Waco Independent School District has scored poorly on state measures for its 1,100 special education students and will have to demonstrate major improvements or face state sanctions, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said during a school board meeting Thursday.

“Without getting into it, we’re about to get in trouble with the TEA over this in a whole other way than we’re already facing sanctions,” Nelson said.

Sanctions related to the special ed program would be focused on correcting shortfalls, rather than punitive measures, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson said.

Throughout the next few months, the Waco ISD school board will be hearing several presentations about data from the district’s Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System, an annual automated data report from the TEA that measures the health and student outcomes of selected program areas, including bilingual education, career and technical education, special education and more, Nelson said.

The special education portion of the report is based on 11 performance indicators scored from zero to four, with zero being the best rating, said Laurie Tresl, who oversees secondary special education and assessment.

In special education, Waco ISD earned a three or four in three indicators directly tied to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readings, which impact state academic accountability ratings and other monitoring measures used by the school board, Nelson said.

“From ages 6 to 21 in our special ed program, our district is doing a great job moving special ed kids into including them in the general ed population,” Nelson said. “The kids aren’t performing well, but we are moving them in there. But you’ve got to think about that. It’s pretty easy for the adults to make scheduling decisions and move kids into special ed, but if we’re not going to teach them at a level they deserve, then we need to be held accountable for that.”

Waco ISD is already facing the possibility of having to close or repurpose five elementary and middle schools because of persistently low state academic accountability scores: Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School.

Sanctions related to the special education program would not include any kind of closure, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said Friday. Instead, the TEA would work with the district to address any issues. If accountability measures continue to lag, the TEA would do a site visit or appoint a monitor to directly address needed improvements, Culbertson said.

“It’s not a gotcha type of sanction or monitoring,” Culbertson said. “It’s more of a way to address what your deficiencies are and what we can do to get the district back on track.”

She was not able to say Friday afternoon how close Waco ISD might be to a state reprimand.

Waco ISD earned threes for third- through eighth-grade STAAR passing rates in math, reading, writing and science, and a four in social studies.

It scored threes in those subjects for third- through eighth-grade STAAR passing rates among students one year after exiting special education. It scored threes in math, science and social studies and a four in English-language arts for high school STAAR end-of-course passing rates, Tresl said.

“I have a couple things to say about the ELA. That’s absolutely unacceptable,” Tresl said. “We might want to consider contributing factors. When we’re taking a look at accountability, we have a lot of other assessments where they get in oral administration. We’re able to read those tests to them, and yet you can see when they’re having to do it themselves, they’re struggling with that reading component considerably.”

For perspective, a zero would mean more than 60 to 70 percent, depending on subject area, of the special education students were passing, she said.

In the eight other indicators, which aren’t clearly tied to STAAR performance, Waco ISD rated zero to two. Officials also identified a few other areas to address, including a small over-identification of white students as emotionally disturbed, Nelson said.

“This is the first in a series of meetings,” Nelson said. “We received our preliminary TAPR (Texas Academic Performance Reports) today, and while we’re proud the district has met standards as a district, special education needs substantial interventions.”

The district has already taken steps to improve student outcomes in special education, Tresl said. It is training and reviewing ways to increase student engagement on a monthly basis, she said.

The district is also consulting with a regional special education liaison, collaborating with the curriculum department on districtwide initiatives and intervention methods, proposing alternative instructional delivery models to principals and more, Tresl said.

“I am impressed the special ed department and the superintendent have taken ownership of the scores such as they’ve been presented,” Board President Pat Atkins said. “There was a time 10 or 15 years ago, the fact that we got zeroes, ones and twos on those last eight indicators would’ve been put on great big slides, and the fact that we were getting threes and fours on those last three indicators would have been in a teeny, tiny font at the bottom of the page.

“I just want to commend you for creating an atmosphere where folks don’t feel the need to justify their work and justify their position but rather recognize we have students who aren’t doing what they need to do on the STAAR test and end-of-course exams and that we need to do better in presenting strategies on how we’re going to get better outcomes.”

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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