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LJISD to develop a ‘college-going’ community

LA-JOYA-LOGO_TNLA JOYA — The La Joya Independent School District’s top priority in 2012 is developing a community that has its entire graduating student body attend college. District leaders want to change the culture of the area to help students realize that college is possible for everyone.

“We want to make sure our whole district is working on a college-going culture,” said Superintendent Dr. Alda T. Benavides.

The school district already has one early college high school and is looking at expanding to give more students in the district the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree when they graduate from high school.

During a work session last week, school board members were given a presentation by Sofia Villarreal, executive director for alternative education, with different options the district can take in applying for more early college (ECHS) or T-STEM high schools.

Early college high schools allow students that are least likely to attend college an opportunity to earn a high school diploma and 60 college credit hours or an associate degree. The school provides dual credit at no cost to the student, offers rigorous instruction, accelerated courses, increases college readiness, provides support to students, and reduces barriers to encourage college success, Villarreal said. An ECHS targets first generation college goers, low-income students and English language learners. There are currently 44 ECHS’s in Texas.

A T-STEM ECHS focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. It is designed to support a student’s transition from high school to a college STEM program. The school also offers a variety of career pathways in the STEM field.

While a T-STEM ECHS is focused on four areas, a basic ECHS has no limits on what a student can study. Through a survey performed on eighth-graders, 1,684 students, in LJISD, the district found 83 percent of eighth graders have some interest in STEM careers, Villarreal said.

Administration presented three options to the school board and Trustee Isaac Sulemana presented a possible fourth option.

Option one included applying for one T-STEM high school. Applying for two additional ECHS’s was presented in option two and option three was to apply for three additional ECHS’s. Sulemana asked if another option could be considered – to apply for one T-STEM and two additional ECHS’s, giving the district an ECHS to serve each high schools.

The first option costs range from nearly $1 million the first year to over $2 million for year four. Option three, the more costly option, would cost the district almost $2.5 million the first year of operation and year four would cost over $6 million.

Gisela Saenz, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said there has also been discussion to transition Jimmy Carter to a T-STEM after doing option two or three.

Each ECHS, after four years, would serve a total of 400 students each year, 100 students per grade level.

Benavides said another option could be to open one T-STEM and an additional ECHS. LJISD would then have two ECHS’s, one to serve the west side of the school district, and one to serve the east side. The T-STEM would serve the whole district, she said. The costs would be similar to option two.

Villarreal said administration needs to know what option the school board wants to take to be ready to apply for the designation, hire a director for said schools and go to the Texas Education Agency to present their defense to get the designation.

LJISD will have to show TEA that the district can sustain and support the designations of ECHS or T-STEM, she added.

The big concern for the board was the costs involved with running an additional ECHS or T-STEM.

Villarreal said there would be teacher shuffling. Some teachers currently at the high schools, as long as they have master’s degrees in the area they will teach, would be able to teach at the ECHS or T-STEM. The district would also look at using funds from the high school allotment fund for the purchase of textbooks and other grants the district receives.

The key is to be smart in utilizing funds, said Villarreal.

Villarreal also said there would be no costs involved with building a school because there are already accommodations available.

South Texas College, which helps the district with dual enrollment and college courses for students, has assured the district they will not change their textbooks for at least four to five years. The cost for textbooks would not change until STC changes textbooks for courses.

Benavides and Villarreal stressed that a decision had to be made soon; the first deadline is in February. The district has to have everything ready if the application gets approved.

Benavides said they had discussed options with the ACE and Options principals, and STC, and asked them which option gives the students the most opportunity. ECHS students will have the opportunity to take STEM classes, but STEM is limited to core curriculum and STEM classes. ECHS is the better option because there aren’t limitations.

Trustees later approved option two as long as there is flexibility in the type of ECHS they apply for and funds are available.

Other Business

After much discussion, the board approved to negotiate with Leyendecker Construction, the highest-ranking bid, for the construction of the new LJISD Child Nutrition Warehouse. A project that was approved in their budget at a cost of $5 million will now cost the district $6 million.

Food services was originally going to pay a larger portion of the costs, but will now only be able to pay for $1.5 million of the construction costs to cover refrigerators, freezers, and other kitchen equipment they are approved to purchase. Daniel Garza, facilities director, said they did not have the hard numbers when they projected the initial cost of the building and supplies.

Trustees Irene Garcia and Ochoa agreed everything should be considered when making budget decisions for a new building.

“We want specifics,” said Ochoa.

In construction of the science lab at Juarez-Lincoln High School, renegotiations with the architect firm Gignac & Associates LLP kept the six percent fee as originally stated. The architect said the fee was fair and the project was going to be more complex because it was going to be tying into existing plumbing, electricity and ventilation lines.

Another contract that was negotiated was the contract with Prodigy Construction Management LLC for consulting services on construction projects. In the original contract, the district was paying Prodigy a three percent fee of the final construction cost. Prodigy was able to negotiate the percent down to 2.9 percent of the construction cost. Hourly fees were also reduced.

The board approved the new contract even though Ochoa said she knew Garza, the facilities director, could do the job himself.

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