As deadlines approach and Prosper Waco officials provide more details about a new partnership with Waco ISD intended to save five schools from closure, the Texas Education Agency is continuing to develop rules that would govern the deal.
The nonprofit intends to step in to coordinate services for students, while leaving most of the management to Waco ISD, executive director Matthew Polk said. While the potential scope of the nonprofit’s role is still being defined by the state, the arrangement would involve an increased focus on the needs, both in and out of the classroom, of students at Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School.
“At the end of the day, this is nothing new. This is something educators talk about all the time. They talk about a holistic approach to education,” Polk said. “Educators who are teaching and serving in Waco ISD know the impact of poverty on the kids they serve and their academic performance. … It’s too much to ask educators who are running a school, who are preparing lessons every day and teaching kids, to also be social workers, to also try and figure out this whole maze of organizations and programs in the community that can help their kids.”
More than 80 percent of Waco ISD’s 15,000 students are economically disadvantaged.
While Prosper Waco will coordinate the resources, Waco ISD will still handle most of the managerial elements of running the schools, Polk said.
“It is all right here. We don’t have to go outside to look for other things we need to bring in. We have everything we need right here in Waco,” Prosper Waco spokeswoman Christina Helmick said. “It’s just we need to bring it all together in a coordinated way.”
Prosper Waco was established in May 2014 by two former mayors, Waco ISD school board president Pat Atkins and other local leaders to unify efforts of other nonprofits working to improve education, financial stability and health care, Polk said.
Atkins serves as the group’s board president, and Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, who started at Waco ISD in June, also serves as a Prosper Waco board member. It is unclear at the state level whether the connection is a conflict of interest, school officials said.
Operating out of a building along Austin Avenue, the nonprofit has a core staff of five who help coordinate 37 ongoing community initiatives and work with more than 100 invested nonprofits on a regular basis, Helmick said. With an estimated 700 nonprofits in the area, the organization has also engaged with hundreds of others and holds regular committee meetings with local leaders, she said.
“It’s not just a partnership with the five people who work here,” Helmick said. “It’s a partnership with all these community organizations that have expertise in their own right, like after school care or tutoring, whatever it may be.”
If the five schools do not meet standards in May, Prosper Waco will take access to those already-established local resources and shift it toward a focused effort for children in the five schools, Helmick said.
Like its other initiatives, Prosper Waco intends to use data on student outcomes to measure how effective its work is, Polk said. It would have essentially the same authority over student data as a public charter system. That means it would have direct access to student information, and be subject to federal and state privacy laws and public information laws, he said.
Access to individual data would help Prosper Waco coordinate specific resources to help specific students in a more holistic and systematic way, Polk said. He emphasized Prosper Waco is not in the business of collecting data for profit, and funding for the schools would be tied to the state’s per-student funding formulas, not student outcomes.
As the operating partner, Prosper Waco would have sole decision-making authority for the in-district charter schools, but the power does not prevent significant collaboration between the two entities, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
The five schools face closure under a 2015 law for failing to meet standards for more than four consecutive years. The closures would impact about 2,400 students, but a 2017 law gives districts a chance at a two-year reprieve by surrendering the schools to a for-profit charter school system or another entity like a nonprofit.
Waco ISD’s school board voted last week to build the in-district charter system with Prosper Waco and to move forward with other changes in pursuit of the two-year reprieve from state closure.
But school district officials have called the process confusing, especially when the state is still developing rules for implementing such an operation and timelines keep changing.
Originally, the deadline to submit a plan was March 1, but as of Friday, the TEA released a new timeline for the plan’s review process.
Now the district must submit a letter of intent by Feb. 15, and a request for the benefits of the 2017 law by April 30, DeBeer said Wednesday. The TEA doesn’t intend to publish finance and funding rules until Feb. 9, and three more rules governing the partnerships are not expected to be published until Feb. 26.
Other school districts in similar situations, including Dallas and Houston, are considering relinquishing campuses to charter school operators or closing schools altogether. The only other district in Texas looking at partnering with a nonprofit is San Antonio ISD, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said.
The district was given a $450,000 transformation grant from the state in December, which is only meant to help the district plan out the logistics of its transformation, DeBeer said. Because Waco ISD received the grant, the district is also eligible to apply for a larger implementation grant if necessary, he said.
Also, as an incentive, partnered campuses could see an increase in state funding. They will be able to get either the amount the district would normally be entitled to, or the amount an open-enrollment charter school would get based on attendance, whichever option would bring in more state money, the TEA website states.
But it remains unclear how much that could be, because the rules have yet to be established, Polk said. Regardless, Prosper Waco would be held accountable by the state for any funding it receives, he said.
Prosper Waco’s core budget for 2018 is $719,472, Polk said. Including two other staff positions the nonprofit agreed to pay for tied to other local initiatives and a couple of grants the nonprofit serves, would bring the overall budget to $939,222, Polk said.
Funding will most likely flow through the district to Prosper Waco under the in-district charter arrangement, which would also have provisions that allow educators to continue as employees in the district instead of the nonprofit hiring its own, he said.
“While some of the bold changes that Dr. Nelson has recommended would have additional costs associated with them, these campuses are already operating,” DeBeer said. “Funding for teachers, utilities, instructional materials and other costs is already part of the district’s budget.”
Polk also spoke to parents’ fears that a nonprofit with no educational background would be running the schools. For one, Polk is a former superintendent of Rapoport Academy, a public charter school. He was hired at Prosper Waco in November 2014, and the group was established before the state passed the 2015 law.
The fact that Polk leads Prosper Waco now was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, he said.
“Everybody agrees that a successful educational system is good for all of us,” Polk said. “It’s good for the community. It leads to economic development — all the things we want. So we can either sit back and wring our hands of it and criticize the educational system for not getting it done, or we can say we’re part of this, too.”
Polk and DeBeer went on to address concerns brought up by parents at last week’s board meeting that the nonprofit was a “pay for success scheme” that could profit by bringing in outside investors who would expect a return on the funding they supplied.
“I cannot imagine a scenario in which it would be possible to profit from this arrangement,” Polk said. “Any additional funding that will come to our organization will come to run these public school campuses.”
Prosper Waco is not looking to expand its payroll or employee base, he said.
DeBeer echoed the sentiment, saying it is inaccurate to call the proposed nonprofit partnership a “pay for success scheme” because funding for the in-district charter campuses will be based primarily on the number of students enrolled and in attendance.
“While the contract will include student outcome goals, those goals would not be used to determine funding,” DeBeer said. “Instead, the school board would have the option of terminating the contract if the operating partner fails to achieve those goals within a specified time period.”