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Veteran administrator takes FOCA helm

Odessa American - 8/4/2021

Aug. 5—Having spent about 20 years as an administrator with Ector County ISD, Tony Parris was looking for something a little different.

He found it as the newly installed Head of Schools at First Odessa Christian Academy, located inside First Baptist Church at 709 N. Lee Ave. School starts Aug. 16.

Most recently, Parris was vice principal at Odessa High School before he retired.

An Odessa native, he earned a bachelor's degree in music from West Texas State University, now West Texas A&M, and a master's in educational leadership from University of Texas Permian Basin.

Certified to teach when he graduated from college, Parris said he "kind of avoided" the profession for seven years selling cars and working for a carpet company.

He said he wasn't enjoying that every much, so he decided to use his degree and certification and teach.

"I started teaching in 1990. I did eight years at Hays and then I did 14 years at Ector and then four years as the ... energy management guy downtown ... and then I did four years at OHS and then I retired for about a month," Parris said.

He didn't know what opportunities would be available as COVID was still going on. Parris said he looked around for different opportunities, but nothing panned out.

"I thought well I can't teach for a school district and keep my retirement, so I looked at private schools. I remembered that First Baptist had just started the private school and they happened to have a math opening. I was fortunate to come on and teach math here last year. My original plan was to go back to ECISD and teach after I sat out a year. But I fell in love with teaching here and the kids here and the concept of private school," Parris said.

The head of schools position opportunity came up when Tyler Press, former head of schools at First Odessa Christian, left for a job in Angleton ISD as director of secondary education.

"I never had any intention to be an administrator again. But circumstances changed this summer when Mr. Press left and moved his family to Angleton," Parris added.

First Baptist Senior Pastor Byron McWilliams contacted Parris and said they wanted to talk to him about becoming head of schools.

Parris said he was interested.

"They liked the whole gig just as much as I did. I think it's just it's an amazing opportunity to be at a Christian, private school and get to focus not only on academics, but on the spiritual side of kids in their education," Parris added.

McWilliams said the church and school are grateful for Press' devotion to First Odessa Christian in its most formative years and wish him the best.

"We are thankful that God saw this transition coming and placed our next head of schools very close to us. Upon the news of the change, within 48 hours, Mr. Tony Parris was unanimously selected as head of schools. Mr. Parris comes to FOCA with many years of exemplary service with ECISD in the classroom and in administration. He is an exceptional leader and has many friends and supporters in the Odessa education community. The knowledge and skill-set Mr. Parris brings will take FOCA to the next level by assisting us in becoming the premier K-12 Christian academy in Odessa. We are thrilled by the change and look forward to an amazing year of growth and academic achievement at First Odessa Christian Academy," McWilliams said in a text message.

Parris is pleased for the chance to make Christianity a part of every day.

"... We start our day with prayer; we have prayer in class all day long. We have a Bible class for everybody. It's just as much a part of our curriculum as math and English and science and social studies."

First Odessa Christian Academy currently offers grades kindergarten through eight.

"Next year, we'll add ninth grade — at least ninth grade. We're looking into possibilities of adding more than that, but we will eventually be K-12 over the next three to five years ...," Parris said.

About 175 students are expected this year with 15 currently on the teaching staff.

"Parents are still calling and expressing interest in coming, so I could hit 180, 185. It would be fantastic for where we're at. But our vision is growth into a much bigger school and be K through 12," Parris said.

The biggest goal right now is growth — getting to kindergarten through 12th grade, but also reaching a 60 student capacity at each grade level.

Odessa High had nearly 4,000 students.

"... The educational setting that we're able to provide here with smaller classes is just so nice for teachers and for students. Teachers can give that one-on-one attention much more often than most public schools can provide with the class sizes that are there. ... I found that last year teaching math. I was able to give kids who needed attention a lot of attention. And not just kind of cruise back because I've got to get to these others ... It was very refreshing in that regard," Parris said.

First Odessa Christian doesn't have the STAAR test requirements that public schools do, but they still use the state curriculum and they use the MAP, or Measure of Academic Progress, test in math, English and reading to see growth.

"We'll use that as our measurement tool and our progress tool every year. We'll give it three times (at the) beginning, middle and end of the school year, so we have a baseline every year for where they're at as they start the year and can track growth and their achievement level through the year," Parris said.

He added that MAP was used last year.

"In fact, I was fortunate enough to get 100% of my eighth graders meet the growth level NWA, required for Blue Ribbon School. All of my eighth graders in math achieve that about 90% of my seventh graders achieve that growth level. And 56% of my sixth graders were above all of those, or were well above the national norm which is pretty amazing, considering it's a pandemic year," Parris said.

He added that FOCA was in-person all year and the school didn't have any students contract COVID.

Once in a while, if somebody in the family was ill, the student would have to stay home for a couple of days or a couple of weeks in quarantine.

"But we're also a one-to-one school. Every student has an iPad and so if they did have to be at home, it's easy to stay in touch because all the teachers post assignments in Google Classroom, which makes it really easy to go back and forth if we had to. Hopefully this year, we can continue being strictly at school and not have to go to any online learning. We'll just have to wait and see how things play out," Parris added.

He noted that they have been fortunate. They are keeping an eye on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Greg Abbott and work with what First Baptist Church is doing.

Parris said he had a fantastic year last year.

"It was refreshing to come into private school and have the freedom to teach the way we were and to see the success that that brought. Coming in as principal, I know that we have a fantastic staff. We have a tremendous group of parents that are very supportive. And studies show when the parents are supportive and involved and work in conjunction with the school, then students do better. And that is certainly the case here at FOCA. Our parents are very involved and it's a nice partnership that we're able to have. When I got the opportunity to come and be the leader of the school, I was just super excited because I just fell in love with the place as a teacher last year, and to be able to take the helm and lead into a K-12 School, which is our goal, is a phenomenal opportunity. I'm very blessed and very humbled that they would even ask me to do that."

"And I'm very excited about what the future for our school holds. It's going to be a school that isn't offered in Odessa. In Midland, you have three Christian schools that are high schools. In Odessa, you really don't have any that are of any size that are k-12. I think it's a tremendous opportunity for families in Odessa to have another option for a Christian school that goes K through 12 without having to drive to Midland," Parris added.

Together, Parris and his wife, Julie, have four children and 12 grandchildren.

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