As Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson reiterated his transformation plan to save five Waco Independent School District campuses from closure during the last in a series of community meetings this week, he continued to emphasize the need for community support.

This time, though, the call came with the backing of Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver, who said city officials are ready to lend a hand the minute Waco ISD officials ask.

“If those schools close, impacting those neighborhoods, that entire community, our entire community, will be devastated,” Deaver said during the meeting Tuesday at South Waco Elementary School. “We can’t let that happen.”

Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School face the possibility of closure under a 2015 law because each campus has failed to meet state standards for more than four years. The district is working on a turnaround plan under a law passed last summer to get a two-year extension.

The closures would hit about 2,400 students, the majority economically disadvantaged.

Deaver touted Nelson’s history of turning underperforming schools around and referred to Nelson’s time in Laredo ISD. Nelson spent eight years in Laredo before coming to Waco. During his time there, he oversaw nine schools that went from improvement required at the state level to meeting state standards, in a district with a student population that is 97 percent economically disadvantaged.

“The trustees have done their very best to bring the right man to Waco to do this job, and I believe we can get it done and I believe the partnership with Prosper Waco is a good idea,” Deaver said. “It’s a work in process. I don’t know what to do to help you, but the city is ready to help. All you’ve got to do is ask.”

The school board will vote on the transformation plan at Thursday’s 7 p.m. meeting , then send it to the state for final approval by March 1. If the schools meet standards in May, the plan will not be necessary, but elements may be implemented regardless, district spokesman Kyle DeBeer said last week.

The major changes in the plan, including grade-level campus realignment, individualized instruction, early childhood centers and s districtwide literacy plan would be implemented by fall 2019, Nelson said. The district will not know if the campuses met standard until August.

Nelson said Waco ISD students need support in ways that have not been provided before. The mechanism for that support could be a new in-district charter partnership with the nonprofit Prosper Waco.

“I firmly believe poverty is not an excuse for kids’ learning. I’m from poverty and I have four college degrees,” Nelson said. “I’m proud to tell that to any kid I meet. We do believe though that those kids need help. A lot of our kids come to school on a Monday morning, and a lot of them haven’t eaten since Friday. We have kids tell us, ‘It was my night to skip a meal in the family,’ so we’ve got to come up with some plans to help them.”

Prosper Waco collaborates with 700 local nonprofits to coordinate resources in McLennan County. With more than 80 percent of Waco ISD’s 15,000 students considered economically disadvantaged, focusing the efforts on Waco ISD could break all kinds of barriers, Nelson said. At least 30 percent of Waco ISD students need glasses but cannot afford them, and others simply need jackets on cold days while they wait for the bus.

“Given what we’ve got, given the resources we have, the people and the organizations we have in this community, we can do better with what we’ve got,” Prosper Waco Executive Director Matthew Polk said. “What it’s going to take is more talking to each other, more coordinating and more collaborating in smart ways we haven’t done before.”

By law, the partnership would give sole authority for Prosper Waco to operate the five campuses if they don’t meet standards, but Nelson said Waco ISD would continue to handle most of the managerial responsibilities. Nelson and Deaver both serve on the Prosper Waco board, as does school board President Pat Atkins.

Nelson said some teachers may have to move campuses if the plan is enforced, but layoffs are not anticipated. He said Waco ISD has quality teachers, and he believes the schools can meet standards this year.

“This, as you are well aware, is very, very important. Our task is large and we have been working on it for quite a period of time,” school board Vice President Allen Sykes said. “We’ve got many challenges we face, but I think all of us can agree that challenges will eventually drive opportunities. That’s what we need to see and take advantage of. I firmly believe as well that transformation will drive excellence, and that’s what we’re talking about.”

Thursday’s board meeting starts at 6 p.m. with a closed session at the Waco ISD Conference Center, 115 S. Fifth St. The open session starts at 7 p.m.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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