Campus takeover upsets parentsConcerns voiced at STEM Academy news conference

A group of parents of University of Texas Permian Basin STEM Academy students voiced their concerns during a Monday news conference about IDEA Public Schools taking over the campus.
Wearing T-shirts for that day’s field day and STEM Family, parents said they were given short notice of today’s news conference and parent meeting, that teachers were ready to quit, while saying class sizes would be too large and questioning why STEM had to be fixed when it wasn’t broken.
STEM Academy began five years ago on the UTPB campus and is in portable buildings. The school currently reaches 10th grade with a grade a year being added.
The proposal for IDEA Public Schools to take over STEM has to be approved by the UT System Board of Regents and the IDEA board. UTPB President Sandra Woodley said the regents will consider the proposal in August.
Woodley said the transition would be complete in 2021.
Bethany Solis, executive director of the Permian Basin Region, said the IDEA board would take it on in June.
An online petition against the change was posted on Sunday at change.org. The goal was 2,500 and as of late Monday afternoon, 1,511 had signed.
Woodley said the Permian Basin is full of economic opportunity and UTPB is committed to the core mission of the university of helping more people earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, while also focusing on faculty research.
“This is an imperative for the university, but we also know that a strong k-12 education is critically connected to the core mission of the university. We are extremely proud of the work of the STEM Academy over the past five years. There is so much for all of you to be excited about and happy with,” Woodley said. “What university wants to be able to do is not only continue to support strong k-12 education on our campus, but actually to strengthen that.”
“So there are a couple of things that we have actively been seeking. I’ve been actively as president of this university seeking an option that will allow me to do both things well. I have to be able to move to the university forward and to focus on our core mission and I have to be able to, in my view, find a way to strengthen our commitment at the university to a strong k-12 education. We understand that parents and students are upset about the change and your children’s education is important to you and it’s important to me,” Woodley added.
Woodley said she was trying to find a way to do both, which is the reason she is pursuing a partnership with IDEA Public Schools. She said IDEA is a nationally recognized leader in charter schools with a 20-year track record. It has 79 schools and more than 45,000 students and 85 percent of their charter schools in Texas earn an A or a B score.”
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“This is aspirational for this community and we really care about strong academics for our institution and for our k-12 pipeline. They also have committed with me to finding a pathway that maximizes the potential that all of the students who are currently STEM Academy students have a spot in the IDEA Public Schools,” Woodley said.
“They also are maximizing the opportunity for teachers and staff to make the transition, as well. Like the students, they are not guaranteed a job, but there will be training for all that want to apply. There will be guaranteed interviews for all the faculty and staff who will work very hard to minimize any disruption to the classroom over the next two years, including providing transition support, retention support for those faculty who will stay over the next few years to see the school through,” Woodley said.
That will include a bonus at the end of the second year, so they can transition.
“We also want to make sure that our efforts to support k-12 schools in the future is sustainable. Unfortunately, at this point our STEM students are actively learning in portable buildings that will soon be unsafe in the next three, four years for them to be in,” Woodley said.
However, ECISD has used portables for decades.
The university doesn’t have the ability to build a kindergarten through 12th grade school on the campus. The Permanent University Fund that come from the UT System and state funding are used for university academic buildings.
The way that most kindergarten through 12th grade schools are built is with bonds, Woodley said, and the university is beyond its debt capacity.
“It was when I came here, so the building that we’ve already done on the cafeterias and the dining halls and the apartments has made it so that the university has no debt capacity to go out ourselves,” Woodley said.
She said the university would continue to work with the STEM family to understand every concern they have.
Solis said IDEA plans to build 14 schools on seven sites in Odessa and Midland during the next six or seven years.
“When Dr. Woodley called and shared the issue that she was facing and asked if we would be open to a partnership to ensure that all current STEM Academy students would have a very high quality, as similar as possible school to attend, we said absolutely; let’s talk. We’re very excited to potentially be a partner to serve the students, not only at STEM Academy, but some additional students hopefully,” Solis said.
She added that IDEA wants to democratize higher education.
“What we have found, and the statistics support this, is that if you grow up in the top quartile income-wise in the United States, you have about an 80 percent chance of going to college and being able to continue that quality of life for your family. But if you grow up in the bottom quartile income, you have just under a 10 percent chance of going to college,” Solis said.
For the past 13 years, she said, 100 percent of IDEA seniors have been accepted to college and 99 percent have matriculated and gone on to enroll in college. Solis said 50 percent have completed college, which is five times the national average for students of their same background.
She said she recognizes how difficult this change can feel and is committed to listening. She plans to meet with parents.
Businessman Collin Sewell and education activist Lorraine Perryman were on hand to offer their backing.
Perryman said she wasn’t a charter school fan, but after doing lots of research, her mind changed. She added that she and Sewell visited some IDEA campuses and that this decision was based on excellence.
