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This is the first piece in a two-part series, The Texas Story, a special report from the George W. Bush Institute on paths to opportunity for young people in select Texas regions. Are young Texans on track for prosperous, self-determined lives? How do we know? And what might the outcomes mean for students and communities in other states? In a prior series last year, we explored these questions in Dallas, Houston and Austin. This fall, we visit two smaller Texas cities — Midland and Longview. This piece examines the challenges that school districts in the two cities face in preparing students for the modern workforce.
Towering metropolitan populations dominate the storyline of modern Texas. The 13 largest cities in the United States include five from Texas: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth. The Texas Triangle, a megaregion in the middle of the state that includes those five main urban centers, is home to nearly 21 million of the state’s 28.6 million residents. The rest of the state’s 7.5 million residents — still greater than the population of 30 smaller states — live in rural areas, small towns and moderately sized cities.
The foundation of the state — and often its mythic image — rests in the vast stretches of land far from the office towers of Texas’ urban and suburban skylines. No regions of the state capture more of that heritage than West Texas and East Texas. They provided the oil, cattle, timber and cotton that allowed a frontier state to eventually develop an economy that would rank ninth in the world if Texas were a nation.
We chose Midland and Longview, two longstanding Texas communities that help anchor West and East Texas, respectively, for a closer look at opportunity in Texas beyond the state’s urban core. Both cities sit in growing counties in our fast-growing state, according to the 2020 Census. (Midland County grew over 24% over the last decade, Gregg County grew a more modest 2%.) They are also blessed with young people. Will those young people stay in their cities? Will they be well prepared for opportunities?
Midland sits 325 miles west from Dallas/Fort Worth in the center of the oil-rich Permian Basin. The city’s thriving energy industry long has attracted pioneering entrepreneurs and educated professionals to its windswept plains. None have been more prominent than a young George H.W. Bush, and his wife Barbara Bush, who arrived after World War II in search of opportunity.
Midland continues to attract college-educated engineers, geologists and executives, at least more so than neighboring Odessa. Yet the boom-and-bust cycles that roil the energy industry require Permian Basin residents to retool themselves — or become unemployed — when downturns hit.
Longview became an industrial hub in the Piney Woods of Texas after long-ago becoming a center for shipping cotton and timber. The East Texas town also capitalized on the discovery of the nearby East Texas Oil Field in the 1930s. Fortunes were made from that field, benefitting towns and families across East Texas.
Today, Longview houses a number of manufacturing operations, but only about 22% of the town’s population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. By contrast, the state average for a bachelor’s degree or higher is almost 31%.
These communities face the same question that big cities like Dallas, Houston and Austin encounter with their school districts: How do they best prepare students for a meaningful life in the modern workforce?
Towns like Midland, with its 176,000 people, and Longview, with its 82,000 people, need to grow their own talent to become their communities’ next teachers, doctors and entrepreneurs. Big cities have more people moving in, but the futures of Midland and Longview are tied to how well they can prepare their young people for opportunities in adulthood.
This urban-rural dynamic plays itself out across America, no matter a state’s size. As people flock to cities, what happens to the communities they leave behind? What happens to their workers, their families, their children? What becomes of their institutions, not the least of which are their schools? Look at any state in the union, and this story applies.
As the energy capital of the Permian Basin, Midland is a major force in world energy markets. As of June 2022, the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank reports, the Permian Basin produced almost 44% of the nation’s oil and about 17% of its natural gas.
The production is vital to the economies of Midland and the nation. Yet the roller coaster nature of the energy industry means that Midland’s schools must continually produce innovative students who can help their community adapt to financial booms-and-busts.
Young families once knew they could place their children in a Midland public school and their education would ready them for the world. In the ensuing decades, the community continued to provide a decent education at a below-average cost.
Now, student performance in the Midland Independent School District shows something different.
In the 2018-2019 school year, the Texas Education Agency gave Midland ISD a C in the agency’s A-F annual rankings of public schools. The district earned only mediocre marks for overall student achievement on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams. Its students demonstrated marginal year-over-year progress on the annual tests. And the state ranked twice as many Midland ISD schools as failing compared to the previous year.
