If five Waco Independent School District campuses fail state standards this May, district officials plan to build an in-district charter system with the nonprofit Prosper Waco, realign several campuses by grade level, implement individualized instruction, two early childhood centers, and a districtwide literacy plan by fall 2019.

The changes are part of a transformation plan the Waco ISD school board signed off on during its meeting Thursday night. The board authorized Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson to move forward with negotiations to implement the plan. Before it can be implemented, though, it must receive final approval by March 1 from the Texas Education Agency.

But the plan’s approval did not quite go off without a hitch. Before the board voted, 10 parent and education advocates with some connections to Waco spoke up against Prosper Waco and what they called as a state agenda to privatize schools. The speakers urged the board to table the vote, take a deeper look at legal options and give a critical eye to the nonprofit partnership.

“Saving the democratic control of public education is vital. The TEA is bullying you and other high-poverty districts around the state, like mine,” said Ben Becker, a Houston ISD parent who met his wife at Baylor University.

Becker, his wife and two other parents said the partnership and the TEA’s pressure to close schools should cause concerns about the future of public education, especially in urban districts with a high number of economically disadvantaged and minority students.

The advocates urged the district to fight the TEA’s “tyrannical control” in court by joining together with other school boards, and referred to Houston ISD recently unveiling a plan to relinquish 15 schools to a similar partnership.

Parents have the right to resolve educational issues on a local level, and turning over schools to a nonprofit or charter threatens those rights, Houston parent Mindy Wilson said. If schools are closed in urban districts, it would cause neighborhoods in low-income, high-minority areas to crumble, Wilson said.

“These are freedoms worth saving, and if parents have to give up these rights, are the schools really saved?” she said.

If Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School fail again, the district would sort out logistics and funding for the plan during the 2018-19 school year, Nelson said. The district has already secured a $450,000 state grant to fine-tune the plan, but it will not know if the schools meet 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.

Partnering with Prosper Waco would give the nonprofit sole authority to operate the schools under state law, but the exact details of the state standards for the partnership are still unclear, school officials have said. The TEA will hold a public hearing Friday to start defining what it could look like, and Waco ISD will send a representative to the hearing, Nelson said Wednesday.

But Lynn Davenport, a parent advocate from Dallas, urged Waco ISD’s school board to take a closer look at the partnership, alleging Prosper Waco comes off as a “pay for success scheme.” She pleaded for the district to look at how data about students and the district would be used by the nonprofit and asked whether investment groups would be brought in that would expect a return, ultimately making students “investment vehicles.”

Being asked to come up with a plan when accountability results are not out, and when the state is in the process of implementing a new accountability system is like playing a game with someone who has the ability to change the rules in the middle of it, another Houston ISD parent said.

Nelson rebuked the notion Prosper Waco is a scheme and said district officials have been watching what other school districts in similar situations are doing, including Houston.

“With all due respect to the outstanding comments, it’s somewhat silly to insinuate we’ve been sleeping and not watching this. … This school district is in a tough spot,” Nelson said. “I can see how you want us to be the ones to take on the ‘bully,’ but that’s not our role. Our role is to take care of our kids and come up with a plan that deals with this unfair legislation.

“By asking the board to consider action tonight, I want to be clear, we are in no way separating ourselves from your cause. We actually want to join in your fight. If you’ve listened to community presentations we’ve made over the last three to six months, we’ve made comments like, ‘We’re prepared to join the Houston Independent School District and others in legal action to file a federal injunction to stop the actions of House Bill 1842 and Senate Bill 1882.’”

The district is serious about standing up for the community and avoiding the problems closing five schools would cause for the future of the city, Nelson said. But Nelson and the board members still agreed building a Prosper Waco partnership is the best way to save the schools.

In recent community meetings on the plan, Nelson also said the TEA’s policies amount to an effort to dismantle inner-city public schools and that the transformation plan is the best way to keep the threatened schools in place.

“We’re kind of going forward blindly, but we’re going to move forward because the community has spoken,” Board member Stephanie Korteweg said. “Our teachers, whose campuses are not IR (improvement required), but who are going to be affected by some of the transformation plans have said, ‘You know what? We’re in because it’s what’s best for the community.”

If the schools pass state standards this year, it is unclear how much of the recommended changes might still be used going forward, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said earlier this month. The closures could impact 2,400 students, mostly in high-minority, low-income areas.

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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