Waco Independent School District’s new superintendent, A. Marcus Nelson, said turning around seven campuses that have struggled with state accountability ratings will be one of his highest priorities.

Before coming to Waco, Nelson spent eight years as superintendent of Laredo ISD, and he said he hopes to stay in Waco even longer and finish out his educational career here.

“I’d anticipate that by year eight here, we’ll be known for student performance, and people will be coming from miles around to talk about how in 2017 we had seven improvement-required schools and in 2025, we have zero,” Nelson said. “Waco’s such a vibrant city, and right now we’re not known for our public schools. We’re known for HGTV and ‘Fixer Upper’ and Baylor.

“God bless all those exciting things, but over the next three to five years, we want to transform this city to where it’s known for the quality of its public education.”

Nelson, who is the first black man to lead the district as a permanent superintendent, might just have the professional history to accomplish that change. He came from a school district with 33 campuses and more than 25,000 students who were 97 percent economically disadvantaged to one with 26 campuses and more than 15,000 students who are about 85 percent economically disadvantaged.

And none of Laredo ISD’s campuses held improvement-required ratings for academic standards when Nelson left.

Nelson recently sat down for his first interview with the Tribune-Herald, a few days after addressing community members at a reception hosted by Waco’s NAACP and National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa Inc. chapters.

“Feedback from employees and other community people and leaders tell me now there is excitement in the air,” Waco ISD trustee Norman Manning said. “That will probably slow down, but he has some new ideas and energy he is bringing to the table, and I believe (what) he said: All will and can have a seat at the table.

Experience to draw on

“Most of all, let’s be mindful that will not happen overnight. I repeat this will not happen overnight. His priority and the board for now are the IR schools. . . . I have a feeling he is not a Band-Aid type person, otherwise, temporary fixes. One of the reasons he was hired was because he has done this before. So I am sure he will draw on his experience and adapt it to Waco ISD as needed.”

Nelson will look heavily at teacher quality, periodic assessments of educator performance, additional professional development and a supportive, open door policy for anyone who has a concern, he said.

“Really, it’s just good, old-fashioned hard work,” Nelson said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s really just a matter of being so dissatisfied with the fact that we haven’t done it yet.”

In his first 100 days, Nelson said he wants to meet whoever he can to establish relationships throughout his campuses. He’s also focused on district finances and approving a budget for the next school year within the next two months, he said.

He’s also focused on teacher retention, he said at the reception. If he needs to, he will take a hard look at the administration level first to make sure everyone making six figures is earning their paycheck, he said.

“I just think our Legislature has failed to fund public schools. When you understand that reality as I have for the last eight years I’ve been a superintendent, then you understand there’s no new money,” Nelson said. “This is not a difficult math equation. If you don’t get any new money, then why are you adding assistant superintendents, principals and counselors? Where is that going to come from?”

Nelson will be paid an annual salary of $272,000, and in Laredo ISD, he was known for cutting personnel costs by more than $2 million.

Upbringing

A San Antonio native and son of a single mother, Nelson said he faced the struggles of a low socioeconomic status head-on during his childhood.

Getting into education was a blessing for him, he said.

“If somebody would’ve just said, ‘Aww, that chubby, little kid, he ain’t going to learn,’ I’d be in prison right now, if I was lucky, because my other buddies are dead or in prison,” Nelson said. “I remember recognizing as an early teen that I was poor. I remember going to a skating rink one time, and kids were buying pretzels and nachos and I barely got into that skating rink. I thought to myself, ‘How do you change that?’ That’s when I started thinking I’d like to go to college.”

His reliance on quality educators and coaches as a child is part of why he wants to make sure every day of the school year counts. Making the time count includes working to make Waco ISD more of a pipeline to higher education, he said.

“Dr. Nelson has a vision of Waco ISD students as top achievers in the state,” Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry said. “Though he recognizes that reaching that goal will not be easy, he is willing to do the work to get our students there.”

He has already worked to engage a variety of community members and all levels of district employees, Henry said.

“Having been in the district little more than a week, Nelson’s familiarity with people in the district, from bus mechanics, to paralegals, to assistant principals was heartening,” she said.

Possible changes

Nelson’s plan may also include changes to Waco ISD’s approach to discipline.

In Laredo, with the support of the school board, he passed a policy preventing any suspensions for kindergarten through fifth-grade students. He doesn’t have concrete plans for a similar policy here, but it’s a possibility, he said.

“If you really study the data in Waco, the suspensions are an issue, especially when you look at the proportions of kids of color that are being suspended and placed in special ed,” Nelson said. “I’m not sure how we’re going to tackle it here, but I mentioned that in public because I don’t believe in sending kids home. It does nothing for us.”

In 2014, Waco ISD was reprimanded by the Texas Education Agency for placing black students in the district’s alternative education program at a higher rate than other groups and expelling 20 students for reasons not covered under state law.

As the Texas Legislature revives in special session its consideration of limits on the bathrooms transgender students can use, Nelson said his part is to ensure no bullying or embarrassment of students is tolerated in Waco schools.

“I try not to get quoted too much on legislation, even after it’s law,” Nelson said.

“But I was pretty clear on that, and I can tell you for me, regardless of the state, regardless of the federal discussion, for me, transgender students will not have an issue. Now, where they go to the restroom and how we deal with all of that, with all due respect, that’s coordinated at the school. What will happen is we won’t tolerate bullying of any kid. We won’t tolerate embarrassing any kid.”

For now, Nelson said he is ready to get any outstanding introductions taken care of and to get to work.

“When the cameras and the news reporters go away, we all know there’s a dark side to Waco ISD, and the only way you bring that to light is by leading by example,” Nelson said. “I’m not going to ask people to stay for tutorials if I’m not going to check on tutorials. I’m not going to ask people to come to math or reading training on a Saturday if I’m not going to stand there. . . . I’m a hands-on collaborative leader. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.”

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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