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Midland ISD leaders opt to close a historic black elementary school to give the campus to an in-district charter

In a 4-3 vote, Midland Independent School District’s board of trustees decided to close Washington STEM Academy at the end of the school year to give the campus to the all-girls school Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

This decision goes against pleas from the public to keep Washington open and find a different location for YWLA.

 By Mitch Borden

After this school year, Washington STEM Academy will close its doors and reopen in the fall as Young Women’s Leadership Academy. In a 4-3 vote Tuesday night, the Midland Independent School District board of trustees made the controversial decision, which will displace hundreds of elementary students that currently go to Washington and bar boys from attending the historic black campus in the future. 

“Perception is reality,” Courtney Ratliff, a local educator and activist told the board ahead of their vote. He explained, local education advocacy groups, “collectively see the closing of Washington STEM Academy in order to give the campus to YWLA as this board choosing one group of students over another.”

Juan Adame, a teacher at Washington, echoed this sentiment when he told the board their decision will carry a legacy that will be talked about for years.

“This was never a level playing field.” He stated that if his school is closed, “Washington kids, parents and teachers are going to lose everything.”

Following these comments, hours passed as the Board of Trustees examined potential new calendars for the upcoming school year and received updates on students' academic process. It wasn’t until 8:20 p.m. the school board finally began discussing the future of both schools.

The district had two realistic options presented to them. The first was to pay about $4 million to expand the temporary facility made up of portable, trailer-like classrooms for YWLA, as the school continues to add room for incoming 9th and 10th graders next year. The second was to close Washington and give the campus to the in-district charter.

Originally, when YWLA opened, the plan was to operate the 6th-12th grade campus in portable classrooms until a permanent home was provided by the district. It opened in 2019 for 6th and 7th graders and every following school year a grade level would be added. But the future of the campus was thrown into uncertainty when a nearly half-billion-dollar bond was rejected by voters. The bond would have provided money for the all-girls school permanent home.

Washington STEM was chosen for YWLA because the school met the facility specifications the all-girls school required and converting it would only cost a fraction of what buying more portable classrooms would cost. According to officials, Washington is also the most underutilized campus in Midland ISD.

For decades, the magnet school has served students on the east and south side of Midland, the majority of whom are black, brown and economically disadvantaged. Its history dates back to when Midland ISD was segregated and the campus was known as Booker T. Washington Elementary.

It is still a cherished institution, but Washington has struggled to attract students to the campus in recent years. Students must apply to attend Washington, but many have questioned why the school is under capacity. Some school board members characterized the situation as parents choosing not to send their children to the campus while members of the public have questioned the district’s efforts to promote and support the STEM academy.

“This school is being utilized at less than 50% of its capacity because not enough students are choosing to attend it,” said Rick Davis, current member and former school board president.

Davis was, by and large, the most vocal proponent of closing Washington. He cited the school’s academic performance and claimed Washington students would be better off at other campuses. 

“A review of the current students [at Washington] shows that at least 50% of the current students at Washington, if they were to return to their home campus, would go to a higher academically performing campus than they are currently at right now,” Davis stated.

Davis’  argument swayed the majority of the board except for board members Michael Booker, Tommy Bishop and John Trischittii who voted against the decision.

Bill Ashley, who has lived in Midland for 35 years and is the pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church of Midland, said this decision falls in line with Midland’s racist history and the district’s track record of poor planning.

“You’re going to go into a minority community and take their schools, why not go into another place,” asked Ashley. “You don’t close one school to open another.”

Young Women’s Leadership Academy will open up at its new location at the beginning of the next school year. Washington students have the option to transfer to another school, having priority for certain Midland ISD programs including YWLA for 5th and 6th-grade girls. They can also return to the school they are zoned for by the district.

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