I don’t usually admit how much I love great TV dramas, and might even be reluctant to mention it in the education world where I spend most of my life (you’ll note TV dramas don’t show up in any of my blogs). However, my visit last week to Odessa, Texas, was a colossal collision of my two loves. Here’s the confession part. I think Friday Night Lights is a masterpiece of American television — the non-reality show kind. You know, great dialog, incredible acting, dynamic filming and editing. Oh — and the primary ingredient? — the characters — adults and teen-agers who are living life, facing challenges and assuming consequences for their actions (good and bad).
High school football is everything to the town of Odessa. (Local Ratliff stadium was the location for the 2004 movie of the same name “Friday Night Lights”— which chronicled the story of the town’s 1988 Permian High School Panthers). Indeed “Friday Night” during football season is an all-consuming community happening. Winning state championships when Texas is the state pretty much seals the deal for crowning football “king”.
Odessa youth — in a town with a per capita income of about $16,000, and some 16.0% of families and 18.6% of the population below the poverty line — have a “hope” challenge. So do the adults involved in delivering education. Enter superintendent Hector Mendez. He has had a long and distinguished career. In 2007, he was appointed interim acting superintendent — an assignment that was meant to buy time while the school board found a permanent superintendent. Instead, Hector assumed he WAS the superintendent and set out to understand what the students wanted. (He was officially appointed permanent superintendent in May 2008). He went around and asked students “What would make you excited to wake up and want to go to school?”
He talked to lots of students and what he heard fell into three camps:
1. Teachers who care about me
2. Learning that is relevant to my life
3. A school culture of acceptance among students, teachers and administrators
So Hector sought ways to bring this culture of learning to students of Ector County. He discovered New Tech Network (NTN) and set about bringing New Tech to Odessa. Hector and NTN’s Tim Presiado forged a partnership. There were hurdles, including funding. Investing in changing teaching and learning practices is a multi-year commitment given the intense training and professional development for teachers and administrators. Facing budget cuts did not daunt Hector and his cabinet. When they needed to find the remaining funds, Hector offered to take a pay cut — it was that important to him to bring this kind of educational change to Odessa.
That was in December 2010. Fast forward to the present. New Tech Odessa (NTO) opened in August 2011 with 221 ninth and 10th graders and 12 teachers. The students, faculty and administrators had a terrific first year. That’s not to say the learning is done. When the first graduating class from NTO accepts their diplomas, THAT is when we can say we have embedded these new ways of teaching and learning. The culture where students experience trust, respect and responsibility is anchored in everyday practice. Deeper Learning is ubiquitous. Students are graduating ready for college and navigating adult life.
I was in Odessa last week, the day before classes were to start. I joined the faculty and soaked up the passion, energy and excitement. NTO’s dynamic director, Adrian Vega, is a force to be reckoned with. His vision is breathtaking. I spent time with many of the teachers — who are in all stages of their teaching careers. And I got to meet three students who filled me with hope. Their eagerness for school to start was heart-warming. One young woman said: “I have been counting the days until school starts. I cannot wait for this year to begin”.
If you are waiting for the connection to the TV series, here it is. The three students were at school to meet with their teacher to discuss video submission to the “South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference and Festival” (SXSW). Their theme is “The Other 6 Nights”. They want the world to know there are other worlds in Odessa. Not to disrespect football or football players or fans. They just want to show us that hope is thriving. Learning is taking place. And lives are being lived in rich and full ways on other nights.