Fast forward three years, Midland ISD students improved on the 2022 STAAR exams. As a whole, the district of 26,387 students moved from a C rating in 2019, the last year TEA handed out letter grades, to a B for the 2021-2022 school year. The progress is encouraging, especially given the pandemic’s impact on students.
Similarly, Midland ISD educators should celebrate that their students improved in reading in grades three through eight. And across all subgroups of students, whether by race, income or English proficiency, the district met the state’s target for showing growth on English language arts/reading exams.
Still, Midland’s overall B rating sits on the border between a B and a C. The district barely scooted by with a numerical score of 80 out of 100 to claim that B grade. In part, that is because only 42% of Midland students earned a “meets” mark on the state’s expectations on all STAAR exams, trailing the Texas state average of 48%.
The “meets” mark is critical because it means that students are able, as TEA reports, to “generally demonstrate the ability to think critically and apply grade-level knowledge and skills in familiar contexts.” In Midland’s case, 58% of the district’s students are not showing they can apply their knowledge in a way that is appropriate for their grade level.
Longview ISD is also showing some signs of improvement, but not all of the East Texas district’s metrics are encouraging. Like Midland ISD, Longview can’t claim victory.
The big headline is that the district of 8,223 students earned a coveted A from the state for the 2021-2022 academic year. That top mark was up from a B in 2018-2019. Equally encouraging is that Longview students beat the state average for meeting the state’s standards on all STAAR exams except for social studies.
Of course, trumping a fairly low state average is not a major victory. It is particularly troubling that only 44% of Longview ISD’s Black students, who make up 34.5% of the Longview student body, met the state’s standards on all STAAR tests. Their passing rate trails the average passing rate for all Longview ISD students by 10 points.
While it is good that Longview earned an A rating, an A rating may not mean an A experience for all of a district’s students. And Midland’s B rating is a positive sign of growth, but it also does not mean a B experience for every student.
As we saw in our study of Dallas, Austin and Houston, strong high school graduation rates do not guarantee future success.
The charts below illustrate the challenge facing young people in Midland County and Gregg County, in which Longview is located. Third-grade reading scores show gaps by race and ethnicity — gaps that appear to be largely eliminated when we consider high school graduation rates across those same racial groups. Maddeningly, however, those gaps reappear across higher education attainment and wage measures.
A proxy graduate profile shows that many students were well behind on reading in third grade and math in eighth grade, but a high percentage of students graduated from high school. This begs the question, were they truly prepared for opportunity and their next step, or did we set them up to fail by passing them along in the system?
In our next article, we will examine how the governance and leadership of these two mid-size districts impacts student learning, how well the districts use innovations and fundamentals to improve student outcomes, and the degree to which the community ecosystems support and drive school progress. We also will provide recommendations on how Midland ISD and Longview ISD can best deal with the realities they confront.
For now, we conclude with the voices of students who explain their experiences in Midland and Longview. Their voices are the most important ones, after all. Their opportunity to enjoy a meaningful, purposeful life is at stake.
Psychology Major, University of North Texas
Greenlee Calico-Sterling graduated from Longview High School in 2022. She participated in the Early College program and earned two associate degrees in arts and science along with her high school diploma. She is now a student at the University of North Texas, majoring in psychology, and entered college with more than 70 credits. Greenlee recently met with the Bush Institute’s Alex Dowdy and Alexis Yelvington to discuss her high school experience. This excerpt was edited for clarity and length.
AD: What was your experience like in the Early College program?
I started taking Early College courses my freshman year. I took a mix of Early College classes and traditional classes while I was in high school. The classes I took were college classes, but they would be held at the high school. College professors would come to the high school to teach them.
I feel like my school prepared me very well for college. I did my first two years of college while I was in high school, so I was not nervous about going to college at all. I had great teachers at Longview, and they took the time to help me with my education. I haven’t struggled with the transition from high school to college because my teacher did a nice job.
AY: How have your college classes compared to the course you took in high school?
They have been the same, except my college classes have a lot more people. Even though I took college courses in high school they were still high school size, so they were a lot smaller. My classes in high school had about 40 students and my classes at UNT have 300, so that feels a bit different.