“We wanted the best for ECISD. We want the best for our entire community and I believe competition is the way to do that. (This) change will bring excellence like we have never experienced in Ector County. I can tell you as a parent if I had kids now, I would put them in one of their academies,” Perryman said.
“And if you give them a chance, I think you will reach that same conclusion that they bring us educational opportunity and excellence that does not exist. We are not abandoning ECISD. In fact, Collin and I cheered the TRE (tax ratification election) to get them more funds, which our community overwhelmingly supported and we have been involved with ECISD to change leadership to bring a world-class superintendent here, so we are looking at education in a holistic way for our entire community because shame on us as a community that we did not demand better of our education system for about 10 or 15 years. The whole community is involved in this now and you are already involved because you made a choice for excellence when you moved your kids to the STEM Academy, or started with them at the STEM Academy. This is the best opportunity for your kids, and for our kids. I would just ask you to have an open mind and to look at what they are going to bring us and offer us and give them a chance to show what they can do for your kids and hundreds of others in Ector County,” Perryman said.
Woodley said she has been working on this partnership for about eight months and made a decision about a month ago, but decided to hold off announcing it until STAAR testing was complete. However, she also was committed to making sure the information got out before the school year ended.
Woodley said nothing will change at the STEM Academy or its operation until fall of 2021. She added that it was important to officials to ensure the transition was long.
“We have time throughout the entire next year to listen and to learn and to make sure that that the needs and the concerns of the parents are met, that we answer all of their questions and that we provide the opportunity to determine whether or not IDEA is a fit for them,” Woodley said.
The other commitment that IDEA has made is the chance for existing teachers and staff to explore a career option with IDEA.
“They are going above and beyond their normal process to expedite those interviews and to provide training, at no cost to the teachers and the faculty, to be able to learn about IDEA, to get teacher training that they can use later to put them in the best competitive position to transition …,” Woodley added.
IDEA will be making the majority of the decisions, and if at all possible, Woodley said they will be made before the end of 2020.
Kayla Perkins, who lives in Midland, and home schooled her children before bringing them to STEM so some parents were not there because of the short notice.
“I feel like an email on a Friday and a press conference on a Monday is very short notice. We had plans to go out of town that don’t ever happen, and we didn’t have time to do the research, so I’ve had to get everything second hand. All that being said, the IDEA school sounds fantastic for ECISD and MISD” where you have parents who drop their children off and head off to work, but not for involved parents.
“Parents at STEM are seeking something different. We are passionate,” Perkins said.
Parents would have rather been at the field day than at the news conference.
“I feel like it lacks integrity and it lacks character to plan these things when parents can’t be here. I’m questioning that. I know there will be an opportunity to change my opinion and everybody else’s,” Perkins said.
Things got contentious when parent Teresa Couch said, they were told five years ago they could not build their own building and had to rent the portables from UTPB. They were told at some point they would have to find land to expand to build an actual building, but “you’re letting them come on build an actual building that you never even gave us a chance of building. Right or wrong?”
Woodley said with the university’s current resources, it doesn’t have the debt capacity to get a bond to build a building and it can’t use PUF or state funding.
“So the only way that a building can be built on the campus is if a partnership like IDEA that can go out with a debt capacity to build a building on our campus can happen, or if there is an outpouring of private dollars to be able to build on our campus,” Woodley said.
STEM pays UTPB $31,000 a month. Woodley said IDEA would pay whatever the market rate is for rent and pay a ground lease to build the school.
“If I were trying to maximize my revenue, then I would take that 11 acres and put a hotel on it and get the percentage of the revenue for $500 a night a rooms …,” Woodley said.
Parent Lori Peck said they tried Harmony Science Academy, but it didn’t go to 12th grade. Now the same thing is happening with STEM.
“My child is about to go to high school. She needs to start someplace at the very beginning,” Peck said.
Pledges were made to keep the current project-based learning format.
Woodley said one-on-one and small group opportunities would be provided to parents over the next few months. Solis will provide dates and slots and parents can go through Shannon Davidson at the STEM Academy.
Madison Peck, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at STEM Academy, said she was sad this is happening.
“I kind of wish STEM would stay the same,” Peck said.
Parent Jennifer Ramsey said her family has made huge sacrifices so her son could remain part of STEM Academy.
“We honestly looked at moving to DFW last year and I turned down a job there so that he could stay here in this school. It cost about $24,000 and a lower cost of living in DFW to keep him here for middle school. To find out they just want to dissolve this program is very disheartening. I am not sure that they understand that families build their lives around education for their kids. Many move away from here because they cannot afford private school. I don’t understand why the oil companies that are behind the grant that is funding IDEA to come out here are OK with the only existing STEM academy being dissolved in the name of bringing IDEA in when IDEA does not have any kind of STEM program,” Ramsey wrote in an email.
Questions may be sent to stemtransition@utpb.edu.