When fifth-grade teacher Jo Spark joined Alta Vista Elementary School in August 2012, the atmosphere was chaotic, she said.
The campus had just changed from a magnet school, where people applied to come and parents were regularly involved, to a standard campus, and working parents found it more difficult to attend school functions, Spark said.
“My daughter-in-law taught here, and I had attended several things that happened during her tenure here, and was amazed at the amount of parental involvement and the level of interest in this school being a showcase for Waco,” Spark said. “But we changed attendance zones, and we changed from being the magnet school. We changed administration. We had almost an entirely new faculty, and we had a new student body.”
The school met state standards regularly for 16 years, but it has failed for the last five years, according to Texas Education Agency records.
The last year of the Alta Vista magnet school was also the last year for a total of nine Waco ISD schools. Their closures were prompted by cuts in state education funding. A Tribune-Herald review of Waco ISD state academic accountability records back to 1995 shows those nine closures coincide with a marked change in state rating trends for a handful of the remaining schools impacted by the change.
Between 1995 and 2011, only two Waco ISD schools failed state standard more than two years in a row.
Today, the district has six campuses that have struggled to meet state standards for three or more consecutive years. Five have failed at least five years in a row and face the possibility of closure next year if they fail again.
Officials said the 2012 closures are by no means the only factor contributing to the status of the six struggling schools, and some pushed back at connecting the two. All but one of the six schools have seen high principal turnover in recent years, and a new statewide academic accountability system was also implemented in 2012.
Waco ISD Board President Pat Atkins, who has been on the board since 2002, said the closures presented difficulties.
“When you do that, you’re clearly increasing the size of attendance zones,” Atkins said. “You’re clearly moving parents farther away from their child’s campus. For families who live in poverty, where there are issues to access to transportation, you’re making it more difficult for parents to be engaged with their child’s teacher and on their student’s campus. We had to balance all that and recognize there were going to be some consequences with reducing the number of campuses in the district.”
In 2011, the state cut $5.4 billion in education funding tied to funding increases in previous years, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said. The state faced a difficult budget picture in the wake of the Great Recession, and there have been education funding increases in years since, Birdwell said.
To make up for a reduction of about $6.8 million in state funding across two years, the district had no other choice but to look toward facilities, Atkins said.
“As a district, we made the decision we weren’t going to lay off any staff. We weren’t going to cut extracurricular programs for students. We weren’t going to cut salaries,” Atkins said. “When you say you’re not going to cut salaries, you’ve taken almost 80 percent of the budget off the table from the beginning. When you’re looking at the other 20 percent, a lot of it is student programming, so you say, ‘OK, we’re not going to impact fine arts, special ed, Gifted and Talented, athletics,’ so those programs come off the table. Then you see most of what you have left is facilities.”
Former Superintendent Bonny Cain, who started in 2011 and left the district this year, said at the time that the closures were the best way to deal with a “bad situation with no way out.”
“Undoubtedly the $5.4 billion budget cut to public education in 2011 was devastating. Since being elected in 2012, I have continuously worked each session to restore funding to our public education system in efforts to meet the increasing demands placed on our schools and to meet enrollment growth needs,” State Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station.
Birdwell, Kacal and State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, each praised ongoing efforts by Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson and the community to support Waco ISD schools and avert closure of the schools on the bubble.
The funding cuts “unmasked a scenario of inefficient operations,” Anderson said.
With facilities filled to 74 percent of capacity, the board voted to close and merge several campuses, which expanded attendance zones for some of the five campuses now on the verge of closing, according to district attendance zone maps between 2010 and 2017.
“We basically moved away from what had been a long-standing policy in this district of support of small neighborhood schools,” Atkins said. “We felt like that was the best model, particularly at the elementary level, because of budget cuts in Austin.”
But Atkins questioned the link between 2012’s closures and today’s ratings struggles. It is certainly not clear-cut, he said.
For one, there has been high turnover of principals at the troubled schools in recent years.
Between 2011 and 2017, four of the five schools at risk of closing next year had three to four principal changes, district data shows.
“Did the turnover in campus leadership on a regular basis impact student outcomes? I don’t know,” Atkins said. “Are you better giving a principal more time to establish culture on a campus and get staff, parents and students to understand their system and buy into it? Or is the administration charged with making a change when they truly believe this particular principal, no matter how long they have, won’t be able to get the job done?
A direct comparison between 2011 and 2017 is also muddied by the state’s switch in 2012 from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness as a gauge for academic accountability.
The state changed accountability systems once and state assessments twice between 2002 and 2013, Atkins said.
