By Will Johnson
Messenger Reporter

PALESTINE – After roughly 30 minutes of a town hall meeting to discuss the future of the University of Texas at Tyler Innovation Academy (UTTIA) in Palestine, Dr. Ross Sherman – Dean of Education and Psychology at the UT- Tyler – paused for a moment.

“Now, let me share the good news,” he said to a crowd of hundreds inside the Evangelistic Temple in Palestine.

“(UT-Tyler) President (Michael) Tidwell has authorized the renovation of the existing facility for the 2018-2019 school year,” Sherman said, as applause filled the church.

“The renovations will begin as soon as possible. It is anticipated they will be completed sometime during the fall. As soon as the renovations are complete, we will be able to move back into the former IA facility,” he said.

The town hall meeting was the result of a state fire marshal’s report that effectively shut down the UTTIA facility and forced classes to be moved to another building on the UT-Tyler Palestine campus.

Last week, a letter that was sent to parents of UTTIA students indicating the campus could possibly close at the end of the 2018 school year.

The body of the letter stated, “The process to find a facility solution for the Innovation Academy started last summer when the facility in Palestine was closed after the state fire marshal flagged safety concerns. As a result, we implemented a short term facility solution by utilizing Mathis Hall on UT Tyler’s extension campus in Palestine. Classes will continue to be held there until the end of this academic year. The UT Tyler team that has been exploring permanent options for an Innovation Academy Palestine facility includes representation from the president’s cabinet, the College of Education and Psychology, Innovation Academy staff and facility services staff.”

The fire marshal’s report identified 20 violations of which most were minor according to the UT-Tyler staff.

Among the more serious violations were issues with:

  • The fire sprinkler system.
  • Corridor walls – extend to ceiling to prevent fire from spreading.
  • Fire rating of walls
  • Egress from building for certain classrooms – 1) ability to exit building and 2) rescue windows for fire personnel to secure students.

The Dean said the UT-Tyler system will finance the renovations by utilizing what he termed as the “rainy-day” fund for UTTIA charter schools and is a monetary reserve for the UTTIA campuses located in Longview, Tyler and Palestine.

“We are limited on which funds we can use for facilities for non-college students. Using the rainy-day funds of the Innovation Academies wasn’t our first choice, but ended up being the only realistic option,” Sherman said.

Approximately $600,000 will be spent to make the necessary safety renovations.

Prior to revealing the school would receive funds for renovation, Sherman explained the school was based on “… four pillars. The first pillar is to promote student success. The second pillar is to promote student engagement. The third pillar is for the faculty to engage research and scholarships to advance their discipline.”

“The fourth pillar which is perhaps the most important,” he continued, “is to address the pressing issues of East Texas. As it relates to the College of Education and Psychology, two of the most pressing issues that we have are promoting the educational achievement of K-12 students and promoting educational attainment in East Texas. We want to increase the number of youngsters who achieve post-secondary education or post-secondary certification.”

Sherman added the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had set a goal called “30 by 60” where by the year 2030 “… sixty percent of all 18 to 25-year-olds should have either a post-secondary degree or post-secondary certification. We are committed (at UTTIA) towards working to achieve that goal.”

According to the UTTIA website, the school “… is a university charter public school. The charter was approved by the State Board of Education in 2012. The mission of the UT Tyler Innovation Academy is to develop students who leave school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) College and Career Ready. STEM College Ready indicates students are prepared to enroll in a STEM Major at a university. Typically this means they are calculus ready upon graduation or have completed calculus in high school.”

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.