• November 21, 2019

School is still a work in progress - Odessa American: UTPB

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School is still a work in progress

Task force, Woodley hopeful about STEM Academy future

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Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2019 3:00 am

The future of University of Texas Permian Basin’s STEM Academy is still a work in progress, but President Sandra Woodley says a long-term solution is in the works and should be coming soon.

Woodley formed a task force in May made up of parents, teachers, staff and students to work with the university and the STEM advisory board. She has said that the university has had to spend “quite a bit of money” patching up the portable buildings the school is in and she didn’t know how many years the buildings would remain viable because they weren’t meant for long-term use.

IDEA Public Schools proposed a partnership between itself and UTPB in May, but many parents were upset by the idea.

IDEA Public Schools are a fast-growing network of tuition-free public prekindergarten through 12th grade charter schools. They plan to open campuses in Midland in 2020 and in Odessa in 2021.

The proposal was withdrawn in May.

In an Oct. 31 interview, Woodley said the university and task force are still working to look at “viable potions to make sure that we can secure the long-term future of STEM Academy.”

“Our goal is to find a solution over the next three years. We really hope we find a solution sooner than that, but over the next three years while we’re exploring our options the school will remain open and functional during that time as indicated before so that has not changed,” Woodley said.

The three years has already started and the one-year check point is July 2020.

She said the preferences of the STEM family and the university are to enable the current students to continue in any change or transition of the STEM Academy. The same for the faculty and staff.

“It is also preferable to maintain the STEM model that has made the school so successful and finally it is important to secure the future of the school having permanent structures for the school long term,” Woodley said.

The task force is exploring partnerships at this point, but there is no guarantee that will be the final outcome.

“… We really are just having the conversations with potential partners to see what may be possible and how much of the preferences that we are including in our exploration can happen with those partners,” Woodley said. “That will continue over a period of months.”

She added that they have talked to Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri and there is one other existing charter school that she wouldn’t name that has come up.

“Their board (of the charter school) hasn’t yet become involved, so we’re early in those discussions so there are at least two at this point that have expressed interest in having conversations. So the task force will meet with them in November to get a little bit more detail really an informal q&a session and continue to look for other options, as well,” Woodley said.

One of the options on the table is to find an external donor or donors who can fund the facilities.

“That would require up to $40 million and so I really can’t judge the probability that that will happen, but that is on the table as well so transitioning to an existing charter that has the capability of building the facilities and the willingness to keep the model the same and transition to the students and the faculty and provide those permanent structures, that would be a way to secure the future of the school if that happens,” she said.

Beginning in December, Woodley said she will provide opportunities for anyone in the STEM family to sign up for small group conversations with her to ensure that all voices are heard “as we go through the process.”

In a talking points hand-out, Woodley said UTPB will provide dates and times so parents or employees can sign up.

“The university is committed to finding a pathway, and we actually do believe that we will find a pathway, to secure the long-term future of the STEM Academy and that is what we’re focused on,” Woodley said.

She said the task force has met monthly and it has subcommittees that are looking into things like what it costs to build facilities and “what issues there are.”

“They’ve got groups that are looking at various options and digging deeper into that. The university and University of Texas System will help with navigating the answers to the questions that do come up as we look at the options. The charter, as you may remember, is not a UTPB charter. It is a University of Texas System charter, so the final decision on the option going forward will be at the UT System. If we end up going with an option to partner with one of the existing school districts or charter schools, the actual agreement will have to be between the UT System and that particular entity. And if the funding is raised for the facility, we’ll have to go through all the requirements and restrictions to build a facility on our campus through the UT System,” Woodley said.

The school may remain on the UTPB campus, or it may not.

“I think we are certainly open to providing a space on our campus for a permanent facility. We don’t know exactly where it will be on our campus yet because we’re still securing mineral rights releases after the drill sites from Chevron have been released. But regardless of how that turns out, we do have space on the campus and would welcome the STEM Academy on our campus if that’s the solution that emerges. It also may be possible that some other entity will have space near their charter schools to build the school and so we’re open to all options,” Woodley said.

She said they have been hearing from concerned parents about the status of STEM.

“We respect the angst and the concern that parents have for their school,” Woodley said. “The STEM Academy is an excellent school and I share their commitment to making sure that it goes forward. We just have to find the pathway forward and I think everyone is trying to get it to the same place, but the uncertainty of where we are in the process does provide additional stress, I think, to the STEM family and we would like to do everything we can to assure them that nothing is going to happen to their school while we continue to search over the next three years, exhaustively, for an option that secures its future. I think that can help provide an opportunity for the STEM family to work with the task force and others who are in earnest and good faith searching for a solution that really is a win-win solution for the university and for the STEM family, as well,” Woodley said.

She said it’s not true that she doesn’t want the STEM Academy on campus. Woodley said she wants to make sure that they have permanent structures and don’t wait until it “becomes a crisis” in the portables.”

“I don’t to kick the can down the road,” Woodley said. “I want to find a solution soon enough so that we do not disrupt the work of the STEM Academy. … I think there are some that have said the portables should last 40 to 50 years, but that’s not the information that I’m getting from our facilities experts.”  

“We’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintaining and updating them, and at this point of course, they’re safe. But at some point they will no longer be, so it is my responsibility, I believe, to make sure that we secure a long-term solution early enough so that we don’t run into a crisis situation down the road. And the students at the STEM Academy deserve to be in permanent structures. They deserve that for their future,” she added.

Jake Watkins, a STEM parent, member of the task force and member of the school advisory board, said they are still exploring several possibilities for the future of the school, but nothing has been decided yet.

Watkins said he is “very positive” a solution will be found within the three-year timeframe.

“I believe 100 percent that we’ll be able to have a good plan within a year, but for sure within three years,” he said.

He acknowledged that parents not knowing what’s going to happen has been a source of apprehension for parents.

“Fear of the unknown is very real, but as a task force we’re exploring several opportunities, possibilities of partnerships. We’ll be having a meeting with parents and answer a lot of these questions and concerns,” Watkins said.

He added that the parent meeting has not been scheduled. There is an advisory board meeting Nov. 15 and meetings with two possible partners Nov. 22. After those two meetings, Watkins said the parent meeting can be scheduled.

Watkins said things are going well and new information will come out soon to parents.

He wanted to stress that “we do believe that there’s going to be a plan in place within a year and it is looking very positive. …”

Erica Miller, an assignment editor at KMID Big 2/Fox 24 News, said she has two students at the STEM Academy. She is not on the task force.

“I just feel really frustrated at this point. We were kind of blindsided in May that STEM was going to be taken over by IDEA,” Miller said.

Even though they were relieved when IDEA pulled out, that put the school in limbo. Miller said she had taken her children out of the regular public schools and staked a lot on their education.

She said although Woodley has said STEM is going to stay in place and they won’t get rid of it, there’s still a feeling of insecurity because there’s not a solid plan.

Miller said she’s hopeful Woodley will continue to work with parents and that open and honest communication is key.

 

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