When Darmesha Hamilton-Walker, a Waco High School ninth-grader, stepped off her school bus and into Parkdale Elementary School for the first time, she was almost too nervous to go in.

With new friends and a new school, she said she didn’t know if she would fit in. It wasn’t because she was the new student on campus, but the side of town where she lived, she said.

As a fifth-grader, she was switching from J.H. Hines Elementary, an under-performing school that is also one of the most-segregated schools in the district, to Parkdale, which has a stronger reputation for academic success and a racial makeup closer to the district as a whole. The experience kept her on her toes, but it has also changed her future, Darmesha said.

“I made a lot of friends, and I enjoyed myself at Parkdale,” she said. “I even learned how to multiply better. At J.H. Hines, I wasn’t getting what they were saying and I couldn’t understand it. When my momma put me in Parkdale, they actually broke it down and showed me better ways and quicker ways to solve the problems.”

In 2012, Waco Independent School District trustees voted to start a busing program that would allow parents who live in the Estella Maxey public housing complex in East Waco to send their kids to higher-performing schools to better meet their academic needs. The complex is in the J.H. Hines attendance zone. The district added the program as it was redrawing attendance zones, and Darmesha and her sister Marianna Hamilton-Walker were some of the first students to join.

But interest in the program has since been on the decline, possibly because of a lack of communication and awareness, Estella Maxey residents said.

The neighborhood schools near Estella Maxey, one of Waco’s lowest-income areas, have been on the state’s improvement required list for multiple years. J.H. Hines has failed state standards five years in a row and could be facing closure if it doesn’t pass ratings this year.

It feeds into G.W. Carver Middle School, which has failed ratings four years in a row, and then to Waco High School, which was on the list for one year but came off last year, Texas Education Agency records show.

More than half of students at all three schools receive free or reduced-price lunches. J.H. Hines’ student population is almost 78 percent black, compared to 30 percent district wide, and G.W. Carver’s student population is 56 percent black, according to district records.

The bus program started with more than 100 students going to more academically successful elementary schools, including Mountainview, Crestview, Parkdale, Kendrick, Hillcrest, Provident Heights and Lake Waco Montessori School, at no cost to the families. Students who participate also stick with their peers at the chosen school when they move up to the junior high and high school levels.

But each year since it started, students have stopped opting into the program, said Rick Hartley, an area superintendent who oversees the program. Students typically hear about the option through word-of-mouth, Hartley said.

Participation was down to about 70 elementary students in 2014-15 and about 50 elementary students this year. The estimated cost is about $71,286 per year, or $260 per day, down from more than $100,000 before the district changed vendors two years ago, Hartley said.

‘Not close to home’

“One of the reasons we’ve seen a decrease in numbers is because it’s still not close to home. Some parents, they don’t want to have to drive across town if the child gets ill or they might have difficulties getting across town if the child gets ill,” Hartley said. “Parent nights, parent meetings, it’s more of a challenge to attend if they don’t have available transportation. We’ve had some parents choose to stay at their home school.”

Another reason could be optimism for J.H. Hines and the schools it feeds into, he said. School and community leaders have started doing a lot to support the schools, and all three schools in the feeder pattern have shown improvement in some areas of state assessments within the last year.

But the issue isn’t that parents may think it’s too difficult to send their children across town, Restoration Haven board president Shirley Langston said. It’s the fact that, up until last week, she didn’t even know the Estella Maxey program still existed, she said.

Langston started Restoration Haven to help at-risk communities, including Estella Maxey, grow into places of refuge and safety instead. Because her organization supports students, offers an after-school program and operates out of an apartment in the complex, Langston became an advocate to help spread the word about the program when it first started, she said.

But Langston said it has been a few years since she has even heard from the district. She also acknowledged her own lack of effort on the topic to pick up the phone or ask someone with the district whether it was still offered.

“It’s like communication is always a problem,” Langston said. “I don’t know why, but it’s just like we don’t get things communicated well in Waco. . . . To wait for parents to hear by word of mouth?

“I’m going to be honest with you, parents in this community don’t talk about education. I’m sorry, but they talk about, ‘How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to get my kids something to eat? How am I going to get them some shoes?’ I’m being realistic.”

