State policies have amounted to an effort to dismantle inner-city urban schools, and Waco Independent School District is in the midst of a push to avoid that fate, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said Saturday.
“You ask yourself, what would happen in Waco, Texas, if you close (G.W.) Carver (Middle School) and you close Indian Spring (Middle School)? Where are those kids going to go to school?” Nelson said. “What they want me to do, is they want me to put those kids on a bus, like we did in the ’50s.
“I’m telling you right now, we’re going to build 30 portables at the back of Tennyson (Middle School). Not two. Not four. Thirty. … It’s going to be separate and unequal. It won’t happen on my watch. We have to improve instruction and we have to improve it now.”
Nelson expressed his frustration, with political leaders pushing for school choice at the expense of public schools and with an ever-changing state accountability system, during a pubic meeting attended by more than 50 parents, community leaders, residents and district employees at J.H. Hines Elementary School. J.H. Hines is one of five Waco ISD schools that has failed state accountability standards for five years and is facing the possibility of closure.
Two meetings on a plan to save the five schools were held Saturday, and five more will be held Monday and Tuesday, before the school board votes on the plan Thursday. The plan will then be sent to the state by March 1 for final approval.
Nelson described the effort as a solution for equal education in Waco ISD. The plan includes individualized instruction, grade-level realignment, early childhood centers, a districtwide literacy plan and a new in-district charter partnership with the nonprofit Prosper Waco.
Nelson is also pushing a blended learning model that would put tablets or laptops in every Waco ISD student’s hands and allow for lessons to be paced to fit each student’s needs.
The blended model could cost millions, and the district is still looking for a way to fund the idea, he said.
“I am unusually committed to leveling the playing field for our kids in their access to technology,” Nelson said, referring to suburban districts where students have access to tablets or laptops. “But I’m also old school, and I believe the answer to this problem is found in quality instruction.”
Waco ISD officials have been meeting on a weekly basis with Texas Education Agency officials to address the fate of the schools, but the experience has been confusing to say the least, Nelson said.
“I’m so frustrated that with expectations as high as I have them, that we’re not hitting the mark. And there are a lot of reasons we’re not, but we can’t blame parents because these children come to us and we’re responsible for what they bring to us,” school board member Angela Tekell said. “Whether their parents aren’t home or whether they’re taking care of kids or whatever their situation, that’s our responsibility and we’re accountable to that. And we have high expectations for all of them. I’m frustrated we are where we are, and I have to say I’m so angry at the position we’ve been put in by our Texas legislature.”
If Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines, G.W. Carver and Indian Spring fail again, the district would fine tune its plan during the 2018-19 school year and implement major changes by fall 2019, Nelson said. The district will not know if the campuses met standard until August.
The schools face closure under a 2015 law, and a law passed last summer gives districts a chance at a two-year extension by surrendering the schools to an outside charter school system or partnering with a local nonprofit to build an in-district charter system.
Waco ISD is the only district in this situation pursuing a partnership with a nonprofit, Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk said during the meeting.
Because Prosper Waco collaborates efforts with 700 nonprofits in the area, wrap-around services for students could be far-reaching, Nelson said.
Almost a third of Waco ISD students finish each school year at a different school than they start the year, which can make monitoring instruction and coordinating services difficult, he said.
“We’re going to wrap services around every kid to make sure 100 percent of them are successful,” Nelson said. “We have not done this today, not like we’re about to do it. … Public schools can’t be social service agencies, but we can partner with them.”
The district has also reorganized instructional strategies, with more rigorous questioning and required writing each day and is emphasizing improvements in other academic programs, including special education, gifted and talented, career and technology, fine arts and athletics, he said.
“We’ve really tried to organize ourselves in a way that no matter how the accountability standards continue to increase and continue to change, we have a set of instructional strategies that will never change,” Nelson said.
As Nelson opened the floor for feedback, attendees brought up similar issues mentioned at community meetings in October and November, including the need for more parent involvement, holding teachers accountable and building trust among community members hurt by previous decisions.
“As a parent, your fight is never over for your child, and the thing about it is, there’s still time left,” J.H. Hines third-grade parent Suzie Sanders said. “If our kids are not where they need to be, I’d hate to see what that would look like in next 10 years. I take my child serious, and I believe all y’all here do, too. All we need to do is pull together to get these kids where they need to be. Don’t leave it just on administration to do.”
Nelson mandated Parent-Teacher Association programs this year for the schools that did not have them. Prosper Waco board member Ramona Curtis said district officials should adapt the way they approach parent-involvement opportunities to meet the needs of parents who cannot make regular meetings.
“We have to think about how we engage our parents, but we also have think about who are our parents. They’re foster care folks, they’re cousins, uncles and aunties, play uncles, play cousins and aunties,” Curtis said. “It looks different guys, so to ask a parent to come, you must catch the parents where they are. Some are working. Some have struggles, and the last thing they can think about is helping somebody with some homework because they’re worried where they’re going to live tomorrow.”
Nelson said the TEA will start rolling out a letter-grade rating system for districts and schools next year, and the metrics include the number of economically disadvantaged students. Among other issues with the system, being economically disadvantaged should not be a factor in determining a student’s ability to succeed, Nelson said. He also briefly mentioned his own experience with poverty as a child.
“If you close Carver and Indian Spring, those ZIP codes where those schools sit, it’ll become a vacant facility, crime laden and full of vagrants right next to Estella Maxey,” Nelson said. “There’s a factory right behind Carver, and they closed it. Now you want to close the school right next to a housing project? That’s going to bring our city down. We must do this, and we must do this with energy and enthusiasm.”