News Column

History made: NTO graduates first class

June 7, 2014

By Lindsay Weaver, Odessa American, Texas

June 07--Drawing out the "o's" in the first word of his speech, the founding principal of New Tech Odessa started the ceremony of the first-ever graduating class in a manner his students recognized as classic "Vega."

"Goooood afternoon, New Tech!" Adrian Vega said, wearing the same graduation regalia as NTO's administrators. He left the school he helped to start in Ector County Independent School District for a job in Tucson, Ariz., with former interim ECISD superintendent H.T. Sanchez.

The 70 graduates shouted back from the first rows at the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center: "Odessa!"

Those words "first" and "historic" were the ongoing melody of the afternoon graduation ceremony on Friday afternoon for the Class of 2014 when indeed the students of New Tech Odessa, whom the valedictorian described as guinea pigs in a grand experiment, became the first seniors to receive their diplomas from ECISD's third high school.

The doors to the renovated portion of the Career Center opened in August 2011 to about 230 students in ninth- and 10th-grades where the focus is project-based learning and digital literacy and strays from the normal high school setting of Permian or Odessa high schools. There are no bells to tell students to go to class, students are given an Apple computer to use for assignments and team-teaching across subjects is a regular occurrence.

There are no NTO sports teams or an NTO choir, but there's more to be seen at the school on East 29th Street.

A few years ago, "ECISD had an idea, had a vision of what if we were able to create a totally new high school with 21st century learning," Vega said. "Wouldn't that be cool?"

The result derived from the Napa, Calif.-based New Tech Network that was created in 1996 and now boasts more than 100 schools around the country.

Vega said it was three years ago when the question of "high school, then what?" was born at NTO.

After dozens of team projects, countless late-nights to complete them, senior symposiums and internships, Vega said he's confident about the outcome.

"You've proven you're ready for the 'then what?'" Vega said.

He imparted these words of advice to the graduates: Every day you go to work, you're interviewing for your next job.

"Your work will speak for itself. If you keep that in mind and apply what you learned at NTO. You can't help but be noticed," Vega said.

As the first graduation ceremony for ECISD this year, NTO set the tone after ECISD was forced (through the threat of a lawsuit) to change its policy on what it historically was calling the student-led prayers: invocation and benediction. The students who did the newly named "opening" and "closing" remarks decided to include a prayer to God in their short speeches. The call to "bow your heads" and the "amen" was met both times with whistling and some of the most thunderous clapping of the ceremony.

While on stage, valedictorian Karla Jurado took the NTO way of utilizing technology literally, when she pulled out her cell phone to capture a "selfie" with her fellow graduates. She called the experiment of NTO "a total success."

"Now we're ready to start our next chapter ... on time! On task! On mission!" Jurado said as the graduates joined in to yell out the mantra.

Just before the diplomas were handed out and the graduates threw their turquoise caps in the air, ECISD Superintendent Tom Crowe made a point to have the active duty and veterans of the U.S. military to stand and be recognized, bringing about another of the loudest celebrations of the day.

"Without you we would not be able to come together like this. Thank you for your service," he said.

As mother Brenda Rivas watched her youngest child Lorenzo Rivas walk the stage, she was armed with her cell phone -- and a broad smile -- to record each moment.

"He's my baby. He's the last one to go," Rivas said, putting her hand to her chest. "I'm going to be an empty-nester. But he's ready. He's going to UT-Arlington to study engineering. He became a leader at NTO, not a follower."

--Contact Lindsay Weaver on twitter at @OAschools, on Facebook at OA Lindsay Weaver or call 432-333-7781.


(c)2014 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas)

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Source: Odessa American (TX)

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