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As Odessa Schools Struggle To Hire Teachers, A New Program Hopes To Put A Dent In The Region's Educator Shortage

By Mitch Borden

Summer vacation is in full swing across Texas. Families going on long trips. On hot days, kids heading to the pool with friends or are running down ice cream trucks to get a cool treat. But for school officials in Odessa’s Ector County Independent School District, or ECISD, it's crunch time.

With a few months until the start of school, administrators are trying to hire as many teachers as possible. That’s because Permian Basin schools are notorious for having trouble recruiting and retaining workers. (In Odessa alone, the labor shortage is in the hundreds.) What's more, there are more students now in Odessa schools. In the past, school populations would rise and fall with the industry's boom-bust cycle. But after the bust in 2014, something changed — families stuck around.

That is why on a recent summer afternoon, principals and administrators from all 43 of ECISD’s schools set up tables at George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa High School for a job fair. They decorated their booths with school colors, photos and a few, even had cookies — all in the hope to entice people to come work for them.

“When you’re trying to fill over 300 jobs every single body counts," said Sandra Banda, a former principal and current human resource director for ECISD.

The district needs workers of all kinds: bus drivers, custodians and most of all teachers. For years, the region’s schools have had a hard time recruiting and keeping educators. Banda said cost of living is the biggest challenge schools face when hiring teachers.

“We’ve had candidates that apply, they interview, and they’ll take a job. [Then, they] start looking for a place and call us back and say ‘sorry, I can’t afford to live there.”

The community is at the center of the Permian Basin’s oil boom, where there are plenty of better- paying industry jobs and housing is expensive. So, it's hard for schools to keep teachers in the classroom. Some have to move away, while others find work in oil and gas. According to Banda, it's almost impossible for schools to compete.

You know the school district is never going to pay what the oil field will pay,” said Banda.

Amanda Montelongo is the principal at Cavazos Elementary and she's seen first hand how educators get lured away from teaching by better salaries.

“That’s why we lost our fifth-grade science teacher because he got an oilfield job. ”

She recently lost all six of her fifth-grade teachers. On top of that, Montelongo has other vacant teaching positions she needs to fill. But so far she hasn't had much luck. At the job fair, Montelongo said she hasn’t seen a lot of people applying for teaching positions, which is especially hard when so many schools have vacancies and are competing for the chance to hire educators.

“It hurts," said Montelongo. "It kind of feels like we’re all sitting in this cage and the minute they throw us a bone everybody attacks and is trying to get the same thing.”

"Pathway To Teaching"

Ector County officials are hoping a new program called Odessa Pathway to Teaching will help draw in more teachers to the district's classrooms. The district partnered with the nonprofit TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project, to set up the alternative certification course. Its purpose is to recruit locals who may not have a background in education but are interested in pursuing a new career. It’s about a month-long course that helps people who have a college degree earn their teaching certificate. After completing the program, the new teachers are placed into an Odessa classrooms.

People like Monica Madrid, who after getting into a serious car accident last year needed a change.

“I want my kiddos to remember me as someone that gave back to the community in a positive way and I definitely think teaching is a way to do that," said Madrid.

Before going through the program Mardid worked in insurance and had a degree in Psychology. But now, she's going to teach 6th-grade English and she says she can't wait to begin.

For her, the Odessa Pathway to Teaching program says a lot about the Permian Basin district.

For one, she said, it's creative and shows the district "will do anything to make a difference and they’re not settling anymore.”

Madrid is a part of the first graduating class of the program, which will bring on around 33 new teachers for the district. All of whom have made a two-year commitment to teach.

ECISD plans to continue the program and hold these certification classes three times a year, which, administrators say, will hopefully chip away at the region’s teacher shortage.

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