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To Keep An Odessa School From Closing, Ector County ISD Focuses On Improving Student Literacy

Adrian Vega takes on the role of El Super Lector and sings to Blackshear Elementary Magnet students. (Mitch Borden/ Marfa Public Radio)

By Mitch Borden

In Odessa, Blackshear Elementary Magnet is on its last leg. For years the state has said the struggling school needs to improve, and in 2018 the Texas Education Agency even gave the Permian Basin campus a failing grade for its performance. The Ector County Independent School district as a whole was given a D grade from the state.

If Blackshear continues to underperform it could be closed, but amid an uncertain future for this campus, Ector County ISD is taking a calculated risk. They’re making changes officials state will streamline efforts to support teachers and get students where they need to be academically. To do this the district is starting by focusing on student literacy.

In Blackshear’s library, about 90 kindergarteners are waiting for a special person to read to them. El Super Lector, the super reader, comes jogging out with a guitar and a bright yellow cape ready to read a book he’s the main character of.

The kids cheer when they see him. They watch him intently while he reads to them and excitedly sing-along with him when El Super Lector breaks out into a rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it.”

It sounds simple, but reading out loud to kids can be a big boon to improving literacy. That’s what special guest, El Super Lector, is here to do and it’s all part of a bigger effort to improve reading in Ector County ISD. Especially in Blackshear. That’s because across the board students here are struggling.

Doctor Lilia Nanez is the Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for Ector County ISD. She says the numbers show literacy is an area the entire school system needs to work on.

According to her, “The data does not lie. We look at it by classroom, by grade level, by campus, by district.”

She said it’s no secret Blackshear isn’t doing well. In 2018, it was the school in Odessa that struggled the most with reading. According to the Texas Education Agency, last school year over half of Blackshear’s students tested by the STAAR test, which are grades three to five, didn’t meet its minimum reading level.

Only 17 percent of students assessed could read at grade level. That’s way below Ector County ISD’s and the state’s overall scores. Blackshear has been failing to meet Texas’ education requirements for years and it only has until the end of this school year to boost its improvement or the state could possibly close the campus.

The school is largely Hispanic and made up of economically disadvantaged students. Nanez said there’s one specific problem that’s having a huge effect on academics at Blackshear and across the district — staff shortages.

“We have 230 teacher vacancies. We have a lot of hard-working people, but you know having the number of vacancies is a crisis.”

And Dora Alvarado agreed.

“Once you train a teacher then every year you just add to that and add but when that teacher leaves and you have someone new come in and you have to retrain that’s what makes it hard.”

Alvarado is a reading coach at Blackshear. She works with students every day to improve their reading skills. According to her, the constant turnover of teachers makes it hard for educators to fully grasp how to teach their children to read.

Odessa, like many communities in the Permian Basin, is seeing a lot of people move to the area because of the oil industry. This is driving up the cost of living, and making it hard for schools to recruit and retain teachers.

Jaime Miller, the district’s director of literacy, said another challenge is the rising cost of living is also causing many students to move from school to school.

“Apartment prices in Odessa are crazy. And so they may be in an apartment they’ve been in a while, but then the price goes up and they are forced to move.”

Students moving around a lot can be a big problem when it comes to teaching them how to read, especially in Odessa. That’s because until about two months ago every elementary school in the district taught basic skills — like what sound goes with what letter — in different ways making it easy for students coming into a new school to fall behind.

Miller said, “If our teachers are using all different programs, then we tend to create gaps in our students."

Now the district has standardized the way reading is taught and they’re working to reach older students who may have fallen behind in literacy. A big reason for this: if Ector County ISD can help its students read better, officials expect academic performance in all subjects will improve.  

Miller explained, “Anything you do requires reading. Math you have to read. Science you have to read.” She continued, “So just focusing on literacy and getting kids to be able to read and understand is just going to propel them through the roof.”

This is at the heart of the strategy to boost Blackshear’s performance. The majority of the districts reading coaches have been assigned to the school to help students and educators are read to their classes aloud more. Ector County ISD officials say they’re seeing some progress.  Overall, the district’s goal is for all of its campuses to meet state standards by 2024, and just to keep more kids reading.

At the moment, there’s a lot of hope Blackshear will improve enough to avoid being closed or other consequences. Officials are cautiously optimistic at the progress they’re seeing and they’re confident with their renewed focus on literacy — students will succeed.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.