COTULLA, Texas — In Cindy Ochoa's fourth-grade reading class, a dozen students peer quietly into their iPads, perusing an online version of Encyclopedia Britannica for a research paper on U.S. states.
"You see how quiet it is?" Ochoa says. "They're in their own worlds."
A few years ago, the iPads would have been unthinkable, an unreachable expense in a dirt-poor school district. Today, all 1,300 students in the Cotulla Independent School District have access to new iPads. Their parents no longer have to spend money on school supplies. They ride around in new buses.
Once one of the poorest districts in Texas, Cotulla is today one of the richest because of the state's oil boom. Midway between Laredo and San Antonio, Cotulla — where Lyndon Johnson taught migrant children before launching his political career and which his wife, Lady Bird, once described as "one of the crummiest little towns in Texas" — is predominantly Hispanic, home to Mexican families who have been here for generations and recently arrived migrants, says Jack Seals, the school district superintendent. More than 70% of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The oil uncorked nearby in the Eagle Ford Shale has brought unprecedented wealth to the district's two elementary schools, middle school and high school. The taxable value — what the school system is able to tax for its revenue — soared from $550 million four years ago to $2.3 billion in 2012 to $5 billion last year, Seals says.
Under Texas law, rich school districts are required to return a percentage of their revenue to the state to help fund poorer ones. Long the recipient of that program, Cotulla for the first time last year had to give back $300,000. This year, the district is projected to return $28 million, he says.
"Until recently, we were counting on the state to provide what we needed on maintenance and upgrades," Seals says. "Now we're getting to share with others."
The school district so far has spent more than $7 million on replacing roofs and windows, upgrading fire alarms, buying new buses and hiring more teachers.
But bringing in new teachers has been challenging because of the area's soaring rents, Seals says. There are few apartments or houses available in town — most of them taken by oilmen — and what is available is priced exorbitantly high, he says.
So the district took the unusual step of transforming a former football field it owned into a trailer park where new hires can live temporarily. The district has lost school bus drivers, janitors and maintenance workers to more lucrative jobs in the oilfields, Seals says.
"The boom has provided many blessings but also many challenges," he says.
With the new cash and access to technology, the schools have implemented a project-based learning program that encourages students to draw lessons from their educational apps on their iPads. It's been difficult getting some of the older teachers to embrace the new system, says Cynthia Flores-Perkins, principal at Ramirez-Burks Elementary.
Her school has hired a new teacher at every grade level except prekindergarten and is buying all school supplies for each student — usually a $50 expense for parents. Flores-Perkins says she hopes the new tools and resources will help students reach their goals: better test scores, higher graduation rates, better preparation for college. But she knows money can't buy everything.
"Parent involvement is still not there," Flores-Perkins says. "The boom hasn't changed that."
Ochoa, the reading teacher, is one of the recent hires, arriving two years ago from a public school in San Antonio. She says she was happily surprised to see how technology was integrated into the curriculum, more so than in her former big-city school. Her students here are more engaged and excited to be wired in, and they've even taught her a few things about iPads and apps. Students use educational apps to research projects and put together books using online programs.
Of her 13 years of teaching, the Cotulla reading class has been the most exciting, she says.
"It's been like, 'Wow,'" Ochoa says. "Small town but high tech."