended class times, homework centers, interventions and mandated high expectations.
“Monitoring and direct targeting was a catalyst for school change. We learn every year we’re in the business. This year, I saw something different. It’s pretty remarkable to have a high attendance rate when our true system targeting that issue really didn’t get installed until January of February. That’s a testament to the work and the teachers engaging kids,” Bleisch said.
Principal Charles Quintela said Saturday school didn’t get going until after spring break in March.
Quintela said Ector just got its second administration of the reading and math STAAR test back for eighth grade.
Looking at students who were in seventh grade last year and are now in eighth grade, Quintela said reading scores rose from 47 percent last year to 70 percent this year, which means they grew 23 percentage points, “which is huge — huge for us.”
Math scores for seventh graders last year were 53 percent and those students, who are now eighth graders, scored 63 percent this year, a 10 percentage point difference, Quintela said.
“When you peel the onion back behind that, you’re going to see there’s a lot of things that went on during the school year. Many times people think kids need direct instruction on reading, but the approach we took we created an extended school environment. We bought all the laptops. We spent a lot of money on a program that monitors kids’ reading, so the argument we made (is) if we can get kids practicing reading, that’s equally — or more important — than actually instructing them in reading. I’m generalizing because there are always some kids that need direct phonics instruction,” Bleisch said.
“Our argument was laid out at the beginning of the year. This is evidence that kids are better are getting out of reading than adults are at getting them to read. You can split that somehow if you can find a way to get kids to read and not rely on parents because that variable we can’t control. We can control what happens in the school day. We can’t control what happens outside of school,” Bleisch added.
“If you truly want to have growth, you have to create an environment that monitors their reading on campus and does not take away from direct instruction. …,” he said.
If students don’t read two to four articles a week at 70 percent accuracy, or better, they’re required to attend Saturday school, Bleisch said.
Students who don’t attend Saturday school face consequences on Mondays and Tuesdays, he said.
“If we don’t get kids reading, they’re not going to go to college. It’s one of those things you must find a way to crack that code. There are still some things we need to adjust. We’re not where we need to be, but you see the results already, quickly, and that’s pretty surprising because I thought it would take a little longer,” Bleisch added.
Bleisch said whether the partnership with ECISD will continue after next school year has not yet been determined. There is a new superintendent, Scott Muri, starting July 1, and if he and board members like what they see, they will find a way to continue the arrangement.
Since the school started under the partnership, there have been several changes to top administration and one change on the school board with Tammy Hawkins taking the place of Ray Beaty, who didn’t run for reelection.
Bleisch said they have not yet met with Muri. They wanted to give it some time and see if context on Ector’s existence could be provided, which he said has a lot to do with the relationship going forward.
“If we’re a solution, then the perspective is positive and if we’re seen as a thorn, as something that was inherited and they just have to tolerate, then we’re seen as a problem. Hopefully, (in) this relationship they’ll see us as an answer … and maybe a hub of innovation. Let us try things. We’re trying all kinds of things and many of them are working; most of them are working; that really is a positive to the district because they don’t have to take the chances and the risks. We take the chances and the risks, and if it works gosh, they can do (it to) scale. We could be seen easily in this district as a solution,” Bleisch said.
However, he noted that the steps are nuanced.
“My only concern is if you do things and you don’t understand the nuance, then the minute you run into a road block there’s a tendency to say, well it’s not possible with these kids at these schools because of this roadblock … instead of knowing how to get around certain things. That would be my only concern. … I know that leadership team wants change. They’re embracing new ideas, so that’s exciting to see that happen,” Bleisch said.
He added that Quintela has met with newly installed Bonham Middle School Principal Mitch Gerig, who was associate principal at Ector. Bleisch said the schools can share ideas and learn from each other.
“We’re excited about that. That’s really open to anyone else who feels we can learn from each other,” Bleisch said.
From his perspective, Quintela said he couldn’t go back to any other type of system.
“Bobby could have come in and put the team together he wanted. Historically, what we do is we change personnel. We don’t change practices, or processes, or programs. We try to embed more, or add to, but Bobby trusted us. That’s bigger than anything because when you’re a new principal, or superintendent, you clean house. That’s probably the first thing people do. But to be able to work with (an) already living, breathing team that’s already established, that’s the hard work,” Quintela said.