GUEST VIEW: Empowering rural futures in the Permian Basin

By Sara Saleem, M.A.

Last May, I stood at the sidelines of the Midland High School graduation–twelve years of teaching and at least twelve graduations watching students I taught walk across the stage and into the next phase of their lives. As I stood there sharing this moment of pride with my students, I noticed a particular student struggling to walk in her heels. By the time she reached me, the pain on her face was evident, and, without a second thought, I offered her my shoes. Relief washed over her as I helped her to the bench nearby and replaced her heels with my flat sandals–a perfect fit. She thanked me profusely as I helped her find her place in the procession. Although my actions seemed extraordinary to spectators, in that moment, I did what any educator would have done–we assist and support students from teaching them how to walk to helping them walk across the stage and into the world ahead of them.

As I step into the role of Director of the Permian Basin Innovation Zone just as my students stepped into a new phase in their lives, I am reminded of that moment. I find myself reflecting on my past as a Texas educator and what sets our state apart. For many communities, especially rural ones, the school district is the main hub and lifeline for its residents. In fact, according to The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, Texas has more schools in rural areas than any other state, with more than 2,000 campuses designated as rural.

It is clear that rural communities serve as the heart of Texas and have a spirit of resilience that is our strength. It is through rural connections that we are able to intimately support each community member, and it is exactly this unwavering spirit that normalizes standing barefoot on a turf field so that a student can confidently walk across their graduation stage. We make the extraordinary happen daily– so much so that it becomes our norm.

However, despite rural communities’ prevalence across Texas, we face some distinct struggles, including lack of resources and opportunities as well as challenges around career exposure for high school students. Whether due to lack of transportation to job sites, connections with employers, or inability to engage in paid work experience, students often struggle to fully comprehend the amount of opportunities that exist in their region and what career pathways are required to gain access to high wage, high demand opportunities. Beyond employment limitations, rural schools often struggle to offer a wide breadth of programs and opportunities for students due to staff and budget constraints.

For these reasons and more, four independent school districts in the Permian Basin (Crane, McCamey, Buena Vista, and Grandfalls-Royalty), 2 institutions of higher education (Odessa College and Midland College), and the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin, formed the Permian Basin Innovation Zone (PBIZ): A collaborative that reinvents the way schools in the region can cooperatively use resources and sustainably provide an outstanding career and technology education for rural students. We aim to expand opportunities for high school students in the area by offering them access to shared robust college and career pathways. Each district serves as the host for specialized pathways, supplying the classroom space, equipment, and instructor to students from any of the partnering districts.

The Permian Basin Innovation Zone successfully launched in Fall of 2023 with 43% of our phase 1 cohort enrolled in shared pathways–close to half of whom are economically disadvantaged. The initial pathway focus areas are education, medical, and welding. With additional funding and resources, the goal is to incrementally offer pathways that align with regional workforce demands such as automotive, drones, oil and gas, and renewable energy.

The Permian Basin Innovation Zone recognizes that having a prepared workforce coming out of high school is an invaluable asset for our community that allows for industry and families in our region to thrive and aids local economic growth. To that end, the collaborative strives to offer a wide variety of career and technical education pathways that expand opportunity to higher education, earn credentials/certificates, and provide access to work-based experiences while meeting local/regional needs connected to high-wage, in-demand jobs. Our aim is to extend the connections and support built within rural communities into the school systems and ensure our students get the focused support they need to succeed from cradle to career.

As we do the hard work of creating outstanding career and technical educational experiences for our students and work to align them with industry and local needs, we hope to join, inspire, and support other rural regions who are implementing similar collaboratives to serve their students.

As a former educator, I understand the full potential of The Permian Basin Innovation Zone and am elated to be part of the innovative work focused on building bridges for our rural students as they walk off the graduation stage and into the world. The Permian Basin Innovation Zone is a prime example of how rural communities can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles when strong, innovative leaders come together with the common vision of challenging the status quo and embracing change for the betterment of all students and communities. We embody how a mindset shift from “my students and my community” to “our students and our community” can lead to progress and equitable access to opportunities that will allow students in rural communities to compete with their peers statewide in achieving their aspirations which not only benefits them but their communities and region as well.

Sara Saleem, M.A., is director of Permian Basin Innovation Zone, a grow our own initiative of the Education Partnership of the Permian Basin. Reach her at [email protected]