• August 3, 2020

UTPB professor starts her own school - Odessa American: Education

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UTPB professor starts her own school

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Posted: Sunday, August 2, 2020 4:30 am

Putting her educational expertise into action, University of Texas Permian Basin Assistant Professor Lindsey Balderaz started her own school, Transformative Leadership Academy in Monahans.

Located at 2909 S. Stockton Ave in Monahans, the school last year had 52 students in grades prekindergarten (3 years old) through senior. This year is projecting 64 students are expected at the private, nonprofit school, Balderaz said. Students came mainly from Monahans last year, but she is expecting some from surrounding rural towns this year.

Currently the school has four teachers, but it ended last year with five. Balderaz said they are waiting to see if they are going to refill the fifth teaching position, but no final decisions have been made yet.

This was quite a first year to start a new school with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was not exactly what we expected, but honestly we had a really good outcome even though we had to shut down in March. But we did move to virtual learning, so we still had a lot of good learning experiences,” Balderaz said.

This fall, she is looking at having school in person, virtually and a mixture of both.

She said she would prefer in-person instruction but it depends on what the government mandates are. Balderaz added that getting feedback from parents and understanding what is best for the students they serve is what’s most important.

“The main thing that we’ve heard is that virtual learning is very hard. It’s just an extreme strain on their individual families. They don’t feel very well equipped to do the instruction and also there’s an element of child care that is missing and it really puts a strain on their family, so I know the families are really wanting — if it’s safe — to be able to have the kids go back and do in-person learning,” Balderaz said.

The school was started out of a need for an alternative option for families in the Monahans area.

“My background is in special education and I’ve worked as a special ed advocate and I’d had a lot of people reach out to me needing assistance on trying to get the right services for their child. The current public education system is not really well suited for students who have different learning needs. And it’s no fault of the actual individual systems. It’s really at the state level. The mandates that are in place kind of make it hard to adjust for individual students … so there were a lot of people reaching out to me and so a group of community leaders and business leaders kind of got together and decided that they would be able to provide the support and financial assistance to get it started and so I was selected to be the director and put my vision into practice,” Balderaz said.

“It all kind of came about really quickly. We started the conversation about a school last March and within six months were up and running, so it was very quick turnaround. I had never really thought I would start a school of my own, but just the need for providing an alternative for families was important to me. I think there’s a huge, almost a grassroots movement going on in our country right now to reform education and make it more well suited for 21st century learning. A lot of the practices that are in place don’t really address the needs of our students and what they need to be capable of when they actually graduate and move into the workforce,” she added.

Although she’s got a brand-new school, Balderaz is still an assistant professor in the special education program of the College of Education at UTPB. Having the school has helped her college students as well.

“I’m able to really connect with them on what’s actually happening and also give them a bit of vision for what could be done in their classrooms or in their schools to really design the class from the outset to meet every student’s needs,” Balderaz said.

Students at TLA are of mixed ability and Balderaz said the school is able to meet their needs regardless of their abilities, skill sets or interests.

“We have a large group of students who are very academically advanced and they were able to move through their content and reach their goals really quickly throughout the year. And then we have some students who need more time to develop, and so they’re able to go at the pace that works best for them. We don’t group our students based on their age, but we group them based on their skill sets and their independence level and then they’re able to move flexibly through groups throughout the year rather than just based on the academic school calendar. There’s a lot of flexibility …,” she said.

The student-to-teacher ratio in prekindergarten and elementary is 12 to 1 and for secondary it’s one to 14.

“So we’re really able to identify their individual needs and group them appropriately,” Balderaz said.

Juggling her UTPB professorship and the school has been a challenge, but Balderaz said one of the greatest benefits of the school is that the teachers are all “extremely qualified and very strong leaders.”

