Five of Waco Independent School District’s six struggling schools started the school year with a warning from the state’s top education official: Meet state accountability ratings next year or state law will require the campuses to close or the district’s elected school board to be replaced with state appointees.

The five schools have been rated as “improvement required” based on standardized test scores for at least five years in a row, and a state law going into effect requires Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to close the schools or replace the district’s board if scores don’t improve, Morath wrote in the letter.

But principals and teachers are fighting back with rigorous, data-driven intervention plans, making the most of community support, and even going as far as splitting reading and math classes by gender.

The five schools served a combined 2,400 students in 2016, and three schools were just a few points away from meeting standard last year.

In addition to efforts already in place, school officials will hold three community meetings to get input from residents about how to improve Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School.

“We believe our community should make the decisions about our schools, not state officials in Austin,” Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer stated in an email. “As a result, we are not waiting until the next accountability ratings to start a conversation about these schools and their students’ needs.”

All three meetings will start at 6 p.m. The first will be Oct. 23 at the Waco ISD Conference Center, 115 S. Fifth St. The next will be Oct. 30 at the City of Waco Multi-Purpose Facility, 1020 Elm St. The last will be Nov. 6 at the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 915 La Salle Ave.

Brook Avenue and J.H. Hines have been on the improvement required list for six consecutive years, while the others have been on the list for five, according to Texas Education Agency records. The campuses are the only schools in McLennan County who have been on the list that long.

The law the commissioner referenced in his letter was passed in 2015 and takes effect along with a new accountability rating system next year, DeBeer said. Though it limits the commissioner’s options, it also provides a mechanism for districts to “repurpose” campuses that might otherwise close. To be approved though, the plan for those schools “must include bold changes,” DeBeer said.

Another law, passed this year, allows districts to buy two extra years to meet state standards by partnering with a nonprofit to run the school, DeBeer said. Crestview Elementary School, which is on the improvement-required list but hasn’t been there as long as the other five Waco schools, could take that step if it becomes necessary in the coming years.

The school’s new Principal, Jacob Donnell, said his staff won’t be slowing down improvement efforts, even they end up getting the extra time.

The other five campuses are in a continual drive to overcome years of falling behind, principals said.

“To put it into perspective, our fifth-graders, when they were in pre-k, that is when Brook Avenue went on IR,” Brook Avenue Principal Sarah Pedrotti said. “We are undoing a lot of areas our kids just did not excel in.”

Pedrotti started in January 2016, and her school made significant accountability gains in the past year, DeBeer said.

Officials have focused on putting action behind a motto pushed by TEA Deputy Commissioner for Governance, AJ Crabill, which is that student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change, Pedrotti said.

“We’ve been focusing on student-driven outcomes, but to really focus on those, we had to focus on our teachers,” she said.

The school is strong in math, but reading is an issue across the board, she said. Every goal teachers developed this year has to be tied into reading, Pedrotti said.

“We have community meetings with our children, and our students know this is our family,” said Guadalupe Zuniga, a second-grade teacher who grew up in the surrounding North Waco neighborhood. “You have to meet your students where they’re at, and within my family, I’ve noticed every child has different needs. It’s my job to try to ensure each of those needs are met.”

While J.H. Hines made some significant academic gains last year, gains in behavior and attendance can’t be measured by test scores, Principal Julie Sapaugh wrote in a statement.

“We refocused efforts to make sure all stakeholders knew that students needed to come to school to learn (on time) and when they were here it was our job to teach them,” Sapaugh wrote. “ Getting students in class and teachers focused was the first place we started. Community volunteers began to focus their efforts, too. Math and reading tutors from various places within the community are what pushed some of our students up over the passing mark for the first time.”

But to accomplish that much, Sapaugh must run a tight ship, she wrote. The campus doesn’t accept every volunteer, and any proposed activity must be tied to grade-level learning before it’s considered. Students set learning goals and every parent is expected to meet with his or her child’s teacher to reinforce learning at home, she said.

When Indian Spring Principal John Jenkins received a copy of the TEA letter, it frustrated him but only drove his desire to succeed, he said.

“It was a kick in the stomach,” Jenkins said. “I planned all summer with this staff to get us ready, and it’s very difficult on the first day to get that.

“The work we do gets reduced down to this, and there’s so many things this campus does. I’ve got a four-page outline just in general of the activities the campus performs that are beyond the scope of this test.”

His campus has been on the list for five years, and he has been principal for the past three, he said. The school made significant progress on its scores last year and came up just two points shy of getting off the list, TEA records show.

G.W. Carver Principal Alonzo McAdoo was in a similar situation, just four points away from meeting standard, according to TEA records. Both schools struggled to close performance gaps and have focused on teacher quality, sub-populations and professional development, and both principals had to bring in a whole new staff when they started, they said. McAdoo has been principal for four years.

But they’re not overwhelmed by the ticking TEA clock this year. They have plans in place and have set high expectations, they said.

And at Indian Spring, a few math and reading classes have been split up this year by gender to help students concentrate.

“The work is so difficult, and it’s intensive,” Jenkins said. “It takes a special kind of person who wants to work in this environment under so many structures of operation.”

At Carver, teachers meet every day with instructional coaches and department heads to receive critiques on lesson plans and exercises, McAdoo said.

“The difference is the students at this campus today and the students last year, and more and more are picking it up like a snowball effect, is that the students are believing in themselves,” McAdoo said.

At Alta Vista, teachers and staff also have pursued similar efforts to improve over the years, assistant principal Lindsey Helton said. The campus missed meeting state standards by nine points overall, TEA records state.

“I just want the community to know we’re working so hard. We love these kids and we want to make sure they’re successful,” Helton said. “That’s why we’re here, to make sure they get the foundation they need. If there are community members that would like to support us, then we’d love to have that conversation about how we can provide the resources our students need.”

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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