However, Hartley said he communicates with Langston and Estella Maxey complex managers two or three times a year about the program, including this school year. He wasn’t sure why Langston thought the program had ended, but he reached out to Langston on Wednesday to resolve the issue. Officials with J.H. Hines wanted to wait to comment about the bus service because state testing was about to be underway, Waco ISD spokesperson Bruce Gietzen said.

Langston said it’ll take more than a phone call though, and felt like Estella Maxey made headway when the district first approached her with the idea. At the time, Estella Maxey and two other complexes were feeding students into J.H. Hines, she said. But there were more discipline referrals occurring than actual lessons in the classrooms, she said.

Langston said some of her work with school officials has slowed over the years, possibly because of negative perceptions of East Waco residents.

“The stigma most of the time is low income, people who live in poverty, people who are lazy and people who don’t want anything out of life,” Langston said. “But everybody in this community is not like that. That’s why I’m here. . . . To break that stigma, going to another school of choice, by performing and doing well so other people can say, ‘They came from East Waco, but look at them, they’re doing well.’ . . . That’s very important.”

That stigma reared its ugly head when residents and board members initially debated whether the program would unintentionally label students as less than they are worth, Langston and Hartley both recalled.

But integration is a proven method to raise students who are academically successful, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Achievement gaps for black students were at their narrowest in 1988, when schools were most integrated, according to the website.

While Waco ISD hasn’t analyzed overall academic success of a core group of students who have been part of bus service, state test scores for a group of the students improved between their third- and fourth-grade years. Fourth grade is the first critical benchmark exam for state testing in Texas.

And Marianna and Darmesha have learned more than they thought they ever would, from the moment their mother, Tomechia Hamilton, chose to put them on the bus, they said.

‘My grades improved’

“On my first day at Parkdale, I was kind of nervous, but I’m a person that’s not shy,” said Marianna, now a Tennyson Middle School eighth-grader. “And my grades improved a lot. I used to have B’s and C’s, now I’m A-B honor roll and I haven’t made one C this year.”

The environmental difference between the two elementary schools was drastic, the girls said. Since transferring, they have been able to get more one-on-one teaching, and for Marianna, who said she had some behavioral issues of her own, the change allowed her to settle down and focus. Both have been part of Langston’s after-school program for several years, they said.

“Marianna and Darmesha have always had the potential, but Darmesha kind of said it. When you’re in an environment where there’s a lot going on, with teachers constantly working with disciplinary problems, you don’t get to learn,” Langston said. “The teachers are focused more on the kids who are not trying to learn than the kids who are trying to learn. When they went to Parkdale and Tennyson, I noticed Marianna really try to start being a better student and reaching way deep on the inside of her to make the better choices and make the better grades.”

Both girls said even their higher-education dreams have changed because of the Estella Maxey bus program. Marianna found her talent in theater arts at one of her new schools and now wants to be an actor and attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., she said.

And Darmesha, who joined a JROTC program, wants to become part of the U.S. Air Force or go to Tarleton State University or Texas A&M University, she said.

The girls won’t stop riding anytime soon, they said. And though the number of students who ride with them has trickled off, they said they want more Estella Maxey residents to know what kind of change can happen if they ride the bus.

And more importantly, they wanted to thank district officials for the opportunity to overcome their circumstances, the girls said.

“You have benefited us. You have brought joy to my life because now I can better my education,” Darmesha said.

‘Thank you’

“Thank you for coming over here,” Marianna added. “They don’t have to do that. I realized this year that in sixth or seventh grade I wasn’t really worried about (school), but this year I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really doing good.’ If I would have stayed in a community and went to Carver or something, I wouldn’t act the way I act today.”

Since Wednesday, Hartley and Langston have been pulling together marketing materials for the Estella Maxey community to set a date for an informational community meeting about the program, including a new map that highlights the district’s feeder system and shows the program’s bus route, they said. They’re hoping to do something before next school year, Langston said.

In the meantime, Langston hopes the sisters will serve as role models of what can happen when people push for change, she said. Estella Maxey has about 200 children who are 5 years old right now, and the power of community change is more important than ever as new parents consider what educational options they have in front of them, she said.

“What do we do if our kids are not learning? We don’t leave them in a system that’s not learning,” Langston said. “We try to get them out where they can learn, but you can’t do that if you don’t know about it. People have to come to this community. These people are so isolated, and I don’t know if it’s this fear factor of (whether) something bad is going to happen to me, or whatever, but that’s not true.”

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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