When the last oil boom in the Permian Basin screeched to a halt in 2014, something unexpected happened — families stuck around.
Now, with production ramping up again, all corners of the community are feeling the effects of population growth. Including area public schools, where record enrollment is putting a strain on an already low-performing district. In Odessa, school administrators and teachers and parents are asking the question: where are we going to put all of these kids?
To folks outside the region, Permian High School is best known as home to the Panthers, the football team that inspired the book, movie, and TV show, Friday Night Lights. But locally, Valerie Hammit’s precalculus class may be setting a new record. There are 63 kids in it.
“It’s impossible to get 60 kids to be quiet at the same time,” says Hammit. “Not only be quiet, but listen.”
She used to have about 30 students in the class, until the school lost another math teacher to a higher paying job with an oil company. She says it can be hard to retain math and science teachers in the booming Permian Basin, where they’re recruited for oilfield jobs that pay six figures.
“Trust me, I’m on LinkedIn. Just because of my math degree and data analysis. People contact me and I’m like, ugh. It’s tempting. It’s really tempting,” she says.
But Hammit’s head of the department, and she’s been teaching in the Ector County Independent School District for almost 30 years. She’s says she’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.
Jose Carrasco, a senior in Hammit’s pre-calc class, moved to the Permian Basin from the Dallas area because of his dad’s job in the oilfield. And he’s not the only student with that story. The entire school district is seeing record enrollment: over 32,000 students and counting. You can see it in school parking lots – there are license plates from Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, other states with big oil economies.
“Going between classes gets really crowded,” Carrasco says. “It’s really hard just to walk, to get from class to class.”
Permian High Principal Danny Gex says the school was built decades ago – for about 2,500 students. Next school year, demographers are projecting it will have enrollment around 4,100. The following year, 4,400. And the next, 4,700. He says portable classrooms might be the best immediate solution.
“We do have a football field, but I don’t know,” he says. “At Permian High School with Friday Night Lights – I don’t think it’d be a great idea to suggest taking up a football field with portables. And so where do you put them?”
The high school campuses are boxed into residential neighborhoods – there’s virtually no room to expand without demolishing houses. This worries Roy Garcia, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools for Ector County ISD.
“Now that everything’s on the uptick again, our projections are like, frightening again in terms of numbers,” says Garcia. “And we already need more elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.”
The community voted down a bond last year that would have funded the building of more schools and facilities.
“Our community takes a lot of pride in being considered a very conservative community. Which is why sometimes we won’t pass bond issues and, you know, our tax rate is low – that’s the way the community wants it,” he says.
Garcia says longtime residents might hesitate to invest more money in schools because they remember the busts that have always followed the good times in the past.
But he says this enrollment increase held steady in the schools through the last bust in 2014. And it only seems to be getting bigger.
“At some point, you have to say, where’s our priority for our kids?” offers Garcia.
Region 18, which includes school districts from the Permian Basin all the way down to the border, is one of the lowest-performing public school regions in Texas. And the Ector County ISD schools lag behind others in the district. Garcia says the strain of growth isn’t helping that problem.
A new bond committee is forming this month, and putting a school-building proposal together, likely for sometime next year. Just like in the failed 2017 bond, they’ll consider proposing the possibility of adding another comprehensive high school to the district. Mike Adkins, the Communications Director for Ector County ISD, says some people don’t like that idea.
“The tradition and pride that goes into having the two high schools – Permian and Odessa High – who have battled for so long, and have that rivalry, and the great memories for everyone who went through here – they want that for their own kids,” he says.
According to Adkins, there’s also concern about diluting the talent pool on the football field, especially when it comes to the Permian Panthers.
But others acknowledge that adding another high school would create smaller learning environments, and provide some much-needed relief for Permian and Odessa High’s crowded campuses.
Back in her pre-calc class, Valerie Hammit says this semester is testing her limits. She regularly spends 12 hour days at work, and she doesn’t get paid for the extra time.
“I just do today. I just think about today, if I think about tomorrow I get tired,” she says.