When the TEA gave the first ratings for the new system in 2013, the number of campuses statewide considered unacceptable or improvement required went from 530, or 6.2 percent, in 2011 to 768, or 9 percent, state data shows. Waco ISD went from eight campuses rated unacceptable in 2011 to nine in 2013, state records show. In 2010, Waco ISD had two campuses rated unacceptable.
About 80 percent of Waco ISD’s 15,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged. Since the schools closed in 2012, only Alta Vista has seen a marked increase in its population of economically disadvantaged students, jumping from 85 percent in 2011 to 94 percent last year.
But the direct correlation between the high number of economically disadvantaged students and performance cannot be ignored, Atkins said.
Spark said teaching at Alta Vista, she quickly learned how money struggles can reach the classroom.
“I didn’t have some of the economic struggles some did. I was very blessed with a husband who had a good job, and I didn’t have to worry about if I had enough gas in my car to get (to a school event),” Spark said. “I remember the first year we opened. Parents would come in and say, ‘I’ve got to have my kid. I don’t have enough gas in my car to sit in this line for an hour.’ I’ve never thought about that. It’s 102 degrees, and they’ve got other children in the car. Those struggles are real for working families. A lot of them don’t have but one car.”
Though she’ll tell you she’s no expert, the difference between a campus passing and failing state standards could come down to how one student is handling outside circumstances, especially if a student is more worried about where they are going to get food for the day than homework.
“If I look at the kids I have, I can see some growth in them every year. We can’t do anything about what happened yesterday or last year,” Spark said. “But every year we start out saying, these are the problems we saw last year, these are the kids who struggled last year. What are we going to do to help them?”
Poverty nothing new
But poverty has long been an issue in Waco, and it shouldn’t be an excuse for why students continue to struggle or the five campuses ratings failures, Brook Oaks Neighborhood Association leaders said.
“I can dispel that right now,” President Robert Jackson said. “The poverty situation doesn’t equate ignorance. Those same kids recognized at Brook back then came from low-income, Section 8 apartments, but they were recognized. They were in a poverty situation.”
Jackson and Vice President Sammy Smith have led the association for about 25 years and have seen their neighborhood school Brook Avenue Elementary and others decline, they said. They host regular monthly meetings and have reached out to the campus to offer help, they said.
Brook Avenue has failed it meet state accountability ratings for six years. Prior to 2011, Brook Avenue only failed to meet state accountability standards twice, in 2007 and 2005.
Since the campus closures, Brook Avenue’s attendance zone has been tweaked, but not changed significantly in geographic size. Still, there has been a disconnect between the community and its school since that time, Jackson said.
Before the closures, Brook Avenue had an active parent-teacher association and a campus decision-making counsel of teachers, parents and business partners. Both groups are now almost non-existent, they said.
Four principal changes since 2011 have prevented any sense of stability, Jackson said.
“I don’t think they had an accurate plan in place to deal with the funding cuts,” he said. “They knew they had to do it, but I don’t think it was accurate. They didn’t look at the long-term impact it was going to have. If we close these nine schools, is it going to cause this? Or is it going to cause that? Nobody had a long-range plan for how it was going to affect the remaining schools.”
Smith said he has not seen any accountability for board members representing the struggling schools today. Some members represent specific areas and others are elected districtwide. Smith served on the board years prior to the 2012 consolidation, he said.
“Children need consistency. They need consistency with support for them, and encouragement for them. Those two things, OK?” Smith said. “If they don’t get it at home, and they aren’t getting it at school, what are you going to expect? You point a finger at home, but you’ve got to point a finger at school, too.”
Waco ISD has spent thousands on efforts to support economically disadvantaged students in years past. And in the last few months, officials have ramped up community outreach efforts and opportunities, increased the number of volunteers and community partners and held community meetings to encourage feedback. Support and parent engagement has grown at both Alta Vista and Brook Avenue throughout the last year, with principals at both campuses offering more teacher training and events to help parents.
And recently, the district has announced it is leaning toward building an in-district charter school system with Prosper Waco to collaborate on wrap-around services in an effort to keep the five campuses open another two years if they fail again.
The plan must be approved by the TEA in March, before students finish state exams in May. If the state allows the district to operate under the plan, Waco ISD could avoid closing more campuses or replacing the school board after scores come out in August.
If the campuses all pass in May, the alternative plan won’t need to be enforced. But if the state refuses the plan, and the campuses fail, the closure could mean more devastation to low income neighborhoods, Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk said.
