Life coach Maya Cotton invited a group of graduation candidates to take a break from their studies and join her in a circle. Outside, the city of Odessa and the oilfields of West Texas spread out far below the 6th floor conference room.
Inside Acceleration Academies of Ector County, Cotton asked the young people to ponder a tough but — to many of them — familiar question.
“What are some of the things that people struggle with that they can not changed?” she asked. “Can someone relate to that — that there’s something about you physically that you can not change? Some people are judged on the daily by things they can not change.”
The young learners nodded in agreement and joined Cotton in ticking off physical characteristics like skin color, body shape, facial features or physical abilities and disabilities. The conversation broadened to include other differences: wealth or lack thereof, academic or athletic achievement, social ease or chronic anxiety.
“What are some of the things we can do to embrace or accept our differences?” she asked.
Young people enroll at Ector Acceleration Academies for a broad range of reasons, all united by a common thread — they need a school where differences are valued rather than scorned.
Along with her fellow educators, Cotton works had to make EAA such a place.
“I get to be there and be that smiling face — to say, although it’s your second try or your third try, it’s not over,” says Cotton. “This is a fresh start. Where you are right now, you can go anywhere you want to go; we just have to set goals.”
Cotton grew up in Canyon, home to West Texas A&M University. Her mother worked as a child protective services social worker, her father as the pastor of a Baptist church. She grew up in a family where taking care of children was a sacred value.
“Taking in people, that’s what I grew up doing,” says Cotton.
She followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a social worker and working for a time in a kidney dialysis center, helping patients and their familiies navigate the logistical, medical and emotional challenges of chronic illness. Her husband and high school sweetheart, J.T. Cotton, worked alongside her as a dialysis technician.
The Covid pandemic made the dialysis work even more challenging and, after it subsided, she and J.T. decided to try something new. They moved to Odessa, where he began working as a firefighter and she joined EAA, which works in partnership with the Ector County Independent School District to provide a flexible, personalized path to graduation for learners who have not found success in traditional settings.
At EAA, Cotton is clearly in her element. As life coach, she regularly checks in with students and helps them navigate the personal and academic challenges that can get in the way of their goals. She also routinely organizes themed activities to help them build a bridge between their high school studies and life beyond — such as Thriving Thursdays, when people come in from the community to help GCs explore college and career options, craft resumes and find paid on-the-job training opportunities.
Many of the young learners are trying to move beyond past traumas and their own poor choices, and to chart a brighter path. “This is something they need for their future. They have the power to change and own their success.”
Change can be hard, but Cotton greets each young person with a genuine warmth and a 1,000-watt smile. Those who are dealing with teen parenthood, food insecurity, addiction and other issues know Cotton will offer a listening ear and helpful advice.
Sometimes poor choices — underage vaping, disruptive actions — require a response at the academy. Cotton invites the GCs to participate in restorative conferences, in which they take responsibility for their choices and undertake a plan to make amends.
“When our students make poor choices, it’s saying ‘How do we restore this relationship,’ ” Cotton explains. “It helps them make better choices — ‘How can I do better?’ ”
If GCs need help outside the school such as mental health counseling or parenting help, Cotton connects them with community and school district resources. She also helps them build a “dream team” — family, friends, caring adults — who will support them on their journey to the diploma many had thought out of reach.
The dream team includes Cotton.
“To help give them a newfound hope is really rewarding,” says Cotton, flashing her trademark smile. “They realize, ‘I can do this!’ ”
‘This is something they need for their future. They have the power to change and own their success’
— Life coach Maya Cotton