I took my Early College course through Kilgore College. In my freshman and sophomore years, the course was taught at the high school, although I had the option to go to Kilgore to take the classes.
AD: How did your Early College classes compare to the traditional classes?
There was a lot more work in the Early College courses. I also was in class with people from outside of my high school, so I got to talk to people from different states who went to Kilgore College.
AY: You mentioned before that you felt very prepared to go to college. Can you elaborate on what aspects of the Early College program help you feel prepared for college now?
I think the Early College course made it easier for me to merge within the college community here. I am starting my upper-level course, in my first year of college. I am one of the youngest people in a lot of my classes, but I don’t feel behind at all.
AD: Do you feel like the Early College program supported your learning or changed your academic experience?
Yes. I was planning on going to a smaller university after high school, but in my junior year, I changed my mind. I liked doing the college course and decided that I wanted to go to a bigger university, like UNT. I am glad I did because I really like it here.
AY: What part of your high school experience did you find the most useful or valuable?
In my senior year, I joined the drill team. I was a manager so I worked behind the scenes of the drill team. I was not very extroverted, and it helped me learn how to communicate better. It wasn’t too hard to juggle the Early College class and drill team. I did a lot of my work in the locker room after games.
AD: How did your high school experience compare to your classmates who were not in the Early College program?
A lot of my friends shared that they wish they took Early College because of the opportunity to earn so many college credit hours. I do sometimes regret it a little bit because I won’t get the full university college experience, but I know that getting an associate degree is a big deal for a lot of people.
I also had a lot of friends in International Baccalaureate (IB). I think the IB program was much more challenging than Early College. My friends always had a lot of homework and essays. I was glad I didn’t do IB because of the amount of work. My mom wanted me to do IB and we talked about it, but Early College was the right fit.
AD: Is there anything you wish your school had done differently?
I wish we would have learned more about financial stuff. I got my first job ever last week, and I am struggling with that.
AY: What did the college application process look like?
Our college-and-career center had a ton of resources. We also had an Early College counselor, she was amazing, like a superhero! She met with me to help figure out what classes to take or how many hours would transfer over to the university. She also helped talk through what degree would be a good fit.
Human Resource Management Studies, University of North Texas
Rylee Hunter graduated from Longview High School in 2022. While in high school, Rylee participated in the International Baccalaureate Program. She now attends the University of North Texas, where she studies human resource management. The Bush Institute’s Justine Taylor-Raymond and Alex Dowdy recently met with Rylee to discuss her high school experience. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length
AD: Tell us a little bit about your high school experience.
My teachers at Longview High School were really engaging and my freshman and sophomore years were great. Then in my sophomore year, COVID hit. We did remote learning from the spring of my sophomore year to October of my junior year. I had a lot less work to do – and I forgot some stuff while we were online — but in junior year I got back on track when I joined the IB program. My teachers were very understanding about the pandemic because they struggled with it, too.
AD: Can you tell us more about your experience in the IB program?
I definitely felt challenged in the IB Program. We started preparing to be part of the program freshman year. From the beginning, we were told “this program is so rigorous,” “it is difficult,” and “you will have long nights.” So, when it started junior year, it was like, “Okay we are really doing this.”
We had essays and tests in every class. Everything we worked on led up to these big tests that determined if you got the diploma. In the day-to-day, we had a lot of assignments to juggle along with extracurriculars. It was hard for a while but eventually the writing and revising become easier.
JTR: Why did you choose to do the IB program?
I have been in Longview my whole life and my mom went to Longview High School, so I stayed here for school. In eighth grade, we toured the high school and listened to a presentation about the Early College and IB programs. At the time it was my goal to be on a college-level drill team. I wanted to be a Kilgore College Rangerette. I talked to my counselor, and she recommended that I do IB because it would prepare me to juggle difficult courses and drill team responsibilities.
JTR: Did most students choose between Early College and IB?
I went to the gifted and talented elementary school so most of the students I went to school with chose either Early College or IB. I know a lot of students did take traditional classes, but I did not get to talk to them much. IB students had separate classes and different support from traditional-track students. My teachers junior and senior years specialized in IB.