“They’re able to do the majority of the day-to-day operations and so I usually take half day in the morning at TLA and half day in the afternoon at UTPB. But then my coursework at UTPB is all online so there’s a lot of flexibility. I’ve had a lot of support from my dean in the College of Education. He sees the value in the school and the relevance of being able to pull from those actual experiences to teach my students and an opportunity even to have student interns in the future come work with us at TLA, so we’re able to do a lot of research as well,” Balderaz said.

She said she has two research projects going on right now that involve TLA students and their families.

“One project that is really big and exciting project we’re working on is establishing business-education partnerships. We’re really interested in the process and development of bringing business leaders into the school to influence our teaching and then also an opportunity for our students to be able to go out of the school into the businesses. Last year we had four different … high school students interning at various places like our Sandhills Veterinary Clinic and Atlas Sand, which is the sand mining plant. They hosted our students to intern,” Balderaz said.

There also were a number of business leaders who gave workshops at the school on various topics like the cardiovascular system, germs and hand washing.

“We had our bank president come in from Tejas Bank and talk to us about financial planning and really being financially savvy, understanding the purpose of things and how to set yourself up for success with your bank account. That was really beneficial. …,” Balderaz said.

In this research project, she said, TLA is trying to identify specific steps for establishing business partners and then looking at the outcome of those partnerships on students to see if they’re effective and useful academically and socially for students.

“I think it’s something it’s something that people have kind of understood for a while that businesses should have some input into education since they’re kind of the final recipient of our product in education. But there’s always been a bit of a gap between that world and the world of education. They almost speak a different language. We have different jargon that we use and so it’s not something that happens very often, but something that’s really important so that’s one research project,” Balderaz said.

The other research project involves using 3D cameras to develop virtual reality scenarios so students can gain experience without having to physically be in a certain situation. She noted that this is especially useful for individuals with autism so they can practice sills and master them before trying them in real life.

This also is useful for college students studying education.

“… We’ve recognized our student interns may have limited access. There are probably going to be a lot more protocols in place. How can we bring those same internship experiences to our students? Virtual reality is probably going to be a big solution for that,” Balderaz said.

Balderaz said TLA is accepting applications and enrollment can be done on the school website at https://thetlacademy.com/.

She added that she’s excited about next year even though she’s not sure exactly what it’s going to look like.

“… I’m sure we’ll figure it out and make it work regardless. We have extremely supportive families who are very understanding. We bring them into the conversation every chance we get so that we know we’re addressing their needs so I think they’re appreciative of that as well,” Balderaz said.

Lacy Spinks has all three of her children at Transformative Leadership Academy.

“I initially chose it because my middle child has sensory processing disorder and he struggled through public school and even in home school …,” Spinks said.

She tried it for the small-school setting and in a matter of days, they decided it was a better f it for all three of their children.

“… We have three children different ages, different learning expectations and learning abilities, so TLA has done a complete 180 for my middle child. He is excelling and I never thought that could happen,” Spinks said.

Spinks said she is definitely glad TLA was established. In a small town, there isn’t usually much choice especially for someone like her middle child. In the public school system, she said, you can find amazing teachers while other times he would just slip through the cracks.

Some days he was coming home in the middle of the day crying and experiencing sensory overload so he wasn’t learning anything, Spinks said.

She added that it’s not that way at TLA because all the directors, teachers and volunteers know the different students have different learning styles.

“I think TLA really brings out every individual’s capabilities. I guess they magnify their capabilities and it makes them feel special,” Spinks said.

TLA advanced primary teacher Traci Collins instructs students who are 8 to 12 years old. Last summer, Balderaz posted on Facebook that TLA was starting and she thought it sounded interesting and decided it couldn’t hurt to talk to Balderaz. Balderaz’ vision was what Collins said any teacher dreams of.

“I think it actually turned out better than what I could imagine. It was an adjustment for us all being able to let loose, being able to have the kids direct what they were interested in learning. It’s a change of mindset. It was an adjustment, but we’ve worked through kinks …,” Collins said.

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