The roughly 120 students at Sierra Blanca Independent School District make up about a fifth of the town’s population. (Photo: Carlos Morales/KRTS)
By Carlos Morales
Earlier this year, the Texas Education Agency announced Sierra Blanca’s Independent School District was one of 4 districts in the state to have its accreditation revoked. The district, in rural west Texas, failed to meet the state’s academic standards for four years, and also struggled financially.
Now, Sierra Blanca ISD has a one-year extension to improve its academic standings. With the first round of standardized testing only months away, the district is in a race against the clock.
It’s lunchtime at Sierra Blanca ISD, where the campus’ faded red-brick building serves as the town’s elementary, middle and high schools.
Superintendent Evelyn Loeffler walks by, as students are eating their chicken sandwiches. The kids, and pretty much everyone Loeffler, know her as “Ebby.”
“These are our headstart kids,” Loeffler says, pointing to the younger kids packed into the cafeteria. “So you have our pre-k, kinder, our first, second, third, fourth, and fifth are all in here.”
The roughly 120 students who attend school here make up about a fifth of the town’s population. Loeffler was once a student here herself, and both her mother and grandmother graduated from Sierra Blanca. So the fact the school’s future is still up in the air hits Loeffler that much harder.
Last year, the district’s test scores were close to reaching state standards, but fell short. “We knew were the line was, and we knew our toe was a little bit behind the line,” says Loeffler, who came to the district shortly after it began underperforming.
At the time of her arrival, the situation was worse. “The Ox was pretty far off in the ditch,” says Fred Liner of Sierra Blanca’s performance. Liner, a conservator with TEA, has been monitoring and tracking the district’s progress since 2015. That year, only half of the district’s students, across all testing grades, were meeting the state’s academic standards.
“There was a lot of improvement needed in a lot of areas,” says Liner. “In some cases, it’s hard to make that improvement that rapidly.”
Part of what’s contributed to the districts struggles: they’re a young team of teachers. More than half of the district’s 13 teachers have fewer than 5 years experience. A handful of them are also working through alternative certification programs. It’s challenging for an inexperienced staff to improve standards so quickly, Superintendent Loeffler says. “One of the things we really had to work on was our teacher efficacy in the classroom.”
This means Sierra Blanca and its educators needed to work on things like creating better lesson plans, and having a stronger understanding of their students, their behaviors and what ultimately helps them learn. Loeffler says it’s a balancing act. Especially in a district of roughy 100 kids, where a handful of students can determine the district’s success or failure.
Under the current agreement with the state, TEA has given Sierra Blanca a year to meet their standards. “But honestly, we don’t have a year,” says Loeffler. “We have this testing cycle that ends in June, because that’s when this work has to be done, has to be finished.”
If the district is still unable to meet the state’s requirements, it’s unclear what will happen. DeEtta Culbertson is with TEA. She says Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath will evaluate the district’s progress after the year is up. “He would take a look at what has gone on through the year, and would make a determination at that time as to what next steps would be.”
Worst-case scenario: the district closes and is consolidated with another nearby, like Fort Hancock or Culberson-Allamore. Both of these districts are about 30 miles away from Sierra Blanca. If the district is consolidated, Barry Haenisch with the Texas Association of Community Schools says students at Sierra Blanca could be bused back and forth, or families might end up moving. This could have damming effects on the small town, Haenisch says.
“What we’ve discovered in our small schools in Texas is when the school closes the community pretty well begins to die.”
Haenisch says since 1999, the state has closed and consolidated just 6 districts. Still, it’s a possibility Superintendent Loeffler has to think about.
On a recent school day, Loeffler is teaching what she calls a general life skills course. She’s working on student’s grammar, but soon they’ll learn to change tires and check oil.
Outside of Loeffler’s class, in the hallway, there’s a poster taped to the wall with goals for 2018. Some students write they want to be district champs in basketball. One jokes she wants to finish a whole tube of chapstick. But even more of them write they just want to get better grades and pass their tests. It’s on everyone’s minds.
“At this point, I’m telling you it’s worth saving,” Loeffler says. “So we’re gonna try, we’re gonna do it.”
The Sierra Blanca Independent School district expects to know the full terms of its agreement with the state in the coming days.