ECISD employees have chance to move UPWARD

·8 min read

Sep. 22—ECISD employees who want to earn a technical or or bachelor's degree have a chance to do so through UPWARD.

The district's Talent Development Department, in conjunction with campuses and departments, monitor and assist participants on their way to a technical or bachelor's degree from Odessa College or University of Texas Permian Basin.

ECISD will connect participants with the right people at OC and UTPB to explore options that best suit their needs.

Those enrolled in the program are contacted by the leadership team monthly to check in and assess their needs. They also help organize events at ECISD and at UTPB and OC for discussions about admissions and academic opportunities.

This is the first time that the Operations Department has taken the lead in coordinating the work with higher education institutions.

Associate Superintendent of Operations Anthony Sorola said the work goes back to ECISD's mission statement of believing students are the future and strategic plan.

The strategic plan has three themes of foundational excellence, talent development and the learning journey.

"This particular area of work focuses on talent development and we do believe that by investing in our personnel, we're better prepared to carry out the work of our mission statement, educating our students, if our entire workforce is highly prepared, and we invest in them and develop them to the best of our abilities we'll do our very best in educating the students of the community, so it all kind of ties together for our mission statement to our strategic plan," Sorola said.

He added that ECISD is a learning organization focused on educating children in prekindergarten through 12th grade, but it is also a learning organization for adults throughout the system who are interested in furthering their studies.

"It's important that all of us focus on our own personal, professional learning, and that we also make talent pipelines available to all of our employees so they can achieve their personal goals, or professional goals. UPWARD ... allows us to do that. It allows us to invest in our workforce and helping them to achieve their personal professional goals. But it also addresses the needs of the school district ...," Sorola said.

People that go through the program do not have to become teachers, Executive Director of District Operations Brandon Reyes said.

"One of the one of the key drivers was to recognize that many in our operations team may want to have leadership opportunities presented to them later on down the road. For example, they can become directors, associate superintendents. Sometimes people start out their college journey one way and then by the time they get to the end, maybe they've changed. We wanted to make sure that we cover all aspects of what the ECISD employees want to do. Accountants, CFOs there are tons of opportunities outside of teaching that exist within our district that many people aren't aware of. And so this is just a way to say hey, you don't necessarily have to be a teacher. There are other opportunities that are available to you," Reyes said. "This just kind of helps facilitate that based off of their individual career path."

Since July 22, they've had about 57 participants enroll.

"When they enroll with our Operations Office, we follow up with them on a monthly basis. And so we have 57 enrolled participants and out of that we have 13 that are already in enrolled for fall classes and then additional 12 that are in the application and/or admitting process," Reyes said.

He added that the people who have enrolled come from a variety of campuses and departments such as instructional facilitators, transportation mechanics, administrative assistants and aides to name a few.

"This program helps provide them and connect them with OC and UTPB to see what it is that they might be interested in, and then help get them down that road that they're interested in," Reyes added.

Falcon Free at UTPB was one way to pay participants' way through college, but Executive Director of Talent Development Ashley Osborne said ECISD also is pursuing other opportunities to help support employees as they seek a bachelor's degree or certification.

"We are utilizing ESSER funds to do just that to support our pipeline efforts. To your point, if Falcon Free or the OC Promise is not an option for employees or doesn't perhaps cover tuition fully then we do have ESSER funding that we're wanting to invest in our staff by way of achieving their degrees," Osborne said.

ESSER stands for the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

Sorola said even beyond that grant funding, the district is looking at other options that may be available to support this work.

"We continue to seek out funding whether that be from ESSER (funds) or grants that perhaps the state puts out or the Abell-Hanger Foundation for the counselor pipeline. There's all sorts of ... philanthropic organizations any way, basically, that we can achieve funding to be able to help support people we're in," Osborne said.

Sorola said the power of UPWARD is that it's a system of guidance for district employees who may be going to college or the first time and have to get through the application and financial process.

Reyes said they received an email from an ECISD employee who wanted to share that they are enrolled in classes at OC because of the UPWARD program and that they weren't aware of the opportunities OC provided.

Once they were made aware and took steps to enroll, Reyes said they were grateful to the program for providing that opportunity.

"That was really a nice thing to receive that they otherwise wouldn't have enrolled but decided to take that next step because they felt comfortable with the opportunities that existed out there and the support structure that they get from us navigating that process," Reyes said.

Cortney Smith, also an executive director of district operations, said their directors will reach out to people enrolled in the program monthly to check in on them, see how they're doing and provide guidance and support.

"... The whole idea kind of started because we noticed that we had some open positions in our division and we had some individuals that didn't have bachelor's degrees, and weren't able to apply for those positions so Brandon and I put our heads together. Brandon initially came up with the idea. I thought it was a great idea and now those individuals have an opportunity to possibly fill some of those roles that they're probably qualified for, but just don't have that piece of paper," Smith said.

Sorola noted that a unique feature of UPWARD is that it's not restricted to certain employees like a lot of other pipelines in the district.

"They're specific to principal preparation, assistant principal preparation; diagnostician; counselor. This would be open to pretty much any employee type ... I can see over time, Ashley Osborne's department, Talent Development, coordinating a lot of the follow-up with the different directors across the school district, whether it be a principal, or departmental director, making sure that you know when we had enrolled participants that they're receiving the appropriate support. So it's going be unique, and it's going to cover a lot of different departments and schools," Sorola said.

Reyes said this will build a culture of lifting each other up.

A lot of times positions within the district and community require a bachelor's degree and it doesn't matter what subject it's in, Reyes said.

"A lot of times it's what stands between individual who's acquired the skills ... and knowledge of working in a particular area ... but without that associate's or bachelor's, they're not able to move into a position of supervisory capacity. It puts them on a different career trajectory. And when once again, it goes back to us truly believing that we're an educational organization, not just for students, but for the staff as well; for all stakeholders," Sorola said.

For graduate degrees, Reyes said they put them in contact with the graduate studies at the campus they're interested in.

"Then they followed up with those grant opportunities and the paths that exist academically on that end. We don't turn anybody away. ... If anybody comes to us and they want something, we're going to help get them where they want to go," Reyes said.

Osborne said ECISD has a master's incentive program where employees can get reimbursed for a certain amount of coursework for their graduate studies.

"And then there are other opportunities, perhaps not through UPWARD specifically, but there are other pipelines. For example, the diagnostician pipeline. That's a ... graduate-level degree. The counselor pipeline is a graduate-level, a master's degree. The Principal Fellowship is also a master's degree. So we do have some opportunities to help support in addition to what the universities have out there that our employees can take advantage of," Osborne said.

They have to be ECISD employees to take advantage of UPWARD.