The Texas Education Agency has appointed a nonprofit agency out of Boston, Mass., to advise Waco Independent School District on how to build a potential in-district charter system with the local nonprofit Prosper Waco, if five underperforming schools don’t pass state academic standards in May.

Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson announced the new layer of the transformation process at Thursday night’s school board meeting. The partnership is a requirement tied to the TEA’s $450,000 transformation planning grant given to the district in December, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.

“Empower Schools, based on to some extent their experiences in other places, is able to say here are some ways other districts and other communities have approached this structure or this process,” DeBeer said. “They’re able to help in a few different ways. Part of it is providing the lessons learned from their experience. Another way they’re helping is they’re able to connect to experts in other areas.”

Empower Schools Inc.

Empower Schools Inc. is known for connecting education system leaders to policy makers and other resources to develop stronger educational practices during school transformations. District officials, including DeBeer, met with Empower Schools representatives Thursday and Friday.

“Ultimately, the decisions and experiences of other communities goes so far,” DeBeer said. “And the decisions we’re going to be making will be based first and foremost on the feedback we’ve heard throughout the series of community meetings we’ve had and the many other informal conversations we’ve had with the community, too.”

The district also submitted a nonbinding letter of intent to the TEA Thursday announcing its desire to pursue the partnership with Prosper Waco if Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School underperform again this year.

Thursday was the last day, designated by the TEA, to submit the letter.

The schools have failed to meet state academic standards at least five years in a row, passing the threshold under the law for the state to consider closing the campuses. But a law passed in the summer allows the district to build an in-district partnership to keep the schools open another two years if the plan is approved by the state.

The in-district charter system is one element of a larger transformation plan Waco ISD is pursuing if the schools fail.

The district is also expected to adopt a new local policy under the new law and a partnership application at next week’s board meeting, Nelson said. Together, the documents outline the process for defining the partnership with Prosper Waco in greater detail, he said.

There’s just one hitch, the partnership application guidelines could change between now and the deadline to submit it to the state because the final three governing rules for the partnerships will not be published until Feb. 28.

Prosper Waco must also send an extensive application for the partnership to the district by March 30. Then in April, the school board will be asked to approve the application and any contract with Prosper Waco for the partnership.

The deadline to submit a request for the approval of the partnership by the state is April 30, according to the TEA.

If the state approves the partnership, and the schools don’t meet standards, Prosper Waco would be given sole decision-making authority for the in-district charter schools, but the power does not prevent significant collaboration between the two entities, DeBeer said in January.

Prosper Waco’s role

Prosper Waco would coordinate specific resources to help specific students in a more holistic and systematic way instead of taking over day-to-day managerial responsibilities, executive director Matthew Polk said earlier this year.

“For the record, we’re still awaiting the final rules from the Texas Education Agency. I’ve used the analogy several times publicly,” Nelson said. “We’re literally trying to finish building this airplane while the airplane is up in the air.”

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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