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Midland ISD officials weigh closing Washington STEM Academy to give campus to an all-girls school

Midland Independent School District’s Board of Trustees is facing a tough decision: Spend more than $3.7 million on portable classrooms for Young Women’s Leadership Academy or close down Washington STEM Academy, a decades-old elementary school, to provide a permanent home for the all-girls school. 

And time is running out for the school board to make a decision.

By Mitch Borden

At the beginning of December, Midland ISD leaders and community members filled the library at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. They were there to hear a presentationthat had been in the works for months that would lay out what the future could hold for the in-district charter.

The district’s Chief of Administrative Services Kellie Spencer greeted the board as she stood at a podium where she proceeded to lay out the options for YWLA. The school could continue to hold classes in temporary trailer-like classrooms as it had been for the last few years. But if the school board chose that route it would have to pay over $3.7 million to expand the campus to provide room for additional high school classes in the coming years.

The other option Spencer detailed was closing one of Midland ISD’s campuses and giving it to YWLA, so the school could have a permanent home. It didn’t take her long to reveal the campus the district had settled on as the best option.

“The most viable option that exists is Young Women’s Leadership Academy at Booker T. Washington,” Spencer told the audience.

Booker T. Washington Elementary is now known as Washington STEM Academy and is located on the southeast side of Midland. Spencer laid out how the campus had everything YWLA needed to grow into a fully functioning junior and senior high school, like large classrooms, science labs, room for parking and it would only cost a fraction of what it would take to build out YWLA’s current facility.

But Washington is a school with a long, storied past that first opened its doors when the district was still segregated. It is the place where some older Black Midlanders can still remember receiving their education and is still a cherished institution.

This is partially why there’s been a backlash to the suggestion of closing down Washington to give the campus to Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

In the last two months, the school board has held meetings about the potential move, and community members have turned out to speak against closing Washington. Some told district officials they’re picking “winners and losers” among students, while others have detailed what they see as systemic racism at Midland ISD. Overall the message from the public has been clear, don't close Washington.

“How many more times are we going to kick our babies out,” asked former school board candidate Matt Galindo.

Galindo said it’s frustrating to see schools in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods closed down, rezoned for students living in other parts of town or taken over by outside organizations.

“It’s either because they fail and don’t meet state standards or in this situation, someone else needs a home so let’s just go ahead and kick them out,” said Galindo.

Galindo said he isn’t against YWLA or the students that attend the school, he believes they deserve to have a campus of their own instead of having to go to school in portable classrooms. But he said dispersing the students attending Washington STEM Academy isn’t the way the district should provide YWLA with a permanent home.

“I don’t think it’s okay to force over 300 students out of their campus to give [YWLA] a permanent home because of the district and the board’s poor planning,” he explained.

The YWLA situation dates back to a fraught 2019 bond election. At the time, the school district asked voters to support a $569 million bond that would go towards building new high schools and refurbishing existing campuses. Earlier in the year, YWLA had opened up for 6th and 7th graders in portables located on the campus of Jones Elementary.

The plan was for the in-district charter to grow by one grade every year until it was a 6th to 12th-grade college preparatory academy. The money from the bond would go towards building out a permanent campus that YWLA would eventually move into. But voters hadn't yet approved the money for this project.

It was a gamble — one the district narrowly lost by 26 votes, leaving Midland ISD on the hook to pay potentially millions of dollars for temporary housing for YWLA.

And the district can’t put off this decision any longer. YWLA is set to add 10th grade next year and needs more room. On top of that, according to officials, if the district doesn’t make a decision by the end of January, it won’t be able to build out YWLA’s current facilities in time for the 2022-2023 school year.

Jaquez Anders has sent all of her daughters to Washington. She doesn’t think YWLA’s needs should be the reason to deprive children on the east and south sides of Midland from having a resource like Washington.

“I am a mother who got to witness my three girls go to that school and my girls have succeeded.” She continued, “My children had teachers and people that cared about them and loved them and I want other children to have that. If you take that away, what do they have?”

Washington is a magnet school that families have to apply to get their children into and anyone across Midland can attend the campus. But the STEM academy mainly serves Black, brown and impoverished children from the east and south side. Anders doesn’t want to see her kid’s school be replaced by YWLA, which is harder to get into, only accepts girls and currently serves a student population that’s whiter and wealthier than the majority of Midland ISD schools.

But Washington’s also nearly half-empty due to low enrollment. According to the district, it’s because people aren’t applying, but Anders questioned this.

She said, “They never told the Black parents, the Mexican parents, white parents that live over there on the south side. They never said 'Hey, we have openings – come and apply.”

The district has been working to educate Midlanders about the options they have for their children. Recently, the district held a school fair and campus tours to help parents and students see what campuses have to offer.

And even though Anders and others have had a positive experience at Washington, the STEM academy has struggled academically in the past. The last time the state gave out grades to campuses, Washington received an F.

Community members have stated, instead of shuttering Washington, the district should invest more in the school. And that’s part of Midland ISD Superintendent Angelica Ramsey’s plan if Washington stays open. She said she wants to improve not only Washington but all of the district’s schools that are struggling.

She explained, “We want, ultimately, to have a school district that no matter what school you go to you’re receiving a world-class education.”

Ramsey is fairly new to the district and began right before conversations about YWLA’s future resurfaced last year. According to Ramsey before she got to Midland, there wasn’t a lot of forethought put into planning around facilities.

“You cannot plan for future money that does not exist.” She continued, “I can confidently say that Midland ISD does not have a long-term plan for facilities in the way it should.”

She’s working on addressing that now by establishing a long-range planning committee made up of members of the public that are working on a plan. Ramsey understands the district has a lot of work to do to mend bridges with Midlanders.

“When trust is broken, even when there’s nothing nefarious, it’s our job to build back that trust and to just listen,” she said.

How well Midland ISD leaders are willing to listen will be on full display Tuesday night when they consider and potentially decide the fates of Washington and YWLA. Jaquez Anders said if the district chooses the all-girls school over her children’s school that would send a clear message.

“You’re telling black people you don’t matter.” She continued, “If you shut down Washington you’re saying that we don’t matter and that we were right and you never cared.”

Anders said YWLA deserves to have a campus of its own, it just shouldn’t be at Washington.

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