Waco Independent School District has about 90 days to come up with a game plan to address five struggling schools, or the state could take it to mean the district isn’t pursuing its options for keeping the campuses open next school year, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson announced Monday night.

“This is more important than anything you want to talk about in Waco,” Nelson said. “What we’re doing to deal with our inner-city schools is the most important thing we should think about in the terms of the future of our city.”

Because of a law passed in 2015, Waco ISD is one of at least four large school districts in Texas with four or more campuses facing closure in 2018, according to the Houston Chronicle. But a law passed this year gives those districts a chance to come up with an alternative plan, and Waco ISD has until February, Nelson said. He rolled out several ideas to residents Monday during the first of three community meetings about issue.

Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School have failed state academic standards for five consecutive years or more, the state’s legal threshold to close a campus.

If the five schools don’t meet state accountability ratings in May, the 2015 law requires the campuses to close or the district’s elected school board to be replaced with state appointees, according to a recent warning letter Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent the district. But Texas Education Agency officials recently told the district replacing the school board isn’t an option because the board is doing what it should, Nelson said.

This means the future of the district relies on whatever plan the school board can approve by January under the new law and submit to the state for approval by late February, spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.

Under the new law, Waco ISD can repurpose schools with a new campus ID number, effectively making them new schools, create partnerships with a for-profit charter school or create a partnership with a nonprofit group, DeBeer said.

But partnering with a charter school is off the table, too, Nelson said.

“If you’ve heard about the privatization of public education, here it is,” Nelson said. “Five schools go to a charter network and no longer report to this board of trustees. … We would reduce our budget by all those teachers, all those kids, and in my humble opinion, begin the end of Waco ISD.”

This summer, Nelson and board President Pat Atkins were informed by state officials that if the district gave the five schools to charters, the district would receive $3 million per school to fund the transition, DeBeer said. Half the money would come from TEA and half from the U.S. Department of Education, he said.

If the TEA approves partnering with a nonprofit, the commissioner isn’t allowed to do anything to the school during its first year in the partnership, which could possibly give the campuses two years of leeway to improve scores, DeBeer said.

“Closing schools is not an option for me. It will never be recommended from my office to the board of trustees that we just close schools and deal with them,” Nelson said. “I’m looking at our principals already, and they can tell you, that only leaves one option. That’s for us to make it.”

The five campuses serve an estimated total of 2,400 students. The district is also considering making both middle schools single-gender campuses, creating a sixth grade center and realigning J.H. Hines and South Waco Elementary to serve prekindergarten through second grade, while Alta Vista and Brook Avenue could be realigned to serve third through fifth grade, Nelson said.

Terrill Saxon, Baylor University School of Education interim dean, asked Nelson what tools he implemented in Laredo ISD, before Nelson started with Waco ISD in June. When Nelson left, none of Laredo ISD’s campuses had improvement-required ratings for state academic standards, despite being 97 percent economically disadvantaged, according to TEA records. Waco ISD is more than 80 percent economically disadvantaged.

Nelson acknowledged districts across the state use some of the same classroom learning procedures he used in Laredo. Waco also has some of its own challenges that other districts don’t face, he said.

“I would build a case in four months in this beautiful city there’s no place like Waco,” Nelson said. “Some of the turbulence, some of the drama, so to speak, is fierce here and you’re having to overcome all of that. A lot of people in our city know what’s going on in WISD. They just don’t care.”

Nelson encouraged anyone at the meeting who might have a better idea to reach out. The district is open to any possibility before January, he said. Of almost 70 people at the first meeting, about 10 spoke out, including community members, state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver.

“I think it’s very exciting about the possibility of a sixth-grade center,” Anderson said. “It would take away so much of the stress these kids have. … And then the single-gender, if the school board were to adopt that, I think it would take a lot of the stress off, also.”

Parents and community members also suggested more volunteers and tutoring initiatives to help with reading and math scores. Others suggested establishing stronger parent-teacher associations and bridging relationships between other successful schools in the district.

Another asked what principals of the five campuses need today, next week or even a month from now to help them improve schools. Principals and Nelson echoed the suggestions of other attendees, including bringing in more mentors, having positive supporters and math and reading tutors, and finding incentives to increase attendance rates.

Students complete state standardized tests in the spring, but the district won’t get results until about mid-August, which is when Morath could announce his decision, DeBeer said. If the campuses meet standard, the re-purposing plan won’t matter, DeBeer said.

“This is serious. We’ve got to improve student outcomes, and it’s going to be uncomfortable for every kid, every family, every teacher and every principal we got, as it should be.” Nelson said. “We don’t want a community that has several chronically low-performing schools. Our community is better than that.”

The district will hold two more community meetings, both of which start at 6 p.m. The next will be Monday at the City of Waco Multi-Purpose Facility, 1020 Elm St., and is expected to be moderated by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. The last will be Nov. 6 at the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 915 La Salle Ave.

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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