AD: Do you think you would have been encouraged to do the IB program if you had not gone to the gifted and talented elementary school?
I don’t think so. I think the IB program is something that they just told our school about when we were in elementary school because it had a gifted and talented program. If you didn’t go to the gifted and talented elementary school, you would hear about IB for the first time in middle school. At that point, I think it would be hard to decide between programs. I know the district has been promoting IB more in all of the elementary schools, when I went back to visit there were IB posters all over the walls.
AD: Do you feel like you were prepared for post-graduation opportunities?
Yes, I have been prepared. Not only did I have the skills I needed academically, but I also had great connections with my teachers. Those connections shaped me as a person. My history teacher, Stacie Wheeler, took my class under her wing. She taught us things we could do to manage stress and created a space in her office if we needed a moment to get away. She took care of us as people. Now I have techniques I can use when I feel stressed or need to tackle a big assignment. I am in freshman-level classes, but so far, I feel like my high school courses were more rigorous. My workload in college had been much lighter. The class size is what shocked me the most about college. My biggest class has 500 people, so that has been different.
AD: Is there anything you wish your school did differently?
I don’t think there is anything that could have been done better academically. I wish there was more opportunity to interact with the rest of the student body. IB students had their own hallway where most of our classes were, so it felt very separated from everyone else.
JTR: What was the experience like at Longview High School for students not in IB or Early College?
A lot of my friends on the drill team were in the Early College program. I know they would study for tests if one was coming up. They also seemed to help each other out with work so it seemed like they had a community there. I can’t say how prepared they felt for college.
JTR: What did the college application process look like?
I had a lot of support from the school. The IB counselor made sure we all filled out our college applications. If you hadn’t applied anywhere, she would find you, sit you down, and make you fill out the applications. She would bother us every day until it was done because she wanted us to be successful.
I had a friend who went to the University of North Texas, so I had insight into what college life was like here. I knew I wanted to go to UNT so I filled out the application. The application process was not difficult. The most challenging part of it was the scholarship essays.
Dance Studies, West Texas A&M University
Anna Martin graduated from Midland High School in 2022. She took an accelerated course load in high school and graduated in three years. Anna is currently a student at West Texas A&M University, where she studies dance. The Bush Institute’s Alex Dowdy sat down with Anna this fall to discuss how her high school experience shaped her. This excerpt was edited for clarity and length.
AD: Can you tell us a little bit about your high school experience?
My high school experience was a little unconventional. I finished in three years. I was very lucky. During my freshman year, I had amazing teachers and mentors who were supportive during COVID. I was in the band, and my teacher would always check up on us and encourage us to keep playing music. I had good guidance going into high school. My sophomore year was hard because of COVID. My school used a hybrid system, alternating days with in-person and online classes. That was very weird. It was a hard time because all the fine arts classes that I found so encouraging in school went away.
AD: What were your academic courses like in high school?
I did not take any Advanced Placement (AP) courses during my freshman year. I was very involved in my dance studio outside of school, so my counselor advised me not to take AP classes because of the time commitment. I regret not taking advanced courses my freshman year because I did not feel challenged. So, in my sophomore year, I did take AP World History and really enjoyed it. I learned how to take notes in that class and that has helped me in college.
AD: How did you decide to graduate early, and what steps did you take?
At the end of sophomore year, I got the feeling that I wanted to leave Midland. I met with my counselor, she was very supportive and guided me through the process. I took tests in math and science and was able to jump ahead a year in both subjects. I took English, government, and economics online. With the online course, I did not have the option to take AP classes. That was definitely the drawback to graduating early.
AD: Is graduating early common at your high school?
I know of two other students who graduated early. It is not very common. Most students who graduate early are looking to get into the workforce faster.
AD: How did you make the decision to graduate early versus an Early College program?
In junior high, you can apply to be in the Early College program. Students are chosen using a weighted lottery. They consider things like whether your parents went to college. Your circumstances dictate the number of entries you have in the lottery. I applied but was not selected. I am happy with how my experience turned out, but I wish there was an opportunity for more students to participate in the Early College program.
AD: Do you feel like you were prepared for college?
