Marfa school board discusses safety updates, Blackwell School property and new online counseling programs

MARFA — The Marfa ISD School Board met this past Monday to discuss ongoing issues and share recent successes across both campuses. The board welcomed new member Ernie Villareal and elected existing Boardmember Christa Marquez to replace Mark Cash as vice president. 

Superintendent Oscar Aguero reported that last week the district received news of their first active COVID case since the start of the school year. He said they believe it came from outside of the school and was an isolated case. They are performing contact tracing and other people in contact with the individual have tested negative for the virus. The district will continue to offer free testing to teachers and students, Aguero said. Recently 16 teachers got their booster shots and many received their first or second doses of the vaccine provided by the Department of State Health Services, he said. 

“I will not lie and say it’s getting easier. It’s getting harder because we’re starting to get more relaxed and things like that. But our teachers are still on it and trying to do the best they can,” said Aguero. 

Mike Green, board secretary of the newly-formed group Friends of Hunter Gym, reported to Aguero that the group just recently received approval to establish their incorporated nonprofit after delays at the secretary of state’s office due to staffing and the pandemic. The group is now looking to set up a bank account and pay the IRS filing fee to establish their 501c3. This process has been in the works since April. 

Aguero also shared Workforce Solution Borderplex out of El Paso recently donated a drone, camera, welding equipment and licenses for technology software to Marfa Highschool’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program. 

“We don’t talk about our CTE programs as much as we should. I just wanted to let you know, ‘Hey, we’ve got someone really supporting them.’ Not just from the school but from outside the school,” said Aguero. 

Attendance at Marfa Elementary is sitting at 96% enrollment, and is averaging just below 94% for the high school. 

“I think at the beginning of the school year, we have a lot more absences because so many kids were not wearing masks. There were many colds and strep throat and ear infections. But I think that’s kind of settled out now,” said Alison Scott, Marfa High School principal. 

Luane Porter, district counselor, announced the implementation of online social emotional learning and intervention programs for grades K-12.

“My goal is to be able to work with all the kids, K through 12, regarding counseling. Because we don’t have a school counselor at the elementary school, that’s a vital part of character building, social emotional learning,” said Porter. “If we don’t have someone down there dedicated to providing lessons and interventions with the kids, we’re missing that. By the time they get up here to the seventh and eighth grade, they don’t have those skills that they need.” 

Porter will soon present these premade 20-minute lessons, recently purchased by the district, in classrooms to help ensure all grade levels are receiving counseling services. Lesson themes include “self awareness and identifying emotions.” While similar themes may show up every year, content will vary so students won’t receive the same lesson twice. 

Intervention lessons would be assigned to students in ISS and include lessons on bullying, attendance, tardiness, conflict resolution and more. Porter said she hopes the programs will serve as a helpful tool and allow the district to be more proactive when it comes to student behavior. 

Safety updates 

Members of the safety committee presented updates on numerous safety initiatives they are actively pursuing. District staff recently participated in training with the Marfa Police Department and Chief Deputy Sheriff Joel Nuñez Jr. of the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, where they learned about school safety-related legislation and what to do in the event of an active shooter. They have another training planned for January 2022. 

In addition to drilling and performing safety walk throughs, the group is also seeking Stop The Bleed kits, administering informative posters and pooling together supplies for emergency go bags for teachers. They are exploring whether there might be safety grants available to help guarantee intercom and camera systems are working to the best of their abilities. 

While the school district may share part of the emergency operations plan with the public, other parts may not be widely available for security reasons. Parents may request a copy of the safety plan from the district. Principal Scott said while it is impossible to prepare for every scenario, they are working to ensure staff are empowered to act in the case of an emergency.

“I don’t want teachers to constantly feel that stress because a school shooting is very rare. It is statistically very rare, but it’s horrifying when it does happen. I don’t think you ever know until you face that situation what you’re going to do,” said Scott. “But I think if we can talk about it, if we can have information for the teachers, we can give them the tools they need to be prepared. Then if there is a situation, they have a fighting chance of being able to face it.” 

Blackwell property

Gretel Enck, president of The Blackwell School Alliance, spoke to the board regarding the possibility of the historic Blackwell School property becoming a National Park site. The Blackwell School technically belongs to Marfa ISD and would need to be bought by the alliance before it could be donated to the park service. 

The alliance is hopeful the National Park Service will take over ownership and management of the site and intends to fundraise money in order to purchase the property from Marfa ISD. The money from the sale would benefit the school district. By law the NPS cannot purchase a site; it has to be given by donation. The alliance is currently leasing the property from the school district and is 15 years into their 99 year lease. 

“The National Park Service would have to acquire the property through donation. That’s where the alliance can be the intermediary to raise the money. Because I imagine that’s an extremely valuable asset, and that it would be beneficial for y’all to have that money,” said Enck.

Aguero told Enck that if the property was already a National Park site, they could offer to sell directly to the Blackwell School Alliance, but because it is not, they would have to put the property up for bid. Enck said the Blackwell School Alliance would ideally receive a letter of intent from the school board stating Marfa ISD intends to sell the property to the alliance, but it was unclear whether the board would agree to do so. Further discussion is expected in the coming weeks. 

Enck said there is a real chance, with the support of Senator John Cornyn and Representative Tony Gonzales, that the Blackwell School could be chosen as a National Park site by congress during this calendar year. 

“Because of the work that we’ve been able to do in terms of having an architect do a historic structures report, working with historians to get listed on the National Register of Historic Places, all of that really says that we’re ready for this,” said Enck. 

If the site is acquired by the NPS, they will likely establish a 10-year advisory committee to help craft the future of the site, which would involve local stakeholders, including former students, descendants and members of the alliance. There is also a possibility the alliance would transform into a friends group or fundraising group for the Blackwell School.