“That’s really the chicken and the egg piece of it. School quality is so often correlated with the level of economic disadvantaged students in those schools because of the need those students have, not because they’re not capable,” Polk said. “Then really, the only way to best improve the schools is to dilute the level of need, right?”
Economic development in Waco’s core and making the inner city more attractive to young families that will boost district enrollment that has been flat for years will also help, he said.
Whatever got Waco ISD to this point, the district is capable of scoring better, Atkins said.
“Was it the turnover in campus leadership that brought about some schools consistently having difficulty meeting the standard? Is it the closing and consolidation of campuses? Is it, frankly, a continuously rising standard of a much more difficult test than what we’ve given in the past?” Atkins said. “I don’t know if I’m in a position to say which one of those factors was the largest contributing factor. I will say this: There are districts with high levels of poverty that are scoring much better than we are on the test, so it can be done.”
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has approved a plan to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, a long-awaited move that deepens America’s involvement in the military conflict and may further strain relations with Russia. Moscow responded angrily on Saturday.
The new arms include American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, U.S. officials said late Friday. Ukraine has long sought to boost its defenses against Russian-backed separatists armed with tanks that have rolled through eastern Ukraine during violence that has killed more than 10,000 since 2014. Previously, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with support equipment and training, and has let private companies sell some small arms like rifles.
The officials describing the plan weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly and demanded anonymity.
The move is likely to become another sore point between Washington and Moscow, as President Donald Trump contends with ongoing questions about whether he’s too hesitant to confront the Kremlin. Ukraine accuses Russia of sending the tanks, and the U.S. says Moscow is arming, training and fighting alongside the separatists.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S. decision will only make the conflict more deadly and suggested that Russia could be forced to respond. He also said the U.S. can no longer cast itself as a mediator. “It’s not a mediator. It’s an accomplice in fueling the war,” Ryabkov said in a statement.
The intensified support for Ukraine’s military also comes amid early discussions about sending U.N. peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine, to improve security conditions not only for Ukrainians but for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who are on the ground.
The U.S. and other nations were cautiously optimistic when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to send in peacekeepers. But there are major disagreements about how and where the peacekeepers would operate, especially about whether they’d be deployed only on the “line of conflict” between separatists and the government. The U.S. and Ukraine want peacekeepers deployed throughout the separatist-controlled regions stretching to the Ukraine-Russia border.
By approving a plan to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, the Trump administration could see it as providing leverage in these negotiations. While some are skeptical about Putin’s proposal, others suggest he may be looking for a way out of the conflict. Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary general of NATO and a former ambassador to Moscow, said a U.N. peacekeeping mission could serve as cover for Russia to withdraw its forces and weapons from eastern Ukraine.
Trump had been considering the plan for some time after the State Department and the Pentagon signed off earlier this year. President Barack Obama also considered sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, but left office without doing so.
The State Department, responsible for overseeing foreign military sales, would not confirm that anti-tank missiles or other lethal weapons would be sent. But in a statement late Friday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. had decided to provide “enhanced defensive capabilities” to help Ukraine build its military long-term, defend its sovereignty and “deter further aggression.”
“U.S. assistance is entirely defensive in nature, and as we have always said, Ukraine is a sovereign country and has a right to defend itself,” Nauert said.
The White House’s National Security Council declined to comment.
Although the portable Javelin anti-tank missiles can kill, proponents for granting them to Ukraine have long argued they are considered “defensive” because the Ukrainians would use them to defend their territory and deter the Russians, not to attack a foreign country or seize new territory.
In thanking the U.S. for its support, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed the concerns over how the weapons would be used.
“American weapons in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers are not for an offensive, but for a decisive rebuff of the aggressor, the protection of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, as well as for effective self-defense,” he wrote on Facebook. “It is also a trans-Atlantic vaccination against the Russian virus of aggression.”
Under law, the State Department must tell Congress of planned foreign military sales, triggering a review period in which lawmakers can act to stop the sale. It was unclear whether the administration had formally notified Congress, but lawmakers are unlikely to try to block it given that Democrats and Republicans alike have long called on the government to take the step.
The move comes as the United States and European nations struggle to break a long logjam in the Ukraine-Russia conflict that erupted three years ago when fighting broke out between Russian-backed separatists and government troops in the east. France, Russia and Germany brokered a peace arrangement in 2015 that has lowered violence but not stopped it, and a political settlement outlined in the deal hadn’t been fully implemented.
In recent days, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned that violence is up about 60 percent this year. In Europe earlier this month, Tillerson called Russia’s involvement the biggest tension point between the former Cold War rivals.
“It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us renormalizing the relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do,” Tillerson said.
Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration had expressed concerns in the past that injecting more weapons into the conflict was unlikely to resolve it, especially considering that Russia is well-equipped to respond to any Ukrainian escalation with an even stronger escalation of its own. Sending lethal weapons to Ukraine also creates the troubling possibility that American arms could kill Russian soldiers, a situation that could thrust the two nuclear-armed nations closer to direct confrontation.
The United States, under Obama, also imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion and annexation of Crimea. The Trump administration has insisted those sanctions will stay in place until Moscow gives up the Crimean Peninsula.
A three-century period of intellectual, cultural and political turmoil spawned seeds of belief found today in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with multiple echoes seen in the Christmas story, according to a Baylor University historian.
Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, said ideas of angels, a non-military messiah, and heaven — all parts of the Christmas story heard each year at this time — can trace their beginning and development to Palestine during a period between 300 and 50 B.C.
“It was a great era of globalization,” Jenkins said in a recent phone interview from his home in State College, Pennsylvania, where he splits his time with Waco during the Baylor school year.
The Greeks under Alexander the Great had spread and established their culture wherever they went, integrating their conquests into an economy that connected large regions of territory, he said.
Palestine, the land in which Jesus grew up, fell within what Jenkins calls the Hellenistic Triangle whose vertices were centers of Greek thought and trade: Antioch, Alexandria and Seleucia.
Jewish scholars and scribes scattered throughout that area found their beliefs confronted by not only new thoughts from other religions and philosophies, but also Greek concepts of science and learning. Some stretched their beliefs to incorporate those ideas and stories, while others became more rigid in their orthodoxy.
“There’s a real cultural and spiritual revolution in that period,” Jenkins said.
Power struggles over territory in the decades after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. — primarily between the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic dynasties, with Rome coming to dominate both — and popular revolts against those ruling powers made ripe conditions for cultural and theological ferment, captured in the title of Jenkins’ newest history, “Crucible Of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World.”
Jewish books and writings from that period, some preserved in the Apocrypha found between the Old and New Testaments in many Bibles, show the development of new ideas on angels and demons, Satan, heaven, hell, a messiah and a final apocalypse between good and evil, Jenkins said.
The Book of 1 Enoch, written in approximately the second century B.C., proved a pivotal work, particularly in its description of supernatural beings and existence.
“The angels of the Old Testament are different than those in the New Testament period. They’re more of a generic figure, serving as God’s voice,” Jenkins said. “They don’t have individual identities and they don’t have names. … But with the Book of Enoch, you’re dropped into this world of angels and demons, heaven and hell.”
Angels in Enoch and subsequent writings have names — Uriel, Gabriel, Raphael, Ariel and the like — as well as specific duties and identities. Why? Part of the reason may come from the strengthening of the Jewish belief in one God, or monotheism, during that period, Jenkins said. As the concept of an all-powerful God grew, so did the distance between that God and humankind, causing some to fill that space with intermediaries or messengers, he said.
By the time the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, the two New Testament books with the stories of Jesus’ birth, angels were fairly established in popular Jewish belief. In Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity accounts, “angels are everywhere,” Jenkins said. Angels deliver messages to Mary, the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, Joseph and the shepherds tending their flocks at night.
Also in circulation at the time were concepts of one or more messiahs to deliver the Jewish people. Writings from the Qumran community in the second century B.C., many contained in what is termed the Dead Sea Scrolls, show a vigorous discussions of the idea of a messiah, apocalyptic struggles between good and evil, a heaven where the good were rewarded and a hell where the wicked were punished.
“The picture in the New Testament is less surprising than we might think,” the Baylor scholar said.
Political violence in the two centuries before Jesus also provide an interesting context to the birth of the Prince of Peace. Many may know of the Jewish revolt of the Maccabees against a Seleucid government in 160 B.C., an event celebrated in the holiday of Hannukah, but a smaller yet bloody uprising occurred near Galilee in 4 B.C. — a time that some historians believe may be closer to Jesus’ actual birth.
“It’s possible that Jesus was born in one of the most bloody and chaotic times of Jewish history,” Jenkins said.
While historians haven’t confirmed Herod’s slaughter of infants that Matthew recounts, what is known about Herod makes it plausible, he said. Herod not only saw himself as a Jewish king, but as a Greek and Roman one as well, and was not above killing family and court officials to maintain control.
“It’s absolutely in the style of what he did to his relatives and family,” Jenkins said.
The suggestions of Jesus as a new or second Adam, found in the Apostle Paul’s letters to early Christians, also have roots in Jenkins’ crucible period.
