Inside the Port Arthur ISD plan to educate influx of students without formal education standards

Published 12:32 am Monday, November 22, 2021

While the former Stephen F. Austin High School has been demolished, certain elements of the school have been retained for use at what will be the district’s Newcomers Center.

Greg Wall with Labiche Architectural Group stood before trustees with the Port Arthur Independent School District last week and updated artist renderings and floor plans for the Newcomers Center.

“If you’ve driven by the site lately you’ll see the old Stephen F. Austin High School is gone, that building has been demolished,” Wall said. “There are certain elementary aspects that we did retain from that building we hope to repurpose for this building.”

Trustees look at a floor plan for the Newcomers Center. (Mary Meaux/The News)

The elements saved from the demolition are the letters making up the name of the school.

“We have salvaged the cast stone letters from the old high school and we’re going to reuse those,” he said while showing a rending with the letters near the to-be-built center.

The Center will be at the site of the former school bordered by 61st Street and Ray Avenue.

Trustee Debra Ambroise asked superintendent Mark Porterie about the parking lots and if the ones that served the previous school would remain.

When standing in what used to be the front of the building on 61st Street there is a parking lot to the left that was once used by teachers and another across the street near where the auditorium was and a third across the street on Ray Avenue side.

Porterie said the parking of the left side would be leveled.

There will be, Porterie said, parking for administration and parents and a place for buses to turn around.

Tatiana Morales Owens, executive director of curricular and instruction who previously served as multilingual/migrant director, said the Newcomers Center is something that is very near and dear to her heart.

“About four years ago we had about 80 students about 13-14 years old with about a third grade education level or no educational background, so the question was, ‘what do we do with these kids?’ We had to come up with creative ways to place these students and properly serve them,” Owens said. “The Newcomers Center is the answer to the problem.”

Greg Wall with Labiche Architectural Group shows a architectural rendering of the Newcomers Center. (Mary Meaux/The News)

The Newcomers Center will house middle school and high school students, recent immigrants who have little or no English proficiency and limited or no educational background. The facility will serve students and their families who want to have meaningful social and academic integration. It will help show them how to acclimate to the way things are done in the United States and in Texas, she said.

The Center will help students by addressing their academic, linguistic, social, mental and health before transitioning them back to the main campus.

“And of course we want them to graduate,” she said. “These kids come in at 15, 16 and they’re not being successful and they’re dropping out, so the purpose is for us to make sure these kids graduate, even if they’re 21, 22, but that’s the ultimate goal.”

The vision for the Center includes helping parents learn English, as well.

Plus it will also serve migrant students. That includes students whose parents come to the school in the district’s boundaries where they take on seasonal work. In this area that is mostly the shrimping industry, she said.

Background and the plan

Constructed in 1929 and opened in 1930, Stephen F. Austin School saw generations of students walk its halls.

For years the building at 61st Street and Ray Avenue served middle and high school students. In 2002 Port Arthur’s three high schools, SFA included, merged to form Memorial High School.

The campus remained in use and became home to the Memorial 9th Grade Academy until the return from winter break in the 2018-2019 school year.

Demolition of the building began earlier this year and was part of PASID’s $195 million bond approved by voters in 2014.

That bond set aside money for construction of a new Memorial 9th Grade Center adjacent to the high school as well as constructing new elementary schools and updating and renovating others.

In November 2020, PAISD trustees approved an agreement with Labiche Architects for their services.