Port Arthur ISD outlines multi-million dollar Support Services Center, plan for immigrant students

Published 12:40 am Saturday, April 15, 2023

A lot can change over the course of nine years.

In 2014, voters in Port Arthur Independent School District approved a $195 million bond proposal that led to the construction of Memorial 9th Grade Academy and new elementary schools, as well as upgrades and renovations to other campuses.

No one could have predicted Hurricane Harvey, the COVID pandemic and an increased influx of immigrants — all of which caused leaders to delay some plans and make changes to others.

PAISD’s Support Service Center building is being renovated. (Mary Meaux/The News)

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Support Services Center

Things are moving forward for PAISD’s Support Service Center despite some supply chain issues.

The approximate 85,600 square feet building sits across the street from the PAISD administration building and will house the district’s maintenance, shipping and receiving, custodial, IT, textbooks, transportation and print shop departments, said Cade Spell, president of Long Architecture.

There will also be meeting rooms of various sizes shared by different departments and storage space throughout the building.

The district’s bus barn is being moved to this site and features a new parking area and a “few surprises,” he added.

Janet Daniels with Daniels Building & Construction, Inc. said they are working hard to make sure the project stays within budget, and if not, they will have to “value engineer” some items out to reduce cost and increase functionality.

Daniels is the construction manager for the project and is accepting proposals from prospective subcontractors. The deadline is 2 p.m. April 25.

Daniels said the facility will be functional and brings together all the things the district needs.

Back in 2014, Superintendent Mark Porterie told The Port Arthur News the projects on the bond proposal would meet the needs of the district for 10 years. Next year is the 10-year mark.

Porterie said the delays from Hurricane Harvey and COVID actually worked in the district’s favor, considering the need for the support center and other projects.

“Where we are now is a different thought than where we were 10 years ago,” Porterie said.

Technology has changed drastically in those years from an academic standpoint.

He said the building would meet the needs of the district for years to come.

The building was the site of the Bishop Byrne Catholic High School, that was later an outpatient medical facility owned by Christus Health Southeast Texas.

PAISD bought the land and building for $500,000 plus closing costs in 2020.

Money was earmarked with the voter-approved $195 million bond in 2014 to construct a new maintenance, warehouse complex and transportation facility and $7,267,000 set aside for this, according to previous reports. Now, that money will be used for the renovations to the property.

The district’s multilingual department is housed at the Administration Building. (Mary Meaux/The News)

Newcomer Center

When the idea of a Newcomer Center was introduced, the thought was to house middle and high school students, recent immigrants who have little or no English proficiency and limited to no educational background. It was to serve students and their families who want to have meaningful social and academic integration and help acclimate them.

But Hurricane Harvey happened and the district was forced to pour energies into renovations and getting back to school. Then COVID kept the district from moving forward with the plans.

The district did check costs for the Newcomers Center and found it was $5 million over budget, Porterie said.

But, again, this worked out in the district’s favor.

As time marched forward officials noted other districts moving away from newcomer centers.

“They kind of dismantled those and moved in a different direction, which is better for kids,” he said. “The Newcomer Center would have been kind of a separation.”

The idea of how to educate and provide services to the migrants, immigrants and emergent bilinguals, previously called English Language Learners, has changed.

Multilingual/Migrant Program Director Karla Obregon and Multilingual/Migrant Program Supervisor Naomi Knowlton are part of the team working to be in compliance with the Texas Education Agency while assisting the students in their educational journey.

Obregon said the idea of a Newcomer Center needs to be seen as a program or service. And in addition to the budget adjustments there is also the issue of a teacher shortage seen nationwide.

“The ultimate goal is to provide the best services to the students. That vision has not changed. The vision is the same, serving immigrant students,” Obregon said. “Additionally, the number of immigrant students is increasing.”

Knowlton said they have students coming in the ninth, 10th, 11th, sometimes 12th grade who haven’t been schooled at all; or if they have, they are coming with a third or fourth grade education from their home country and do not speak English.

“I think one of the things that we are attempting to do in this process as we kind of re-envision what it is and what Port Arthur needs, in the best interest of those students in particular, is how we enhance educational opportunities for them while providing the opportunity for them to learn the language,” Knowlton said.

Current immigrants are coming from a number of countries, some of them through humanitarian visas from Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela, as well as Mexico.

As the district looks to see how to educate and assist the newcomers, they are looking to other districts to see what they are doing that is successful.

Porterie said there are upcoming meetings to discuss the issue and he is positive they will find the right solution.

“We’re educators; we’ve always been creative,” he said. We’ve always think outside of the box. This may have given us a little bit more of a challenge, but we will win. Always do. Educators always win. We find a way to make it work and we will never stop that. And there will never be a time where a teacher is not needed in the United States of America. So we do what we do.”