“Adam and Eve aren’t mentioned in the Bible (after the creation account in Genesis) until Paul,” he said. “Around 200 BCE, people start writing a huge amount about Adam and God.”
He said the apocryphal book “The Life of Adam and Eve” proved one of the most influential books of that period, and many of the ideas in that book, such as the tempting serpent equated with Satan and Satan’s fall from heaven due to sin, show up in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and popular Christian belief.
Jenkins’ “Crucible Of Change” followed from his last book, “The Lost Gospels,” in which he traced the long influence of Jewish and Christian books outside the standard Jewish, Catholic and Protestant canons on Christian belief and tradition.
“There are dozens and dozens of books written in this (Crucible) period, but most people who aren’t scholars don’t pay any attention to this,” Jenkins said.
The prolific Baylor scholar won’t have to travel as far for source material on his next book, a history of the United States since 2000.
“This is literally a story you’re making up as you go along,” he said. “The good thing is you have all the information in the world. The bad thing is you have all the information in the world.”
Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors, one of the largest and most influential real estate agencies in Waco, has been sold to a Dallas-based real estate powerhouse that will enjoy $1.6 billion in projected sales this year and operates 16 offices in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Coldwell Banker Apex President Lori Arnold, confirmed Friday the company has joined forces with its counterpart in Waco that employs about 50 agents and whose commercial division includes such high-profile performers as Bland Cromwell, Brad Davis and Gregg Glime, who is involved in several development projects downtown.
The merger will create the ninth-largest Coldwell Banker operation in the United States and the largest owned by a woman, Arnold said. Real estate tracking website Real Trends ranked the agency 181st on its most recent list of the 500 largest real estate firms in the U.S. based on sales.
“My relationship with the Waco office is very old, and we will work together to accomplish great things,” Arnold said. “Jim Stewart and I go back to his early days. He was a wonderful man, very encouraging when we started out as just a small company, one office with five agents.”
Stewart, who died in February, formed Jim Stewart Realtors in 1970, and it became the dominant real estate firm in Greater Waco, attracting the attention of and becoming part of Coldwell Banker in 1999.
Arnold said management of the Waco office will not change under the ownership of Coldwell Banker Apex, adding the two companies already have a close working relationship in that they often share information and make referrals when clients move between the Dallas area and Waco.
“Kathy Schroeder and I have known each other for 20 years, and we talk to each other two or three times a month,” Arnold said, referring to the Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors staffer who oversees residential services. “During our first month together, I’m already seeing more back-and-forth between agents, the synergy we were hoping to achieve.”
Arnold said in 1990 she assumed ownership of the company her parents founded, and it joined the Coldwell Banker system in 1993. It has steadily grown to 635 agents, with acquisition of the Waco agency.
“I’m very excited about the transaction. I think it will bring a whole new energy, cutting-edge technology and marketing that will create all kinds of benefits to sellers,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder, Davis, Cromwell, Earl Patrick and Steve Cunningham, all partners in Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors, approved the sale of the company to the Apex unit, according to Cromwell and Davis.
“I think it’s exciting, but also bittersweet,” said Cromwell, a 41-year veteran of the local real estate scene and a perennial leader in brokered commercial and industrial sales among Coldwell Banker agents nationwide. “I think Jim (Stewart) would be happy, and that’s most important.
“We’re basically being folded into a larger company, giving us access to a larger network while maintaining the status quo when it comes to management and keeping the name, which will not change.”
Davis said Arnold has done a remarkable job of growing the reach of her enterprise, with her energy and knack for elevating the performance of those around her. He said the sale was a mutual decision among the parties, which know and respect the values of each other.
Arnold said her son, Josh Arnold, attended Baylor University, receiving undergraduate, MBA and law degrees there. Her daughter-in-law, Natalie Arnold, also graduated from Baylor and now serves as marketing director for Coldwell Banker Apex, Arnold said.
Arnold described Waco as a “nice, strong market” that often mirrors Dallas in housing trends, “which should prove to be a real advantage when it comes to sharing information among our agents.”
“It’s always nice to see what happens first,” she said. “Dallas tends to mirror states out West, and agents I knew in Las Vegas tipped me off to the housing downturn of 2007, which happened there first.”
She said agents affiliated with her company will broker sales on about 6,500 properties this year, with exact figures available in two weeks. Transactions have a value of about $1.6 billion, up from $1.2 billion in the top-500 ranking compiled by Real Trends.
Arnold confirmed that her company, in a separate transaction, bought the office building that Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors occupies at Valley Mills and Waco drives.