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Midland ISD considers closing an elementary school or spending millions to house an all-girls academy

Midland Independent School District has to decide by next month whether or not to displace hundreds of students currently attending Washington STEM Academy. The cause of the imminent deadline is a contractual agreement between the district and the non-profit that runs the junior and senior all-girls high school Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

By Mitch Borden

School board members with Midland Independent School District are facing a decision that could have long-lasting repercussions for hundreds of students — close Washington STEM Academy to give its campus to Young Women’s Leadership Academy or spend millions on temporary classrooms for the all-girls school.

In 2019, the district made an agreement with the non-profit Young Women’s Preparatory Network to open an all-girls college-prep junior and senior high school. At that time the district didn’t have a campus to dedicate to the charter school, but expected voters to approve a $569 million bond that fall which would have given YWLA a permanent home.

On top of building two new high schools, the bond would have also provided funds to “repurpose and renovate an existing facility for YWLA,” according to Kellie Spencer, MISD’s Chief of Administrative Services.

Until a campus was chosen and refurbished, classes at YWLA would be held in portable, trailer-like, classrooms. In its first year, the in-district charter would only teach sixth and seventh graders, but every following year it would add on a subsequent grade until it was a fully operational middle and high school campus.

Midland ISD’s plan for YWLA hinged on the 2019 bond passing, but after a divisive election, which included recounts and ballots going missing, the nearly half a billion-dollar bond failed — leaving YWLA students to continue attending classes in portable buildings.

By the 2022 school year, YWLA will begin teaching tenth grade*. But currently, there aren’t enough portable classrooms to house those students and the district is contractually obligated to provide those facilities. Midland ISD currently has two options, add more portable classrooms which would cost around $3.8 million — or close another campus and give it to YWLA.

Last spring, Midland ISD decided it would begin looking into what campuses could meet YWLA’s needs. According to district officials, after exploring various options, the elementary school Washington STEM Academy was identified as the prime location for YWLA. However, this proposal has caused an uproar across Midland.

Washington STEM Academy is a magnet school located in Southeast Midland and has been educating students in the area for decades. The school’s history dates back to when Midland schools were segregated and it was the elementary school Black students would attend.

Now, the campus is offering STEM programs to mostly Black and Latinx students, which make up approximately 78% of its student body and the majority of students are economically disadvantaged. In comparison, Black and Latinx students only make up about 49% of YWLA’s student body and a little over a quarter of students are economically disadvantaged, according to data provided by MISD.

At two recent public meetings, Midlanders turned out to ask questions and tell the district that it shouldn’t take this campus away from the Black and Latinx communities.

“You’re really going to kick our babies out of another campus and send them off not knowing what’s going to happen to them,” asked Matt Galindo, a local education advocate, at a meeting held at YWLA. “This is the exact same fight that we’ve been fighting, black and brown folks have been fighting for years and in 2021 we’ve continued that fight.”

District officials say Washington is the prime candidate for YWLA’s future campus because its facilities meet all the physical requirements for the all-girls school to be a fully operational middle and high school. The district also concluded that Washington is just under 50% capacity, making it the most underused campus in the district.

Another reason district officials are eyeing Washington: the school’s most recent performance grade given by the state is an F.  Additionally, officials estimate it would only take a fraction of the cost to move YWLA into the Washington campus compared to purchasing more portable classrooms. Currently, Washington has over 300 students, and if it were to close many would be sent back to nearby schools, the majority of which are struggling or failing.

In response to the district’s assessments, community members are questioning how the district is conducting its community outreach when it comes to Washington. At meetings over the proposed move, residents have asked why more children from nearby, failing and overcrowded schools aren’t being sent or aren’t applying to the STEM academy? Community members have also expressed frustration that the district would consider giving the campus to an all-girls school that is operated by a non-profit based in Dallas.

Wanda Ross recently addressed the school board on the situation. She was a student at Washington when the district was still segregated. She, like many community members, praised YWLA and what it is doing for Midland, but stood firm that Washington shouldn’t be closed.

“These ladies are soaring. I see the change, I see how they walk proud,” Ross explained to the board. “They do need these facilities but Washington Elementary should not be the choice.”

The school board has so far held public informational meetings on the future of YWLA and Washington. The district recently announced that it would not make a decision until the new year at the school board’s meeting on Jan. 18, 2022.

*Editors Note: This article and interview originally stated that Midland ISD's Young Women's Leadership Academy would begin teaching ninth grade in the 2022 school year. The in-district charter actually added ninth grade at the beginning of the 2021 school year.

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