Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson

Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson talks with residents Oct. 23 during a community meeting about the district’s five struggling schools.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file

Waco Independent School District will be applying for a $450,000 transformation zone grant through the Texas Education Agency to help support the district through its planning process to save five schools facing the possibility of closure next year, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson announced at Thursday night’s school board meeting.

Nelson and other administrators gave an update Thursday on progress made since the district wrapped up three community meetings about how to save the campuses if they don’t pass state accountability standards in May. Waco ISD officials are counting down the days until they must produce a plan to the state to save the campuses, and administrators want residents to know they have been working non-stop to find the best option, they said. The deadline to apply for the grant is Nov. 30, Nelson said.

“We’ve had an outstanding month of conversations. We had standing-room only meetings all over the city,” Nelson said. “We do have a situation where we’re seeking input from our community. … We’ve also completed several meetings with local nonprofit organizations, and all of them have been very fruitful. Our plan is to not only identify an in-district charter with a local nonprofit, but to be quite candid, we plan on using several local nonprofits as part of our transformation plan.”

Those organizations could include Waco’s chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, NAACP, the YMCA, Prosper Waco or the United Way of Waco-McLennan County, all of which Nelson said have already agreed to help the district transform the campuses.

“The work we’re going to be doing will be different than it’s ever been in this community before,” Nelson said.

The district’s plan has to be to the school board for approval by January and to the state by February, leaving little work time remaining because of Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

But administrators have been discussing the struggling campuses since the law that could require their closure was passed in 2015. Planning didn’t start with the series of community meetings on the topic that ended Nov. 6, or with a law passed last year that lays out options for turnarounds.

“It feels like a short amount a time, if you only look at that window. … When you talk about a plan that’s going to be recommended to the board later this school year, you’re talking about something that’s really not two months in the making, but two years or more,” Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School have failed state academic standards for five consecutive years or more, which leaves them open to closure if they don’t pass this year.

The district could repurpose schools with a new campus ID number, effectively making them new schools, or create a partnership with a nonprofit group. The law passed last year also lays out an option to transfer the schools to a for-profit entity, but Nelson has ruled out the for-profit transfer option.

If the district decides to repurpose the campuses, a majority of the students in the repurposed campuses must be new, and the majority of grade levels served must be different, DeBeer said. If the district leans more toward the nonprofit route, the district will have to figure out how to create wrap-around services needed to support the five schools, DeBeer said.

That has left the district reaching for community input on its options, which could include making both middle schools single-gender campuses or creating a sixth-grade center.

The district is also considering realigning J.H. Hines and South Waco elementary schools to serve prekindergarten through second grade, while Alta Vista and Brook Avenue could be realigned to serve third through fifth grades.

The feedback has been constant since the last community meeting held Nov. 6, members of the superintendent’s cabinet said Thursday afternoon. The group meets weekly and on an ad hoc basis to discuss proposals, best practices and related research, DeBeer said.

Some of the research includes pulling historical data on previous attempts to improve the campuses, said Scott McClanahan, interim executive director of secondary curriculum.

For example, the district has tried a sixth grade center before but didn’t see an improvement. All elementary schools fed into the center, then out to junior high campuses and back into a ninth grade center.

“We don’t want to go backward. That’s the kind of research we’re doing between each meeting we have,” McClanahan said. “Or we’re looking at other districts that have tried those same plans to see what the viability is.”

For single-gender campuses, Waco ISD officials are looking toward the success rate of Austin ISD, which established two single-gender campuses to address issues in low-performing middle schools, McClanahan said.

Initially, Nelson proposed the idea of single-gender campuses in the community meetings as a way to help keep students focused and avoid some of the challenges middle-schoolers face.

Residents raised concerns at the time about the transition back to co-ed high schools.

Administrators are also evaluating building capacity and where students live to make sure any plan allows families to remain engaged, McClanahan said.

“Even the conversation in the community meetings touched on looking at whether you merge attendance zones, like Alta Vista and South Waco, so that you have two campuses serving different grade levels at each campuses, but this larger attendance zone,” DeBeer said. “That’s the level conversation about attendance zones is happening at. If you pair up campuses, how does that affect the merged attendance zone? I haven’t heard any discussion of redrawing.”

Since the last community meeting, residents have also suggested developing homework clinics that let parents gain a better understand of their child’s curriculum and offer more focused help at home, said Grace Benson, interim executive director of elementary curriculum.

The district has already held two clinics, and the idea has extended to schools not in the state’s crosshairs, including Parkdale Elementary School, Benson said.

“Our community has been wonderful. I mean, really wonderful, not in just suggesting, but saying ‘We should try this, and I have a commitment from this organization. Let’s try this,’ ” Benson said. “This is all community and parents asking, and I feel that’s huge.”

Residents need to know administrators aren’t rushing to decide on the district’s options and that the ongoing community engagement plays a critical role in finding the right fit, she said.

In the meantime, the research will remain at the cabinet level, so teachers can focus on preparing students to pass the state’s exams, DeBeer said. the next update on the district’s plans will be given during the next school board meeting, which is expected to be Nov. 30 after the Thanksgiving break.

“We want the very best, the very best, because that’s what they deserve,” Benson said. “It’s on our minds 24/7.”

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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