Partnership emphasizes education to make Permian Basin a better place to live
November 15, 2021
Dr. Sara Safarzadeh Amiri, a physician adviser and internal medicine and pediatrics physician at Odessa Regional Medical Center, sees a range of patients and needs in her community. The region’s economy is tied to the fortunes of the Permian Basin, a vast patch of West Texas and southern New Mexico covering 55 counties and accounting for the production of more than 40 percent of oil and more than 15 percent of natural gas in the United States. Booms and busts in energy production drive migration to the region and help explain the diversity. Amiri has worked with families who have lived in the area for generations as well as families who are more transient and may have only recently arrived due to a job opportunity in the energy industry.
“We bring in families and people because we need their expertise in the oil industry, technology and more,” Amiri said. “But how do we keep them here and entice them to raise their family here?”
If families feel that their needs are not being met in Odessa, whether it’s related to good health care, quality schools or something else, they may leave and find job opportunities elsewhere.
“It’s not just about the job that’s bringing them here but the whole quality of life that we need to consider; so, in order to improve all of that, we need to go back to education,” Amiri said.
The Education Partnership of the Permian Basin (EPPB) is orchestrating efforts around improving education quality across the region, from birth through workforce entry. Amiri is one of many local stakeholders participating in this cross-sector movement. As a participant in the Dallas Fed’s Advance Together initiative, EPPB is accelerating a collective approach to addressing education, workforce and quality-of-life needs.
Jump-starting learning before school begins Is critical
One of EPPB’s regional education initiatives is the Early Childhood Action Network (ECAN), which is concentrating efforts to improve kindergarten readiness in the Permian Basin.
“A lot of people in the community still believe that education means learning your alphabet, reading and writing, which starts with school,” Amiri said. “But technically, education starts from birth.”
For parents and caregivers, this means that talking, reading and playing with your baby are crucial because they contribute to healthy brain development, language development and learning overall—well before children ever enter a kindergarten classroom. If children are not entering school with previous exposure to learning and playing at home, it places school districts, educators and students at a disadvantage in recovering that crucial learning.
This need in Midland and Odessa is reflected in testing data from the local school districts. In 2019, only 35 percent of third-grade students in Ector County Independent School District (Odessa) met or exceeded grade-level reading expectations based on State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) testing results (Chart 1). Similarly, only 39 percent of Midland ISD third-grade students in 2019 met or exceeded grade-level reading expectations based on STAAR results. This is broadly similar to the rate in Region 18, an education service area covering the majority of West Texas, but below the 45 percent rate for the state as a whole.
This means that about six of every 10 third-grade students in Midland and Odessa were not reading at Texas-defined grade-level reading standards. Educators and business leaders in the area are concerned that if those disparities are not addressed with timely, targeted support, students may quickly fall further behind and derail future learning.
To spur intentional learning opportunities at home and guide parents in this process, Amiri and other EPPB partners have developed a new initiative, Power of Words and Early Reading (POWER), in Odessa and Midland. New mothers at Medical Center Hospital and Odessa Regional Medical Center receive POWER bags before they are discharged from the hospital with their newborn children. Nurses help explain the value and purpose of POWER bag resources, which include books to read with their children, information about reaching important child development stages and the importance of early learning.
Amiri helped identify evidence-based, parent-friendly materials to include in POWER bags. Hospital staff members are key “front-line” partners in distributing materials and empowering parents to prioritize learning opportunities with their newborns. Although the POWER initiative is still in the early implementation stages, lessons learned from this work may inform future refinement and ultimately, be replicated in other hospitals and communities across the Permian Basin to reach more families and facilitate deeper learning.
Advancing a ‘cradle to career’ pathway requires a different, collective approach for the region
The POWER initiative is one of many strategies for boosting early learning and serves as one step in a “cradle to career” pathway envisioned for the Permian Basin. These efforts were initially led by two nonprofits: Educate Midland and EPPB. Traditionally, Midland and Odessa have worked within their respective communities to address needs rather than across the two cities.
“Where we are now is that our communities realize how interconnected they really are, and if one community tries to go at it alone, there’s really going to be a limit as to what they can do,” said Dr. Adrian Vega, EPPB’s executive director. “When you consider the Permian Basin, Midland and Odessa are the largest communities out here, and the rest are rural communities, it’s one of these realities where, as Midland and Odessa go [progress/decline], so does the region. The only way that we’re going to thrive as a region is if Midland and Odessa face and overcome these challenges together.”
With this recognition, the two organizations consolidated their respective work around early-childhood planning. Together, they applied for and were selected as participants of the Dallas Fed’s Advance Together initiative. Through support from Advance Together and as partners deepened their understanding of the needs, strengths and opportunities for the area, they formally merged into the one organization, EPPB, in summer 2021.
“We did something historic for our region,” Vega said. “I really do believe that being awarded the Advance Together grant, with its focus on cross-sector partners coming together, served as a catalyst to move us in the direction where we are now—as a unified backbone organization.”
Along with three other regional partnerships in Texas, EPPB is receiving $300,000 from philanthropic sources to support its plans to address education and workforce challenges in the community, as well as obtaining training and coaching from the Dallas Fed to increase the impact of its programs (see note below).
Looking ahead to create a roadmap for success
Over the next three years, EPPB aims to increase the percentage of economically disadvantaged children who are ready for kindergarten. They plan achieve this by defining kindergarten readiness among partners, training partners on their shared meaning of kindergarten readiness and coordinating across agencies to connect families with resources. EPPB is collaborating closely with its partners and action networks, such as ECAN, to guide cross-sector planning and implementation.
“What we’re trying to do is build out a community roadmap,” Vega said. “If a child is born here and starts prekindergarten four years later, what are the touchpoints and the ‘through line’ in our entire community to support a child from birth to four years old?”
Identifying child, family and community needs to piece together and implement a comprehensive “cradle to career” pathway requires bringing together partners from health care, school districts, city government, businesses, community members and other sectors to understand the full range of needs, map out interconnected plans and execute each step along the pathway.
These collaborative efforts will take time, deep partnership-building and disruption of traditional ways of operating in Midland, Odessa and the Permian Basin overall.
“Ultimately, we want to see the overall success of our community,” said Amiri. “If we improve education, these children are going to be our future adults and educated to take on future jobs and responsibilities in our community. They will become our future leaders.”
The Dallas Fed leads Advance Together in partnership with Educate Texas, United Ways of Texas and a steering committee of business, education and community leaders. It coordinates the program but does not fundraise, provide grants or participate in the selection of grantees. Funding partners include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, Texas Mutual, Communities Foundation of Texas and the Meadows Foundation.
The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System.