In a lot of ways, yes. My favorite math class was AP Statistics. My teacher taught me how to write resumes and how to navigate some things I would need in college. I felt prepared academically but not personally. I am taking algebra, communications, and writing this semester. I am the most prepared from my communications courses. I did a lot of public speaking in high school because I took speech my freshman year. I am not the most algebraic-minded person, so that is the only course I am struggling with in college. Overall, I do feel like I was prepared for college academically.
AD: What part of your high school experience did you find most valuable?
I took a course called Students in Philanthropy. I loved the course because I would like to work in philanthropy. It gave me an opportunity to practice communication skills and how to deal with adults. It was a great experience that I am very grateful for.
AD: What was the college application process like?
Applying for college was pretty easy. My brother had just applied for college, so my parents really knew everything. I know my school counselor would have been there for me if I needed it, but I was able to handle it. It took about two days to apply to 10 schools, so it was not too bad.
AD: How did you pick West Texas A&M?
West Texas A&M was my second choice. I got into the University of Oklahoma, but I was not going to be able to major in dance there. I was not ready to give up dance for academics yet because it is still my passion. Dance is what I love and how I express myself. The dance program here felt like a family, and since I have been here, I have gotten so many good opportunities.
Sports Management Studies, University of Tennessee
Nick Stone graduated from Midland High School in 2022. He is now a freshman at the University of Tennessee, where he is studying sports management and is a student-athlete on the diving team. During his time at Midland High School, Nick took 10 Advanced Placement (AP) courses. The Bush Institute’s Alex Dowdy sat down with Nick to discuss how his high school experience shaped him. This excerpt was edited for clarity and length.
AD: Describe your high school experience, particularly your academic experiences.
Midland ISD is a small community, all the teachers, staff, parents, and students feel close. I think Midland ISD develops really good academics and athletics. My school had a lot of AP classes to offer. I started taking AP courses my freshman year and took 10 while I was in high school.
AD: How did you decide to take AP courses over another program?
Before I got to high school, I did not know a lot about AP classes. I knew they would benefit us if we could pass the test but that was it. I did not feel overly pressured to take AP courses, but my school had a lot of opportunities to take them. My freshman year was the first time the school offered AP Human Geography. I was one of the first students who got to take the course.
I took AP courses freshman and sophomore years because it seemed like a good way to try it out before it really mattered in my junior and senior years. I thought it would help me see what college might feel like. It also gives you a good opportunity to earn college credit if you pass the test. I have not gotten all my AP scores back yet, but I expect to get six college credits from AP exams.
AD: Have you felt prepared for college?
Yes, Midland High does a good job of embedding what college is going to be like into the classes. My college classes feel the same as high school because the tools are the same. We used the online platform Canvas in high school, and it is the same in college. The way I take notes and exams is the same. Everything I did in high school was spot-on with what I am doing in college, and I really appreciate that now. My college courses are not any harder than my AP classes were. I take notes and study the same way I did in high school. The only difference is I did mostly paper-based work in high school and now most of my work is online. Overall, the transition to college has been easier than expected.
AD: What part of your high school experience have you found the most valuable?
At Midland High, we had a great staff, and we were really encouraged to go to teachers’ office hours if we were struggling with work. Now, I am not nervous to talk to my professors when I don’t understand something.
AD: Is there anything you wish your school would have done differently?
I wish they would have given us more opportunities to practice time-management. I know it is different for me since I am an athlete, but I think a lot of students also struggle with time-management. I wish they would have let go a little more in high school because in college you don’t have teachers to rely on to remind you about assignments. Time-management is one skill I did not get to develop in high school, and am I having to learn it now.
AD: What did the college application process look like?
The entire school staff was so encouraging. In fact, my senior seminar class had a mandatory assignment to apply to our community college. They wrote letters of recommendation, read my essays, and even helped me with the application process. If I had any questions I could always rely on the whole staff, but specifically, one main person, principal Jennifer Seybert. She loved all her current and past students and would help and do anything she could for us all.
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Anne Wicks is the George W. Bush Institute’s Ann Kimball Johnson director of education and opportunity.
William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor for the George W. Bush Institute.
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